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With Eyes Wide Open: America Needs Self-Awareness

The issue does not have two sides. We need to stop treating racism the way we did climate change for so long, stop indulging the bad faith of "skeptics" interested only in self-preservation.
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A hundred and fifty years after the Civil War ended, an admirer of white supremacists has been elected President of the United States. Not coincidentally, Donald Trump's ascendancy comes at a moment when the eyes of many white Americans were already being opened in ways they haven't since the 1960's.

The Black Lives Matter movement and the ubiquity of cell phone video have made it difficult for white people to ignore the frequency with which the state engages its black citizens in racist, authoritarian, and often brutal ways. They've rendered self-protective inanities like "the Civil War was fought over state's rights," and "all lives matter" acts of explicit racism.

And now this. This horrific punctuation on this most horrific year. Walter Scott's cruel and senseless death was captured on video, yet a jury of his murderer's peers has refused to call it murder.

If the ascension of Donald Trump and his gang of aggrieved white billionaires hasn't shaken the few remaining scales from our eyes, surely this will. This moment is presenting us with an opportunity we must not squander, for a reckoning that is long overdue.

We must stop this horror. We must seize this opportunity for self-reflection and change.

American culture has never fully digested the facts of slavery and its consequences, never absorbed it the meaningful way it has, say, World War II. We certainly haven't engaged in the kind of national reckoning that Germany, South Africa and other countries have, with their own similar, national traumas. (And please--the point here isn't that American slavery is the exact moral or material equivalent of the Holocaust, but that our country's original sin has not been fully, culturally processed.)

It is impossible to imagine the Germany of today--welcomer of hundreds of thousands of refugees, lynchpin of a volatile European Community--without its ongoing (if imperfect) commitment to self-awareness.

Likewise, it is impossible to imagine the America of today: brazenly murderous, flamboyantly self-sabotaging, united only by geography, unable to agree on the most demonstrable of facts--without its chronic refusal to face up to it's history.

Yet, thankfully, it is just as hard to imagine this America surviving the time we are entering. The genteel stories we have told ourselves about our very worst crimes can only survive if we let them. We owe ourselves less comfort and mythology, more truth and reconciliation--fewer "dialogues" about race, and more conversation about racism.

The issue does not have two sides. We need to stop treating racism the way we did climate change for so long, stop indulging the bad-faith of "skeptics" interested only in self-preservation. Questions like, "what about Black on Black crime?" and "Why can't I say the N-word?" are the "So why is it still snowing?" of racism debates. Racism exists, it is white people-made and only white people can stop it.

We need to understand that racism is not a discreet, malevolent, and external force, eating away at our home like a plague of termites. We are forever rushing from one corner to the next, in a frantic effort to rid the house of pests, rather than making a sustained effort to remove the rot they feed on. Racism isn't the termites, it's the house. We live in a structure built intentionally, brick-by-brick, plank-by-plank, from the stuff of white supremacy. We need to rebuild. We owe each other the stability that only a restructuring will bring.

If we fail the house will fall. If we deny ourselves the courage to act, if we continue to personalize the issue, to conflate individual, personal bigotry with systemic racism, the house will not stand.

The problem isn't what's in our hearts. It's what's in the minutes of our school board meetings, in the loan criteria at our banks, in our textbooks, our desks and toy boxes, in our mass transit schedules, our voter registration guides, our magazines and our movies, in our news sources, our drug laws, our police cars and on our lips.

We cannot un-know what we know. Our eyes have been opened. We cannot unsee what we have seen.