Side effects

The other day I was talking to a friend who has devoted a good deal of her life to the ideals of the civil rights movement. She spent most of her teaching career working with inner city kids, leading classrooms of students who didn’t look a thing like her when others were too scared or too comfortable to step in. She has always acted with kindness and empathy toward everyone, regardless of race or creed. Imagine my surprise when she didn’t engage in a conversation about the current climate of racial tension exactly the way I thought she would.

When I questioned her about it, she seemed tired, defeated. All those things we fought for seem to just be coming full circle again, she said. My sense was that she felt that it ultimately hadn’t made much difference. Here we are again, fifty years later, fighting the same battles.

She kept talking about unintended consequences, and I wish I had spent more time probing what she meant. I sensed a bit of regret, not for the cause, but for the place we have landed.

But I keep going back to those unintended consequences.

What did she mean? What are/were they? Do they matter? The truth is, I don’t know any of these answers. I hope to find out someday soon.

What I do know is this.

We can’t let fear of the unknown hold us back from taking action to move toward something that’s right. We make choices based on the information we have at the time and do the best we can. We learn to mitigate the side effects when they come, but we keep marching toward the goal–however imperfectly.

I respect her fatigue. If she’s tired, that’s okay; it’s my turn to step up.

Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.

Maya Angelou

Why ask why

Since I started writing again, I’ve purposely avoided tackling the topics of the moment: COVID, racism, civil unrest. There’s already so much being written on all sides that I feared my voice would just add to the confusion. And to be honest, it’s safer.

It doesn’t feel right, though.

It’s hard to keep it light when so many things weigh heavily on my mind. I am heartbroken about what’s happening across the country: Minneapolis, Kenosha, Portland, Los Angeles. Pick just about any city right now and you can find protests and violence ravaging the streets.

While I don’t condone violence–against humans, animals, property, or anything else–if we ONLY look at that, we’re missing the point. It’s too easy to focus on an end result and make sweeping judgments. When we do, we’re just treating the symptoms.

Why aren’t we asking WHY?

Why are people so frustrated and angry? Why does an entire population feel disenfranchised? Why do people feel they have to break things or cause unrest to be heard? Why aren’t the rest of us listening?

We have built a society that systemically discriminates against people who are not white. We didn’t admit Black people into college for a really long time, and when we did, we didn’t let them live there or use the libraries or do any of the things they needed to succeed. We didn’t let Black people get union cards back in the day, so they couldn’t find work in the trades. We didn’t let black people get loans so they couldn’t make investments in businesses or houses or their own prosperity. I could go on, but hopefully you see the point.

Fast forward to today. Even when laws have changed, the cultural effects continue to be carried forward. Attitudes, neighborhoods, expectations, beliefs, stigmas. Some of us won’t even acknowledge a problem ever existed at all.

There’s a tweet going around the internet about an idea for a new reality show:

ok hear me out….a reality show where billionaire CEOs have to live off of their lowest-paid employee’s salary for a month

— eva ☻ (@evamarieluter) August 30, 2020

If you follow the thread (which is now ginormous), someone commented that it wouldn’t be a problem for the billionaire since s/he would just invest, build wealth, and get the heck out of there. Yeah, right. Understandably, many people responded to remind that person that when all your money goes to rent and food, there isn’t anything left to invest. The debate got pretty toxic, but isn’t this the same point we need to examine for Black people in our country?

How could we ever expect anyone to work their way out of dire situations when all of their resources went to survival? And we refused to provide the tools–education, jobs, certifications, access to credit–that would help them change things? Even if those things are (arguably) available now, they’re already way behind. And again, the cultural effects remain much more deeply entrenched.

Before you start giving me anecdotal illustrations of people for whom this was NOT the situation, I’ll agree with you. Yep, right now. I agree. Not every Black person suffered in the same way. Many became prosperous and “lived the dream.” (Whose dream is debatable, but that’s for a different day.) But many, many, many more–the overwhelming majority–fell victim to a system designed to keep them separate at best and unable to function at worst.

I’ll also say this: I don’t have the solution.

What I do know is that we will never, ever make any progress toward peace and justice if we only address the symptoms. If we only address the violence and looting, it will keep happening. We need to treat the whole disease to find a cure, not just the symptoms.

Start by asking what brought us here. And don’t forget to listen to the answers.