“Human, from the planet Earth.” That’s how countless diverse Star Trek characters from earth identify themselves to alien species, in distant galaxies in future centuries. That simple statement – always delivered matter-of-factly, regardless of the respective characters’ obvious racial or ethnic features – resonated with me and deepened my attraction to Star Trek over the years.
My longing for such a future is coupled with great concern about our capacity to achieve it, leading me to paraphrase the famed Star Trek opening as my title here. Whether or not it is the final one, race is a singularly important frontier that we must navigate successfully to ensure our future.
It is hard to feel confident about the future for racial equity and justice, however, when there are literally untold millions of Americans who find the slogan “Black Lives Matter” to be objectionable, if not downright offensive. “Black Lives Matter” is provocative, to be sure, but it is not menacing or offensive to others. It simply highlights the reality that, in the minds of millions of Americans, the lives of Black people do not matter equally to the lives of White people. It is, therefore, a proxy for fundamental principles that should not offend or otherwise bother any person who believes in racial equity and justice.
There are two important precepts for what follows. First, if you do not believe in racial equity and justice for all people, then while there might be other things to commend you as a person, you are a racist. This article is not written for you. You require a spiritual or other awakening that I am not competent to provide.
Second, if you believe in racial equity and justice for all people, but you nonetheless object to the “Black Lives Matter” slogan, we can have a dialogue. However, we will make progress only if and when you can recognize that your objection reflects either (a) a serious misunderstanding about the reality of race in America or (b) unconscious prejudice or bias. Neither is acceptable, and both present immense challenges for achieving racial equity and justice. A lot of hard and uncomfortable work will be required, but progress will be possible.
That work must include straight talk about the present and the past. We can’t get to the future reflected in the Star Trek characters’ statement without a clear-eyed appreciation for where we have been, and where we now stand.
In 1903, W.E.B. Dubois, the renowned Black sociologist and scholar, proclaimed famously that “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” The “color line” was Dr. Dubois’ proxy for race and phenotypical differences among human beings. Dr. Dubois missed the mark, technically, only because he referred to the 20th century. The problem of race has had a much longer life span.
Fast forward to 1963, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Dr. King envisioned a color-blind world, where freedom and justice would reign for all people, regardless of race. In his subsequent “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speeches – the last one delivered on the night before he was assassinated – Dr. King described being allowed to look over the mountaintop and seeing the “promised land” where his dream had been realized.
Fast forward again to late 2008 and early 2009, when many people – made giddy by the election of Barack Hussein Obama as America’s President – began to muse out-loud about the emergence of a “post-racial” America. After all, an America that had elected a Black man, with that name, as its President must have turned the corner with respect to the problem Dr. Dubois described in 1903. Dr. King’s dream and vision must have become reality, and Black people must have reached the promised land, in the ensuing 50 years.
Not so fast. Later in 2009, the Tea Party emerged. For any clear-eyed observer, the Tea Party movement was, in its origins and at its core, a virulent race-based reaction to President Obama’s election.
The Tea Party was not a political movement based on objections to policy positions of the Obama administration. Its catchy moniker was a masquerade to conceal its true essence. The Tea Party arose out of the fears of many White people about the perceived implications of America’s demographic transition from a country with a majority-white population. Those fears – while sadly and woefully unenlightened – were real, arguably rational on their own misguided terms, and alarmingly widespread.
Regrettably, many people were unable or unwilling to see the true essence of the Tea Party and what it signified for our future. Too many still did not see it (or refused to acknowledge it) when Donald J. Trump announced his campaign for President, brazenly spewing thinly-veiled racism and worse. And so, Americans elected Trump in 2016, even though his campaign could barely have appealed more explicitly to white supremacy and other divisive and bigoted sentiments. During Trump’s administration, the Tea Party mask came off, and racism and bigotry have become increasingly overt and unrestrained. Although Trump lost his bid for reelection in 2020, over 74 million Americans voted for him, despite (and in significant part because of) his manifest racism and bigotry.
Clearly, America is a long way from being “post-racial”. But, have enough significant events converged – highlighting the effects of our racial inequities and injustice – to bring us to an inflection point, where impactful change is both possible and imminent?
Too often, that characterization is premature, because too much work still needs to be done to effect impactful change. So it was in 1903 when Dr. Dubois made his proclamation. And in 1963 and 1968 with Dr. King’s dream and mountaintop vision. And again in 2008 with President Obama’s election. That is how I see the present time, although the 2020 election of Joe Biden as President (and Kamala Harris as Vice President) gives hope that we may be close to a genuine inflection point.
In his inaugural address, President Biden called out “white supremacy” explicitly. Within a week thereafter, he signed several Executive Orders to begin steps toward the eradication of white supremacy and its vestiges. His appointments to key leadership positions across his administration constitute a veritable rainbow of diversity and inclusion. These developments are buoying and bode very well, but the headwinds against that positive course are numerous and strong. Overcoming them will require that “enough of us” take prefatory steps that I believe are imperatives for following President Biden’s lead and staying the course. Here’s why, after a personal background summary to provide context for assessing my perspective.
I am a 65-year old Black man. I was born to poor sharecrop tobacco farmers in South Carolina (the land owned by a White family), attended an overwhelmingly-white elite college in the 1970s (Black students numbered less than 40 in a student body of almost 2,000) and then attended a predominantly-white elite law school. I spent most of my professional life as a corporate lawyer working in large elite law firms, which had hundreds of White lawyers and a handful (or less) of Black lawyers, and whose important clients were owned or controlled by White people. My professional life led frequently to close interactions with White people in numerous civic and social contexts.
I experienced numerous instances of overt racism, implicit racial bias and prejudice, and other race-based obstacles that made the playing field unleveled for me. Along the way, however, most of my White colleagues were friendly; several became close personal friends; and some were my enthusiastic and indispensable mentors and champions. In the main, my adult life has been a charmed existence, relative to that of most people, with professional success and myriad rewarding personal experiences. Those have shielded me from the pains of the starkest aspects of the racial inequities and injustice that comprise the reality for the majority of Black Americans.
I did not allow that existence to isolate me from Black people, however, and it has not obscured my understanding of the broader reality for Black people in America. Moreover, because it required me to engage directly and frequently with White people from most walks of life, I acquired substantial useful insights into how many types of White people think about and react to Black people.
In early June 2020 – during the height of the intense widespread protests following the horrific murder of George Floyd, which had highlighted numerous other atrocities by police against Black people – I was serving as President and CEO of the Arts Council of my local community. In that capacity, I wrote a public statement to the community in support of those protests and their goal of eradicating the inequality, injustice, racism and other prejudice that infest our country. I entitled it “Embrace Now the Discomfort and Difficulty of Change”, because that reflects succinctly my belief about some fundamental imperatives for achieving racial equity and justice.
In the past, I have mostly been silent when good, well-intentioned, people (Black as well as White) would say things such as: “I don’t see race or color.” Or “We should all be color-blind.” I still believe that no one should be chastised for making such a statement as an aspiration, or as a sincere expression of that person’s belief. However, no one should be left to believe that race or color is unseen by others, or is an inconsequential factor, in the daily lives of Black people in America. It is important to discuss with such people the broader, current, practical ramifications of that belief.
It is difficult for even good, well-meaning, smart people to appreciate the vast impact of race in our life. And to recognize how we have organized the institutions and systems that undergird our society – or permitted them to operate – in a manner that led (and still leads) inextricably to most of our society’s unequal, unjust and unacceptable outcomes. The difficulty is exacerbated by the real and palpable discomfort of doing the hard work required for enlightenment and for learning how to do better. And, the situation is made worse when some of us seek to assign personal blame to contemporary individuals for the past sins and failures of others. The latter leads almost inevitably to defensiveness, which virtually ensures that objective analysis and enlightenment will not occur.
I believe an imperative threshold step for each of us – prefatory to a deep-dive understanding of the specific outcomes and facts of institutional and systemic racism – is to recognize and embrace the great discomfort, as well as difficulty, of facing and addressing our country’s failures with respect to racial equity and justice. We must embrace each other sincerely, with candor and civility, accepting that none of us likely knows all the important facts and implications. We must do so without assigning personal blame for past actions or inactions by others, and without reacting defensively about that past. We must do so with an unwavering commitment to stay the course. If we don’t proceed in this manner, it is likely that we will give up, in frustration, before the desired changes are (and can realistically be) achieved.
Another imperative step is reflected in my first precept above. We must recognize the impossibility of bringing everyone along. Regrettably, there are many inveterate racists (and other sadly gullible people) in our country. We can pity them, but we shouldn’t waste valuable time and effort trying to convert them. We must monitor and help to counter their increasingly dangerous actions, but their conversion isn’t necessary for the country, as a whole, to navigate the race frontier successfully.
As President Biden presciently intimated in his inaugural address, “enough of us” who are committed to the hard work for achieving racial equity and justice will be sufficient to get us across the race frontier.
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W. Randy Eaddy is a retired corporate attorney and arts organization executive, and civic leader. He practiced law for 38 years, and served over two years as President and CEO of The Arts Council of Winston-Salem & Forsyth County. Mr. Eaddy is a 1976 graduate, summa cum laude, of Furman University and a 1979 graduate of the Harvard Law School, where he was an editor of the Harvard Law Review.