By Jake Winkler

What’s the atheist doing in the church basement? There’s no wedding. It’s Wednesday morning.

Maybe it’s better to ask what a white kid from rural Wisconsin is doing talking race with a black

pastor. Better yet: why aren’t more white people talking race with more white people? Reverend

Gee thinks a big part of it is education due to the positive response to his Justified Anger history

class. Maybe my story and some education will help that talk.


I was raised colorblind, just barely young enough to be a millenial, not old enough to remember

the Crack Scare of the ‘80s, old enough to have heard Clinton called the first black president

and not really knowing what that meant. The people of color I knew went to my Lutheran high

school or my university or were co-workers at a software company or played rugby with me.

They carried some recognizable class markers like similar affluence and education. In other

words, they came into my world. I didn’t go to theirs.

Colorblindness supposedly lets you treat people equally. However, the colorblind often still see

sagging pants and hear slang we don’t understand, and we pin our judgment not on color but on

differences of culture. The difference is real, but we’ve gone further and judged our own culture

superior. The newscasters and professors talk like us, so we must be smart. And we forget that

even we code switch from slang jargon with our friends (my mom can’t understand us) and

thrift-store t-shirts to academic talk and matching belt and shoes when we need to. We assume

others can’t do the same.


People talk about love and respect, but I have to ask them to elaborate. I know people where

love and respect don’t extend beyond people that aren’t like us, that haven’t come into our

world. It sounds obvious when I say it that way, so we have to get specific: Where we stop short

of loving Syrian refugees enough to let them in, short of sufficiently respecting an accent where

English is not a first language to patiently listen and wait a little longer in line.

This specificity is part of Eric Church’s point in his madison365 article. “When people of color

suffer through the impacts of your ignorance, yes, you are racist. And when you ward off the

awareness of that ignorance, you demonstrate your explicit bias toward this fake world where

we just can’t quite pinpoint that racism but are ‘doing a damn good job fighting it.’”

I wouldn’t have understood this quote 2 years ago. I thought racists existed mostly pre-1970 and

the modern ones declared themselves with pointy white sheets or online manifestos, and that

intent was important. I thought being a racist was binary– you were or you weren’t– and nearly

impossible to change. As the Movement for Black Lives forced its way into my awareness after

Ferguson, I didn’t understand what was happening or what people were saying.

Luckily, two communities I joined for selfish reasons contained diversity that I hadn’t been

seeking out: rugby and spoken word. Friends and messages gave me a starting point, and, like

so many things online, the path down the rabbit hole was easy to find. But it takes time. Again, I

was lucky. I had a lot of time the summer of 2015 after quitting years of a lucrative job that I

stumbled into in the first place.


I learned that people do racist stuff all the time, mostly by accident or ignorance. Intent is not

important, but effect is. This is why a common defense of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986,

which created a 100:1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, is that it

couldn’t have been racist because black leaders supported it. Maybe they were taken in by the

Crack Scare. Maybe they just wanted the rising violence in the inner cities to stop. It doesn’t

matter. The effect of the law put far more blacks in prison for longer than whites.

Since effect is more important than intent, it follows that when we are accused of racism

defensiveness isn’t the answer. Jay Smooth analogizes it with hygiene: clean people still need

to brush their teeth. Being good and being clean are both work that’s never done. If you have

something racist stuck in your teeth, it’s not an indictment of you, so a better response is “I’ll

check it out and probably clean it.”


Some of us at this point think, “But sometimes the race card is overplayed.” This is

defensiveness and a distraction. We should be asking what the effects in question are, and

work to understand what someone is saying if they see harm and we don’t. Our political

spectrum disagrees on the relative value of individual liberty versus societal equity, so our views

of harm won’t always match, but talking about the effects is far more productive than arguing

about the relevance of the race card.


The last piece of Church’s quote I want to talk about is the racism in Madison that “we just can’t

quite pinpoint.” In Coates’s Between the World and Me he tells his son that white people often

do not see racists; to us racists are fantastic creatures, as real as orcs and trolls. He also writes

“there is no golden era when evildoers did their business and loudly proclaimed it as such,” and

adds a quote from Soviet Communism critic Solzhenitsyn: “To do evil a human being must first

of all believe what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with

natural law.” This echoes Jay Smooth’s lesson: for the most part, we have good intentions, but

our ignorance means unintended effects result.


So, Jake, what are some of those specifics Madison should be examining?

1. In 2010 the Shorewood Hills Village Board voted down a middle-income affordable

housing project, Some comments and concerns during this are telling. A Village Board

member: "different values – I'm not saying bad values – but different values from what we

have here… People who live here are in for the long haul." He elaborated that he meant

renters vs owners..


2. “We Support Our Madison Police” signs which began popping up in my neighborhood

shortly after Genele Laird’s controversial arrest this summer. The news articles and

interview with the lead guy all say not much more than the sign itself. The timing of the

signs implies that Genele’s arrest method was OK. Are the people asking for more

community control over the police not supporting the police?

It’s impossible to know what we don’t know, so what do we do? Early in this research I wrote to

myself, “not knowing what to do is just an excuse that has never seen work boots.” I’m working

on diversifying the voices I consume, which, like being good, is work that’s never done. And that

doesn’t mean the voices simply come out of different-colored mouths, it means they say things I

haven’t heard or things I disagree with.


However, I haven’t localized this yet. I don’t know enough about Madison politics. I’m working

on it, including reading the Church article where he critiques Madison’s racism solutions:

“usually well-meaning people (often perpetrators) get together to decide how to help those other

people; and those other people don’t get a real say in what help looks like but should, of course,

be ever grateful.” What’s clear from Church is that when facing a knowledge gap, another way

of finding out what to do and avoiding unintended effects is collaborative decision making with

these “other people”.


This isn’t the only way or best way. It’s just how I got here. Too many people hear about a big

general problem called racism and let not knowing what to do stop them. And it isn’t about

choosing between two sides. It’s about thinking and asking questions, getting into the specifics,

making neighborhoods back into communities instead of a collection of silos.


I’m still learning. You should, too.