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.