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The Wake: Reflections on Being White, Health Disparities, #BLM, and the Media

I saw myself as foreign before I saw myself as white. In 2005, when I emigrated to China, I was called a waiguoren (“a person from an outside country”) and a laowai (“an outsider”). I was 23 years old, and by the time I turned 25 and could speak a decent Mandarin, people still greeted me with “welcome to China!” as though I had just stepped off the plane. Because I have a lot of hair on my arms and most folks there did not, some of them teased me, calling me a houzi (a “monkey”). And almost daily, strangers catcalled me in public, often from the opposite sidewalk, yelling out “Hello!” in a tone meant to be a mockery of English. It should be said that at the time, China had been more or less shuttered from the West for decades, and in the rural area where I lived, I was often the only “outsider” anyone had met. It should also be said that, insofar as I had traveled there by choice and could have left at any time, I had asked for everything I got. Luckily, the attention was by no means only negative. There were definite pluses – free drinks from strangers, free dinners with colleagues, easy friendships, leniency from the police. I even began to dream of someday settling there. But along with that dream, a question began to form: if I started a family, would my children be treated as outsiders in the country of their birth? Would I want that kind of life for anyone?

Naturally, I knew my skin flagged me as foreign, but compared to my race, my country of origin seemed to say so much more about me. It indicated not just my language, but also my history, culture, and politics. It was a familiar dynamic: in the Connecticut town where I had grown up, my mostly white neighbors had always identified themselves less as “white” than as descendants of this or that country – as German, Italian, Irish, Greek – often in combination with some religion – Catholic, Protestant, Jewish. Amongst each other, our immigrant origins explained food preferences, family sizes, living room decorations, inflections of speech, personality traits, even relationship dynamics. The old survey box for “Caucasian” meant little to us. (As the author Eula Biss points out, the Caucasus region includes Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, and the term is “a flimsy and fairly meaningless product of the 18th century pseudoscience that helped invent a white race.”) I’m even inclined to believe that most people in my New England town would have agreed with James Baldwin, who wrote in “On Being ‘White’…And Other Lies,” published two years after my birth, that “There is, in fact, no white community.” When my father, the son of Irish Catholics, and my mother, the Jewish granddaughter of Hungarian immigrants, met in the late 1970s, their families saw them as a mixed couple, a notion that seems quaint to me today.

In college, when I encountered James Joyce’s 1916 novel, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” I remember feeling struck by the final lines in which a young writer declares his wish to “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” My professor helpfully explained that by “race” Joyce wasn’t referring to white folks, but rather to the Irish. That kind of ethnic nationalism seemed dated to me as an American, a vestige of the World Wars. But in reality, the view of race as interchangeable with nationality is probably more prevalent today, globally speaking, than either the “melting pot” or “salad bowl” analogies I grew up with as a schoolboy in America. Once, while I was in China, another white American passed through town, and I took him out to lunch with a close Chinese friend of mine who asked us how it was possible that we could both be American and yet have different eye colors. This was not an isolated event. Many of my Chinese friends in China, as well as my Thai friends in Thailand (where I later moved), seemed to believe that I could discern a person’s country of origin simply by looking at their appearance. My typical answer was that, for all I knew, anyone I saw could be American.

My job in China was to teach spoken English, but I was invited to lecture as much as possible about American culture. Racial diversity, not to mention racial tension, has been a formative and distinguishing feature of our country, and the contributions of this diversity to American history and culture have been immense. So I designed a curriculum for my most advanced class that essentially became a discussion of classic American films like Glory, Dances with Wolves, Schindler’s List (my students were unfamiliar with the Holocaust), Forrest Gump, and American Beauty. We studied King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and excerpts from Malcolm X, and we explored the history of slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation, Restoration, and the Civil Rights movement.

This was a far different version of American history than they had encountered in their government-approved textbooks. In a country where Facebook and the New York Times were occasionally blocked, where I was required to submit my passport at Internet cafes, I wanted to teach my students that protest could be a form of patriotism and that tension can forge a path toward growth. At any rate, I did the best that I could – incompletely and imperfectly, to be sure. For starters, to delve into themes of exclusion, otherness, and oppression when discussing the experience of black Americans and American Indians, I asked my students to recall the humiliating systemic racism imposed upon the Chinese by British colonial rule in Shanghai and Hong Kong. (In modern Chinese folklore, a sign at the entrance to Huangpu Park in Shanghai purportedly read “No dogs or Chinese allowed”). On their own, they also drew parallels to Chinese persecution at the hands of Japanese aggressors in World War II, which included the slaughter of many innocent people. But these were examples of colonialism where the colonized had eventually won. And if I had wanted to drill down deeper, I might have pointed out that most of what Hollywood movies were saying about the experiences of black Americans or American Indians at that time had been said through the lens of white protagonists, via white directors and producers. Or that our history books are likewise influenced by governmental bodies. For all my reading, watching, listening, and teaching, I still had more to learn not only about what it means in America to be black, American Indian, Asian, or Hispanic, but also what it means to be white.

Now, in the wake of the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, and others – which is to say, in the wake of the Chicago riots of 1919, the Harlem riots of 1935, an African-American petition of genocide to the United Nations in 1951, uprisings in 1967 that engendered the Kerner Commission, and the Los Angeles rebellion of 1992, among other incidents – many white Americans have been buying books about racism, talking with black friends, and engaging in a broader dialogue about their role in the legacy of racial bias. Crucially, white Americans have also been joining protests. According to researchers at the University of Maryland and the University of Michigan, a majority of protestors in New York City, Washington, and Los Angeles in the weeks after Floyd’s death were white. In Salt Lake City, large protests continued for days, though the city is only 2% black.

In her 2015 essay, “White Debt,” Eula Biss agrees with James Baldwin that “white” as a descriptor of race or heritage is an invented concept. “Whiteness is not a kinship or a culture,” she writes. “White people are no more closely related to one another, genetically, than we are to black people…. What binds us is that we share a system of social advantages that can be traced back to the advent of slavery in the colonies that became the United States.” In this sense, identifying as the descendants of more recent, post-slavery European immigrants to America may be a way for many white Americans to absolve ourselves of the original sin of slavery and wash our hands of the matter altogether. However, the moral predicament remains – namely, that so many of us have benefited financially and materially from it, often without even knowing it. You may have felt, for example, that you have worked hard all your life, pulled yourself up by your own bootstraps, succeeded only by the sweat of your own brow, and never have known that the deed to your house once forbid its sale to people of color, or that your mortgage was granted at a more favorable rate. If you have not had to face, as Biss writes, “redlining, block busting, racial covenants, contract buying, loan discrimination, housing projects, mass incarceration, predatory lending and deed thefts that have prevented so many black Americans from building wealth the way so many white Americans have, through homeownership,” it may be easier for you to believe that because hard work often leads to success, the unsuccessful must not have worked hard.

For Biss, as for Baldwin, whiteness is “not an identity but a moral problem.” She compares white debt to a mortgage. “Once you’ve been living in a house for a while, you tend to begin to believe that it’s yours, even though you don’t own it yet. When those of us who are convinced of our own whiteness deny our debt, this may be an inevitable result of having lived for so long in a house bought on credit but never paid off.” To some of us, it might seem sufficient to do no further harm. We may be satisfied in never having owned slaves and in avoiding the n-word. But this is not how debt works. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “It is as though we have run up a credit card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear.” In the end, Biss characterizes the moral problem of whiteness in America as “believing wholeheartedly in the power of [one’s] own hard work and deservedness, to ignore inequity, to accept that [one’s] sense of security mattered more than other people’s freedom and to agree, against all evidence, that a system that afforded [one] better housing, better education, better work and better pay than other people [is] inherently fair.” To be white is to take your whiteness for granted. And to “take” something that is “granted” is to benefit from something that has been given to you without feeling any obligation of gratitude or appreciation.

Where you are able to own a home, and the neighborhood in which you live, is increasingly becoming one of the most accurate predictors of lifespan. Here, the correlation of home equity with racial equity intersects with yet another legacy of racism: the effect of bias on health outcomes. It’s now widely known that underrepresented minorities have been overrepresented among COVID-19 cases and deaths. By mid-May, black individuals in Chicago comprised more than 50% of COVID-19 cases and 70% of deaths, though they make up only 30% of the population. In Louisiana, black patients accounted for 70.5% of COVID-19 deaths, though the state is only 32% black. In Michigan, black individuals made up 33% of cases and 40% of deaths but are 14% of the population. And here in New York City, where blacks and Hispanics comprise 22% and 29% of the population, respectively, they represented 28% and 34% of the deaths, respectively.

The coronavirus did not create these disparities – it has only exploited wide and well-studied rifts in health outcomes. For example, black women experience higher rates of C-sections and are more than three times as likely as white women to suffer pregnancy-related mortality. A 2019 meta-analysis and systematic review of emergency departments found that black and Latino patients were less likely than white patients to receive medication relief for acute pain. They also faced greater delays in obtaining an EKG compared to white patients and received a less thorough workup for suspected coronary artery disease. A study of over 34,000 patient visits to 353 emergency departments showed that black patients experienced significantly longer wait times than white patients. A recent article from the New England Journal of Medicine pointed to a 2019 study that found that “race may influence decisions in heart failure management, with measurable consequences: black and Latinx patients who presented to a Boston emergency department with heart failure were less likely than white patients to be admitted to the cardiology service.” The same article highlighted that black patients have higher rates of end-stage kidney disease and death due to kidney failure than the overall population but face longer wait times for kidney transplants than nonblack patients. The disparities are likely due to socioeconomic factors and comorbidities that are themselves secondary to socioeconomic factors, and the issues are compounded by lack of access to healthcare and a lack of cultural competency among physicians. Unfortunately, as the NEJM article illustrates, these disparities have become incorporated as “corrections” into data-driven algorithms that guide physician decision-making. Without yet being fully understood, disparities that are now baked into these formula-based calculators can become perpetuated.

In America, people of color have been treated as outsiders in the countries of their birth – but without the free drinks, free dinners, easy friendships, and leniency from law enforcement that I enjoyed in China. And whereas I traveled abroad by choice and could return home at any time, there’s no home country to return to for people of color, nor any foreign power to expel.

Before we do any more about these issues as a society, we need to recognize that we have a problem, and we need to acknowledge its metastatic extent. Are we there yet? “Black Lives Matter” did not need to be the slogan for this cause – a catchphrase with more specific demands might have sufficed, and we may someday move towards them, as “Say Her Name” or “Defund the Police” have. But the poignancy of “Black Lives Matter” lies in the movement’s assumption that decent people act in accordance with their beliefs: it suggests that if killing unarmed black individuals in the course of routine arrests results in no more than a wrist-slap for police officers in the absence of mass protests, this must be evidence either of 1) a belief that black lives do not, in fact, matter, or 2) that we are not a decent society, at least not in terms of our legal system, our housing infrastructure, or our care for the basic well-being of our neighbors. “Black Lives Matter” asks us to concede the bare minimum – not even that black lives should be loved, but simply that they should not be killed wrongfully. It also asks for a bare minimum of integrity: do what you say. But that is just the slogan’s poignancy. Its lasting power – the immortality of the phrase – comes from everything that we will need to do to prevent those deaths, including lifting up the poor, investing in their neighborhoods, empowering them financially and materially and occupationally, minimizing incarceration, and reducing their violent interactions with law enforcement.

How do we begin to go about this? For starters, protests have helped to draw attention to the issue. The heartbreaking final gasps of Eric Garner and George Floyd – “I can’t breathe” – have become a rallying cry, not only to remind us of their horrific and horrifically disproportionate deaths, but also to liken those words to the difficulty of carrying on with some of life’s basic functions – jogging outdoors, walking at night, sleeping in bed, entering one’s home, finding employment – amidst widespread racial and economic unfairness. As with the ongoing coronavirus crisis (another cause of national breathlessness), though progress has been made in some areas, certain federal and local officials have responded with smoke screens, gas lighting, and hot air.

Twitter, which after all is an app named after meaningless noise, also featured a fair amount of ventilation. Amidst profound insights, helpful resources, smart recommendations, and up-to-the-minute news, some people advised white folks to hold their tongues in order to elevate black voices while others equated this silence with complicity. Many who evinced sympathy with people of color by admitting to a sense of guilt or helplessness were denounced as ignorant and misguided, often by the very people they felt sorry for. Certain individuals were told to reach out to black acquaintances who might be hurting, while some who hurt begged to be left alone. Explanation and education felt like an unwelcome burden, especially when both the request and the needed information felt insultingly past due or obvious to anyone who had been paying attention.

What I heard in all of this was anger, sadness, bitterness, resentment, frustration, pain, indignation, desperation – real psychological suffering. And in the face of that grief, many expressed an urge to problem-solve. Some Americans no doubt wanted people of color to speak with one voice and provide one recommendation. But insofar as any group is necessarily made up of people, insofar as people of color are people, and insofar as people have the ability to think and speak for themselves, it was unreasonable to expect them to be monolithic. For my own part, my instinct was not to join but to listen, read, think, re-read, re-listen – in the wake of Mr. Floyd’s death, I felt that my opinion, particularly given my background, was not as important as the opinions of those with more knowledge or experience. So while I did not agree with everything I heard or read, I did not think that a grieving period was the appropriate time for someone like me to make minor rebuttals to what were probably trivial differences of opinion anyway. For example, I did not think it was particularly relevant for me to determine whether the riots were justice, whether they would augment the effectiveness of the movement or detract from its credibility, or whether they were simply a reproducible and predictable result of unemployment, months-long restrictions on movement, a leadership vacuum, and decades of anger, frustration, and resentment. I thought only of the emblem of the eagle on the back of the dollar bill – it faces toward the laurel of peace in a symbol of our preference for harmony, but in its other claw, ready at hand, is the threat of arrows. And I thought of Malcolm X, who said in February 1965, “I think the people in this part of the world would do well to listen to Dr. Martin Luther King and give him what he’s asking for and give it to him fast, before some other factions come along and try to do it some other way.”

I still believe that my opinion does not carry much weight, nor should it. But two refrains in particular have haunted me, as I think they have haunted many white liberals. I believe they will haunt me in one way or another for the rest of my life, in different forms. The first is the association of silence with complicity, an idea attributed variously to Einstein (“If I were to remain silent, I’d be guilty of complicity”), Martin Luther King, Jr. (“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter,” and “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by bad people but the silence over that by the good people,”) and the human rights activist Ginetta Sagan (“Silence in the face of injustice is complicity with the oppressor”), among others. The second is a passage by King regarding a specific type of white moderate that is often shortened or taken out of context, but which I’ll provide here in full, from his April 1963 letter from Birmingham jail.

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negroes’ great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens’ ‘Counciller’ or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

The lines share a family resemblance with Thoreau’s 1849 essay on civil disobedience, which was originally titled “Resistance to Civil Government.”

Practically speaking, the opponents to a reform [to abolish slavery] in Massachusetts are not a hundred thousand politicians at the South, but a hundred thousand merchants and farmers here, who are more interested in commerce and agriculture [via the economic alliance between Southern cotton growers with Northern shippers and manufacturers] than they are in humanity…. There are thousands who are in opinion [emphasis his] opposed to slavery and to the [Mexican] war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them; who, esteeming themselves children of Washington and Franklin, sit down with their hands in their pockets, and say that they know not what to do, and do nothing.

Perhaps feeling implicated by these lines, if not by their sentiment, a few white liberals became particularly active on social media, posting links for donations, circulating information about protest meeting sites, tabulating instances of police brutality that may have escaped broader media attention, sharing articles and reading lists, and generally expressing solidarity, some with greater effect than others. At some point, boilerplate language began circulating around social media with instructions to copy, paste, re-post, and tag others to do the same. These tactics seemed effective at mobilizing like-minded people to act, but I began to wonder about their effectiveness at actually changing people’s opinions. In a 2017 article, Elizabeth Kolbert reviewed some of the recent literature on human rationality and persuasion, citing evidence from Stanford researchers who concluded that “even after the evidence for beliefs is totally refuted, people fail to make appropriate revisions in those beliefs.” Much of the blame appears to lie in what’s known as “confirmation bias,” which Kolbert defines as “the tendency people have to embrace information that supports their beliefs and reject information that contradicts them.” A related term for this phenomenon is “myside” bias. Apparently, human rationality is so flawed that some researchers suspect that it could not possibly have evolved to arrive at reasonable conclusions but more likely developed to navigate complex social situations in which it’s important to convince others that you are right. The ability to string disparate facts together into the appearance of logic may be more efficient at cementing tribal allegiances than discerning the actual truth.

Our increasing freedom of choice when it comes to sources of information, including our increasing control over what we expose ourselves to through social media, means that we have the opportunity to enshrine confirmation bias into our environment – to the point where we not only reject information that contradicts our beliefs but indeed never encounter it in the first place. The bubbles many of us had erected around ourselves became painfully clear after Trump’s surprise victory in 2016, and some of my white liberal friends made pledges to reach out to those on the other end of the political spectrum, to feel more in touch with the rest of the country. But now more than ever we seem steeped in a broth of our own views. Hearing our own opinions from the mouths of others whom we have vetted for that purpose only strengthens our illusion of consensus and amplifies our outrage at perceived outliers who dissent from us.

I am not certain at all about how much media or social media represent the actual views of Americans. As Jill Lepore pointed out recently, “in 2018, according to the Pew Research Center, ninety-seven per cent of all tweets posted by American adults about national politics were posted by ten per cent of tweeters.” Only about twenty percent of Americans have actually used Twitter; most people with an account use it rarely; and only a small fraction of users posts about politics. One study found that the average political tweeter is “a white male in his 30s or 40s who has moderate-to-high household income and considers himself to be a political junkie.” Guilty as charged. In general, Lepore alludes to an expanding body of research concluding “that the more politically charged the tweet, the more likely it is to reach a large audience, that people who get political information from Twitter are radicalized by the experience, and that Twitter, like Facebook, serves as an excellent medium for propaganda.”

As someone who would like to consider himself an ally of liberal causes including Black Lives Matter, I would respectfully and humbly submit that if a democracy is to also remain a union, we need to engage more with people who disagree with us – not just to avoid alienating those who might help us but also to understand those on the other side so that we do not undermine them to the point where they only feel heard in the form of a riot. As I said, I grew up in a small town that was almost exclusively white, then taught in a country that had excluded the Western world for so long that my students hardly knew what to make of me. I worry that increasing control over what we see and hear will create communities of ideological exclusion that will have unperceived and imperceptible effects on those we have excluded, to our own unperceived and imperceptible detriment. Much has been said recently about cancel culture and its militant wing that uses vigilante Internet activism to destroy the lives of offenders, but it seems to me that a discussion of this phenomenon has framed it as a relatively new development, an outgrowth among the generation now coming of age. Recently, liberal ire has been directed at government-approved textbooks, Facebook, and the New York Times, with some calling for boycotts and censorship.

Is there not something familiar about this? As Marilynne Robinson suggests in her 1996 essay, “Puritans and Prigs,” in our societal quest for “a more perfect union” our democracy is susceptible to ideas of perfectionism or ideological purity that can at times resemble Maoism. Because democracy can be shaped by opinions, because opinions have power (particularly in one of the most powerful countries in the world), and because my opinion can neutralize the opinion of another in the form of voting, the Maoist line of thinking runs like this:

“First the bad ideas must be weeded out and socially useful ones put in their place. Then the bad people must be identified, especially those that are carriers of bad ideas…. Society is simply other people, useful or not, capable of contributing to the general good, or not. Creatures of society, they are also the reasons for the continuing failure and suffering of society. At the same time, since society is the only possible agent of its own transformation, the victim stands revealed as the enemy, the obstacle to reform, the problem to be eliminated. Freed of those it has maimed, it might at last be perfect.”

If a society does not learn from history, it may be doomed to repeat it, but the history it repeats may not be its own.

In America, free speech exists in tension with democracy. On one hand, our constitution distinguishes speech from action. On the other hand, speech (in the form of persuasion) translates easily into votes, which in turn translate into policy. For this reason, stump speeches and televised debates play such an important role in national politics. Network pundits, social media influencers, editorialists, and advertisement executives fashion careers from the currency of opinions, and it may be the very power of speech that spurs calls to curtail it. Oddly, as President Obama pointed out in his response to George Floyd’s killing, voter turnout in local races – the ones that matter most in reforming police departments and the criminal justice system – is “pitifully low, especially among young people.” Clearly, we need to vote more, but as Obama points out, and as Thoreau emphasized in his essay on civil disobedience, voting alone is not enough. Voting, Thoreau writes, is simply a choice between two options others have selected for you. To create new options – to establish the conditions for everyone in our society to enjoy what President Johnson called “the full blessings of American life” in his introduction to the Voting Rights Act – we need protest followed by sustained, deliberate, well-financed, collaborative effort by networks of skilled individuals over a period of years. And for most of us, we will have to continue to do the work of reading, listening, re-reading, watching, and teaching.

This post may be messy and unpleasant to read. It has not been entirely pleasant to write. It is much more unpleasant to live – for everyone involved. If we are going to morally, politically, and economically reckon with our historical legacies, we are going to have to deal with the tension that exists and the tension that we will create in fixing it. I have much more to say, but for now, I’ll end not with my own words, but with another excerpt from King’s letter from Birmingham jail.

I am not afraid of the word tension…. There is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must…create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.


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