Mass Incarceration, Jeff Sessions, and Racial Dialogue

DC: Should the next wave of racial dialogue work be white folks to talking to other white folks about the implications of Sessions' War on Drugs 2.0?

RP: Next wave of racial dialogue? Not sure what a "wave of racial dialogue" is or has been. White folks talking to white folks? Really hard to grasp this idea without it being placed in the context of anti-racism work which I would suggest is unlikely to be successful -  depending on your objectives - without multi-racial communication. White folks talking to white folks alone is really a non-starter - like trying to start a forest fire on a burning branch floating in the middle of a lake. Context is everything.

DC: I will explain what i mean. I think we may be at or past the peak of the power of interracial dialogue to change public opinion. And I say this as someone who has devoted most of his life to this area. Given that 50% of whites don't believe that racism against POCs is a significant problem, it seems to me that the most practical way of moving that number is equipping the other 50% of white folks to engage those racism skeptics effectively. I would certainly love to be involved in large scale efforts to create inter-racial dialogue on person, through the internet, on TV and in other ways. I will keep trying to make that happen, but I am skeptical of whether this will ever happen, and how large scale it could be. But even if only 10% of the racism recognizing 50 percent of whites more effectively engaged the skeptical 50%, you could create some changes in 10-15 years.

RP: Your approach or answer seems to assume a number of things, three of which I can articulate now. First, that racism is a problem that can be addressed intellectually with a minimum of interaction (and emotional connection) with the targets of racism. Second, that learning about racism in an all-white environment does more for anti-racism than duplicate the very problems inherent in racism -- including white supremacy where whites become the better conveyors and narrators of indigenous and POC lives. Third, that translation of the POC experience by whites to racists will change sufficiently or significantly change racist behavior, not just attitudes as measure by a quiz. In all your years of experience, do you have measurable results that show white political, cultural and social behavior changes in interactions with people of color? If so, please share because that is something we should understand and discuss.

I am certainly not against someone making a living by making "racially aware" whites more responsible and proactive in changing the attitudes of less racially aware or racist whites. It is absolutely important to engage all anti-racists allies in the work of anti-racism. However, I think it would be a great mistake to believe that whites can eliminate and resolve racism in a segregated environment. Whites have been talking to each other for over 300 years about racism. There is rarely a time in our history where all whites were all enemies of POC. . . (Perhaps when most of the whites on this land were mercenaries, explorers and slave traders -- I do not know). I do know that real progress on racial behavior has always involved coalition work and included people of color in the conversation and interaction.

DC: there are aspects of how you have articulated the premises behind my perspective that feel right, and others that feel wrong…….My focus is not on people having purely or even primarily an intellectual exchange. The conversation that people need to have about race is fundamentally one about experiences, not just opinions and perspectives. I do think that experience sharing (also called telling one’s story) is a powerful way of walking in someone else’s shoes. I do think that good experience sharing/storytelling by white allies to non-allies can potentially be very powerful and one step in expanding their views. I also think that part of what allies need to have is a bank of 2nd hand stories that their friends of color have shared with them, and that affected their outlook. I also think that such second hand stories can potentially move people emotionally. 

Of course, this is not just about doing emotional work or intellectual work that might change answers to surveys. That is important, but arguably the precursor to the real work, which is strengthening the effort to transform the way that our institutions and structures have replicated racial hierarchy, even if no one is trying to do that. My admittedly cliff notes sense of history does not tell me that whites have been having a widespread conversation about dismantling structural racism for 300 years. It is true that some POCs and white allies have and can continued to have the conversation about how to make coalitions more effective. But the nature of structural racism now is such that simply passing a landmark legislation will not address the issues. The structures are more insidious and the dismantling must be more company by company and practice by practice. I don’t think that it is either feasible nor fair to expect POCs to do bulk of the conversational work necessary to create the will for that task.

David CamptComment