Outing vs. avoiding the U.S. history of racism

What do we make of the Arbery prosecution, the VA election, the past and future of the nation?

I don’t know who my friend Tenoch Flores was more aggravated by: me or New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb. What set Tenoch off was hearing me on the radio asking Cobb a question from the audience during his appearance at City Arts & Lectures.

It was a few days after the Virginia gubernatorial race turned my native state from blue to red. Cobb was in town to tout two books on race and Black life. I said I was thrilled to share with my students writing like his and the “1619 Project” and so many other works filling in gaps in American history and policy. But I was also sickened to see that Glenn Youngkin, a Republican political newcomer, successfully ran on stoking voter animosity against works that tell a more complete truth about America’s history.

I asked Cobb what he thought of the election results and critics like linguist John McWhorter, author of “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America,” who are saying we need to quiet down on these conversations that are upsetting white people.

Cobb, who is trained as a historian, replied, “If someone can point to me the progress that’s ever been made by soft-pedaling the realities of racism, then I might be open to that conversation.” He talked about how central the fight over Black humanity was to this country, illustrating the point by comparing the disproportionately high number of lives lost in the Civil War to every other major war Americans have fought.

Cobb sees the racism embedded in Trumpism as central to dismantling democracy. “When people will say we’re doing too much, the response is: We’re trying to save your lives, too. And we have to look at this and get past the ideas of recrimination to say this is a vulnerability in American society…. I don’t think that those things are optional.”

Tenoch, a Democratic communications consultant and political strategist, is part of my “kitchen cabinet,” the friends whose counsel I sought before agreeing to take on the race and equity column for The Examiner. His take is typically much starker and darker than my own, but that’s what makes it valuable: Challenge is essential to learning. Although he wouldn’t put it quite so colorfully, I think it is fair to say Tenoch thinks Cobb and I are a couple of pudding-headed lefties who are going to wind up as road kill unless we can find a way of appealing to a white majority electorate.

“Politics for an increasing number of progressives is becoming entirely about performing values instead of acquiring power to move policy,” Tenoch emailed me. “That’s seductive to a lot of people who have progressive values right now. Self-righteously screaming truth to power and emotional catharsis are seen as the end points. The danger comes when that performative approach runs its course and reaches its predictable ending. Depending on how long we go down that road, by the time we stop we may realize it’s too late for most of the causes we claim to care about.”

While I don’t think it’s fair to lump Cobb and me in with self-righteous truth screamers or to suggest that “catharsis” is our end game, I can see how my friend would feel that way. Nuance is an increasingly rare commodity. The far-right state legislators all over the United States who are drafting and passing bans on “CRT” in K-12 curricula don’t care that children’s books on the Civil Rights movement have nothing to do with critical race theory, a legal theory typically taught at the graduate level. These “memory laws,” legislation confirming a state’s official version of history, typically outlaw references to facts or interpretations that might cause people “discomfort.” What the laws don’t say is that the people meant to be kept comfortable through the censorship of the United States’ painful history and ignorance of the nuclear half-life of racism are white people.

I know Tenoch, who is as sickened by the Democrats’ flickering midterm prospects as I was by the Virginia election, isn’t alone in his belief that white comfort may be key to progress for people of color.

After Thanksgiving break, my civic media class discussed the verdict in the trial of Ahmaud Arbery’s killers. The students’ consensus was surprise and relief that the nearly all-white jury voted to convict the three white Georgia men who tracked, cornered and killed Arbery, a young Black man who’d been jogging in their neighborhood. What astonished me in the class discussion were the perspectives of the two young Black women who agreed that the verdict was possible only because the prosecutor avoided framing the killing as racially motivated. Recently, I interviewed one of them for more on her thoughts.

Baye Kelly, 21, recalled a conversation she had with her mother when the verdict was announced the day before Thanksgiving.

“Everything was cooking and we had the TV on. There was this conversation about how strange it was that the prosecutor mentioned race so little,” Baye said. “My mom said it makes sense when you consider who was on the jury and who are the people who have to make the decision. Are they capable of being objective about coming to a conclusion when you bring race into the conversation? It might make them uncomfortable. It might get in the way of them seeing him as a man being attacked.”

Although the defense attorneys brought race into the courtroom in frankly racist ways — complaining about the presence of “black pastors” sitting with the family and commenting on the dead man’s “long, dirty toenails” — the prosecution only made one passing reference to Arbery’s race in her closing statement.

“As a Black person, you look at it like, ‘Yeah, it’s a hate crime and they should probably mention that.’ It feels so self-evident,” Baye said. “But it’s the prosecutor’s job to get a conviction and she did her job. It worked. We got justice in that situation. But it’s uncomfortable to think about it that way. It almost feels like coddling — you have to coddle white people’s feelings.”

Baye and Tenoch have never met, but she cited the same stats and a similar argument to me as he did. Ultimately, her perspective felt like the bridge between his and mine.

“The majority of America is still white, ” Baye said. “You’re trying to make this progress in the context of having this majority of people who belong to this history. I understand how talking about this history can be uncomfortable but racism is uncomfortable and it still happens. I don’t see how not talking about it fixes anything. When can we talk about race? When is it too much? One of the first steps to not growing into a bigoted person is understanding where it comes from. These feelings of discomfort — we all need to get past them. I think you can have the takeaway of ‘now I know and we can do better than that.’”

But how do we get to the bridge between Baye “talking sense” Kelly and the white majority? Talking about racism isn’t easy for anyone. And some whites fear that recognizing the impact of white supremacy will ultimately mean reckoning with costs to people of color — you know, expensive, complicated stuff like making whole the descendants of the three-fifths and making right the raw deal forced upon indigenous people.

Even if the left weren’t talking about racism, many state legislatures are passing laws to keep minority votes from counting. Whether we keep our mouths closed or not, people of color are being silenced.

The Arbery verdict was achieved by a white prosecutor talking to a mostly white jury. Maybe the focus shouldn’t be on what people of color are saying but on what white people are saying to each other?

Teresa Moore’s columns appear bimonthly in The Examiner.

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