The week of October 4, 2015

Black and white in America

By Jesse Hicks

The past several years in the United States have been tumultuous when it comes to the topic of race. A series of high-profile Black deaths—more than anyone should have to count, though we must—has brought the issue of police brutality and militarization to the fore, and made us question how those we ask to serve and protect have upheld that responsibility. Meanwhile, the persistent tragedy of inequality—racial and economic—has become so pronounced as to no longer be ignorable.

That’s the backdrop for this issue of the Kernel, with three commentaries on how we talk about Black and white in the United States, how Black lives are being fought for, and what more we need to be doing. First, Alicia Garza, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Network, describes how what began as a hashtag has become a movement, and how we know it’s winning. When people with power dismiss your work as sloganeering, she suggests, it’s because they’re scared.

But Douglas Williams suggests the need to do more. A truly liberatory politics, he argues, needs to focus on more than a single issue: It needs to propose an entirely new system. We’re at that point in the United States, he says, and focusing only on police-related deaths can mean neglecting reform in underfunded schools, not asking why many of our cities are so segregated to begin with, and not agitating for an end to income inequality that disproportionately affects minorities.

At the individual level, Clay Rivers explains how he talks to white people about racism, including one with whom, over more than 30 years of friendship, he’d never discussed it. Rivers notes the defensiveness that can accompany any conversation about race, and offers some advice on how to avoid it. His main observation is that maybe we all need to learn to listen better.

If anything, the turmoil of the past few years have reminded us of the complexity of the issue, and its dire urgency.

Alongside our commentators, we have reports on how race is being lived today in America. Samantha Rogers reports on the University of Oklahoma chapter of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, where a viral video featuring a racist chant led to expulsions, the chapter’s closing, and a plan to diversify. That plan, proposed in March by SAE, has now had time to be implemented; Rogers asks if it’s been effective, and whether other fraternities might learn from it. Derrick Clifton, who helped shape this issue, examines the hard truths we learned (or failed to learn) from Ferguson; Patrick Howell O’Neill dismantles the myth of a post-Ferguson “war on cops” while explaining just who’s perpetuating it. Cherno Biko reminds us that Black trans lives matter, and Ben Branstetter explains why your Facebook friends are probably less diverse than you’d think.

This isn’t a comprehensive take on the question of “race in America”—it would be absurd to expect anything to be. If anything, the turmoil of the past few years have reminded us of the complexity of the issue and its dire urgency. Our attention to it is much needed and long neglected. Hopefully that is beginning to change.

Enjoy the issue.