Education Op/Ed

Letter to the editor: Anti-racism slogans can send the wrong message

I looked first for what I could appreciate in Heidi Recupero’s response to Joanna Colwell’s letter in support of flying the Black Lives Matter flag at the Middlebury Union High School (Letters section, Sept. 30 and Sept. 9, respectively). I found most of it in the parts of her letter that did not address what Ms. Colwell was saying. For instance, Ms. Recupero concludes “This could be a wonderful teaching moment for students at the high school.” But nothing in Ms Colwell’s letter said flying a BLM flag should end the discussion. Why can’t an ongoing “teaching moment” occur just as easily or to an even greater extent with the Black Lives Matter flag flying?

I don’t want this to descend though into a point-by-point reflection on Ms. Recupero’s letter, which offers a lot of food for thought. Let me instead respond specifically to her and Ms. Colwell’s conflict over the meaning of the “Racism Has No Home Here” slogan. It appears to have originated in the determination of a white lawyer with a bi-racial child to become more active in the struggle against unconscious bias and other generators of behavior that harm racial minorities. In other words, it originated as a statement of white pain and a desire to dismantle racism. I admire her impulse and her campaign has done some good, but it’s not grounded in the Black experience that gave birth to the Black Lives Matter slogan. It crowds out BLM’s spotlight on racism’s impact from the perspective of those who have been oppressed, which shows up in the kind of data Ms. Colwell cited.

The BLM slogan is inclusive, despite the desperation of so many people to brand it as divisive. It’s a powerful way of saying “all lives should matter equally.” It echoes Jesus’s teaching directing us to pay attention to what those with resources do for the most vulnerable groups in society. Jesus says that is the main test of whether people love him and fully accept that God loves everyone.

You don’t have to believe in God or Jesus to get the point. You just have to agree that the best way to live out the slogan “all lives matter” in a society with our history is to support the reforms necessary to produce the results you would expect if all races truly had equal opportunities. If we achieve that, the statistics will change over time to show that unarmed Black people are no more likely to be shot by police than unarmed whites, that Black workers are no less likely to get hired, Black families are no less likely to own their homes, and so on.

That focuses us on improving opportunities for Black people (and other marginalized groups, most of whom recognize that the logic of the BLM slogan speaks to their conditions as well). Ideally, we can do a lot of it in ways that help whites prosper too. But it’s unrealistic and unjust to think racism will be dismantled if whites continue to insist on a dishonest accounting of how much their current wealth and freedom rests on centuries of slavery and Jim Crow oppression, and on persistent biases in favor of the status quo baked into our culture.

I get why Ms. Recupero and many other people are going to see “Racism Has No Home Here” as a powerful sign of commitment to creating anti-racist spaces. But I can’t help but wonder whether they care that many of the people they are trying to support, and those white allies who know our economic and political history, may cringe like I do. We all see an invisible footnote on every one of those signs: “But Centuries of White Racism Helped Make This Our Home.”

Of course, many individual white people are being ground down by the status quo and caught up in personal suffering that white privilege can’t overcome. That only makes a turn like BLM’s slogan toward honest “all lives matter” policies even more important.

My impression is that the kids at the high school who want the BLM flag flying get that.

Rev. Barnaby Feder


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