There is much to process in our communities and in the news. And the pandemic gives up more time to consider what is happening now and what has led to this place. Here are some thoughts. I am not done.
First, focusing on property damage and looting in this context implies that a property crime is equivalent to hundreds of years of damage caused by slavery and racism. Focusing on our national and personal racism does not mean we do not acknowledge the other crimes that are on the books. But focusing on property crime right now tells people who live with fear and harm each day for themselves and their children that we care more about property than human pain and systemic racism. And assuming all looters are black thugs says more about us than it does about the rule of law or what is actually occurring.
I am a public figure entrusted with representing the people in my community and responsible for taking what action I can to right wrongs and make our state a better place. I have an obligation to speak up and be transparent. I know that, but finding the right words is hard. But not as hard as taking the right steps. And not nearly as hard as living with racism as a person of color.
What holds me back from speaking the horror, shame, anger, frustration and helplessness that is in my heart? Some answers: not being good enough, saying the wrong thing, being misunderstood, making it worse, trivializing, missing something important that I should do, and not saying enough to keep moving forward for real change. This is discomfort, not a threat to my life, my family, my home or my future.
What I am hearing from friends and colleagues who are living this nightmare as people of color: exhaustion, anger, not being heard, frustration at lack of progress, fury at the fall from the elation of having the first black president to a world where the worst impulses are normalized. And so much more. I am hearing frustration at those of us who do not acknowledge our white privilege yet claim to be allies. I hear and share the dismay at the idea that anyone who speaks up about bullying, racism, demeaning language and systemic racism is a “cream puff” and “too sensitive”. Since when did cruelty and aggressive rudeness become something that must be tolerated?
Almost no one decides to be evil and cause harm and chaos. There is a reason. But we still need to prevent harm.
As a consultant, I once worked with a black colleague to look deeply at a public organization where every person of color signed a complaint of systemic racism in both internal and external policies and actions. We were there to address the internal culture. One finding was that white managers would not risk being uncomfortable or wrong when communicating with people of color. Those who looked different from them were denied information they needed to do their job, the feedback they needed to improve and advance and be successful. So they did not get the assignments and the rewards and success within that system. White managers did not want to be “uncomfortable” or to be charged with racism or to get pushback on their own behavior. Instead they felt proud of the racial diversity within the organization. They could not understand how both new and long-time employees could criticize such a great, diverse and progressive organization.
Listen. You cannot do wrong by both listening carefully and letting the speaker know they are heard and understood. Be honest. And when you make a mistake, make amends.
Many of us don’t tolerate even joking remarks that clearly stink of racial bias. Just as we mostly do not tolerate rape jokes. But sometimes it is hard to tell how deeply a colleague is hurt by someone’s insensitive or more subtle cut. In order to survive, people go along and get used to remarks that are not ok. Follow up and ask. And decide to do something. Don’t leave it up to the target to change the culture and confront the problem. Exhaustion and survival behavior is real.
We have strong protections of freedom of speech in our country. We are currently struggling with where powerful lies and digital manipulation fit into our constitutional right to say anything, as long as it does not lead directly to harm. A high bar. My personal opinion is that some porn should be considered a hate crime. The ACLU would disagree. We have a tradition of protecting the views that we may personally find repugnant. As a public figure, I cannot sue anyone for slander or lies. But we can pass laws about behavior. We cannot pass laws to reinstate slavery. We have passed laws to protect civil rights and voting rights. We need to protect what progress we have made.
I have long thought our biggest problem is that our television-trained brains are programmed to not pay attention to anything for more than the fifteen minutes between commercials. Big problems that deal with human pain and complexity take longer than that. Some things take deep education with each generation in order to sustain good change. As a person who struggles with attention deficit disorder, I get this!
What can I do as a human?
• Risk discomfort
• Be honest
• Don’t give up
• Speak up
• Spend the time to follow through
• Work on my own change
What a legislator can and should do:
• Make our state agencies places of fairness and examples of the best workplaces
• Look at the impact of our laws on racial issues
• Address the past in prison reform and drug policy, education and land use
• Continue the work on use of force legislation, body cams and more
• Be willing to make mistakes and amends
• Protect our elections
• Embrace change
• Listen and act
There is so much more. Please let me know how I can help, participate and know more. This should not be a moment, but a new beginning of a sustained journey.