Would you like a better country or not?
On the debates I've stopped having and the questions I ask instead
I don’t spend a lot of time these days asking other white people if they’re anti-racist or not. I don’t try to pin them down as to whether they support “reforming,” “defunding” or “abolishing” the police. I don’t get into debates about whether the actions of individual cops were justified or not, about whether or not the outstanding warrants were for traffic violations or armed robbery, about which ethnic group gets shot the most by cops. I don’t debate whether Biden’s kids in cages are better or worse than Trump’s kids in cages or if the shooter was more influenced by misogyny or anti-Asian racism.
Here are the questions I ask these days:
If you could choose, would you live in a country where people are healthier or people are sicker?
…would you choose to live in a country where only some places are “safe” or where all places are safe?
…would you choose to live in a country where the “safe” places are only “safe” because others aren’t?
…would you choose to live in a country where our collective story of safety depends on giving government employees the legal right to shoot and kill their neighbors?
…would you choose to live in a place where some subset of the population is deemed to be expendable?
…would you choose to live in a country where parents spend any time at all thinking about where to send their children to school, where some people pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in that endeavor, where that choice defines where families live, what jobs their parents take, what lessons those children will learn?
…would you choose to live in a country where your right to the building blocks of a dignified life— food, healthcare, shelter, leisure— was dependent on some external judgment of your worthiness?
…would you choose to live in a country where Nice Things That Would Help All Of Us (like public transportation or renewable energy or universal childcare or more libraries) were deemed to be politically impossible?
I don’t care if you use the right words. I don’t care if you said all the names. I don’t care about whether last summer’s statements were performative or not. I don’t care whether your individual workplace’s DEI committee is active or dormant. I don’t care whether you’ve read Robin DiAngelo or about how vociferously you’ve critiqued Robin Diangelo. I don’t care if you can point out a white person in your life or community who is more racist than you. Yes, I care whether or not white people value Black lives, but I don’t care whether you- an individual white people- have demonstrated that your level of Anti-Racist Care is more profound than that of other white people.
What I care about is that we deserve a better country than this. All of us. Black and Brown and Asian and Arab and Indigenous people, yes. But white people too. People who you hate. People who hate you. I want a world beyond policing and prisons not merely for those who’ve suffered at the hands of cops, but for current police officers and their loved ones as well. I want a nation of great public schools not merely for kids whose public schools don’t love them, but also for the families who pay $70,000 for the myth that their private schools do. I want voting to be as easy as possible both for the Black voters in Atlanta who cast a ballot for Raphael Warnock and the white voters in Calhoun who are ride-or-die for Marjorie Taylor Greene.
I want white people to dismantle white supremacy— our relationship to free markets, to competition, to exclusivity (in neighborhoods, schools, etc.), to punishment— not out of pity or saviorism, but merely because it’s those particular addictions that are most obviously in the way of all of us having nice things. I don’t think we should be leading the charge towards building a better world; goodness knows we’ve had our shot at leading plenty of charges. But damn if this mess doesn’t live on our doorstep.
Would you like a better country than this one? Wonderful! Me too. We will need to do a lot of things differently to get there, though. If you’re white especially, you will have to let go of a lot of things which you hold dear— perhaps a story about what’s given your life meaning thus far— your kids’ perceived competitive advantages over other kids, your own career trajectory, your house’s equity. You will have to start going to boring meetings. Zoning meetings. School board meetings. Organizing meetings in your own living room. Meetings with terrible coffee served out of profoundly stained church basement pots. Will that be hard? I bet! It’s been hard for me too. Let’s help each other.
I would like to build a better country with you. I hope you do too. We will mourn a lot on the way there. Our current reality is a cruel one, and there will be more evidence of that cruelty on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. Slowly but surely, though, if we keep on building, we will see other, more beautiful signs as well. The spring flowers will spring up in long-dormant soil.
You may read this and know where to start. You may not. Here are a few (relatively) recent delights— resources that have sparked my imagination, given me more direction, and taken me out of a world of rhetoric to a world of action.
-The best recent work on resetting our thinking about anti-racism away from pity and charity and towards building the country we all deserve is, of course, Heather Mcghee’s The Sum of Us.
-If you would like to connect the dots between envisioning a better world and the kind of community-centered organizing that gets you there, Mariame Kaba’s We Do This Until We Free Us is, unsurprisingly, essential.
-If you would like a vision for what organizing white people in conservative places for the common good can look like, watch Reclaim Idaho, a lovely documentary about the scrappy couple who built a movement for Medicaid expansion in the Gem State.
-If you would like to deepen your understanding of how the actual life choices you make as a white person matters more than your rhetoric, I have been recommending White Kids by Margaret Hagerman for over a year now and will not quit recommending it until it’s on best-seller lists.
Also, I appreciate the point about school boards. People might not know, but school boards tend to be a big on-ramp to statewide politics. Paying attention to who's running and serving on a school board can be a direct and effective way to start helping with your area's political representation.
A couple of years ago I started hosting candidate forums for our school board candidates. Not a debate, just a forum, and it's moderated by someone who is an experienced moderator and doesn't have students in our district. Anyone can do this as a private citizen! As I explain every year, it's about increasing voter turnout and civic engagement. School boards are a unique cornerstone in American democracy, and increasing attention to them can help your local area.
How did you know that this post was exactly what I was yearning for today? I was just listening to an interview with a thoughtful philosopher I really like, and he started talking about the damage of social justice and cancel culture and it made me so sad -- not that he has opinions, but that someone I thought tended to think more deeply about life is also caught up in rhetoric and stories that he hears and doesn't question. And my dad, who lives the next town over, was telling me how Tucker Carlson-angry his neighbor (whom he's been friends with for years) has gotten, and it's depressing and worrying. Anyway. Reading this healed my torn heart. Thank you.