*Or more aptly titled, A White American Alphabet—26 Letters Towards A Language of Repair.
A is for the Allen residence.
The Allen residence is where Wendell James Allen, a twenty-year-old Black man, used to live with his grandmother. In 2012 the New Orleans police department received a tip about the possibility of a marijuana dealer living at the Allen home in the Gentilly neighborhood. After officers allegedly witnessed several exchanges in the driveway of the home it was determined that a raid was warranted.
On the afternoon of March 7th Wendell Allen was in his bedroom upstairs when he heard a commotion. He heard the sounds of his siblings screaming and crying and the crashing of officers bashing in the front door with a battering ram. Wearing only a pair of jeans, a shirtless, empty-handed Wendell scrambled down the stairs where he was shot on sight by Officer Joshua Colclough.
Police later charged Wendell’s brother, David, with simple possession but Wendell himself was never charged or linked to the marijuana in any way. He died at the scene.
B is for Benjamin Murdy.
Benjamin Murdy is a 43-year-old white man who warned police officers that he would shoot them if they responded to a domestic violence call from his wife. When officers showed up at his house on Oak Ridge Drive in Hartford, Connecticut on January 21, 2020, Murdy made good on his promise. He fired nearly 200 shots at officers as they tried to coax him from his home. He had already shot his neighbor (who survived) and a dog (who did not). “No deputies fired a single round in return,” Sheriff Jeffrey R. Gahler said at a press conference later in the week. Murdy was taken into custody without incident.
C is for “calculating the curve.”
Abolitionist and American Transcendentalist minister Theodore Parker said this in his 1853 sermon titled “Of Justice and the Conscience:”
I do not pretend to understand the moral universe,
the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways.
I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure
by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience.
But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.
More than 100 years later, in his speech “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution” at the National Cathedral on March 31, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously paraphrased Parker when he said, “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” It wasn’t the first time King borrowed Parker’s words in a speech but it was the last. Five days later he was dead. Shot to death on the balcony outside his room at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. The force of the fatal shot ripped his necktie off.
D is for deferential treatment.
We’re all biased. We’ve all acquired stereotypes and attitudes that influence our beliefs, understanding, decisions and opinions. Some of these stereotypes are so subterranean we don’t even know they exist. But implicit bias researcher Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt, a psychology professor at Stanford University, says that this is normal. Expected. We are constantly bombarded with images and ideas and it “takes over who we are and how we see the world.”
Our brains need to sort things. Put things into categories. It’s how we make sense of the world and we do it with everything from color schemes and cooking utensils to night clubs and neighbors. Most of the time it’s harmless and probably even helpful. The problem, according to Eberhardt, isn’t that we categorize. The problem is that we nurture certain beliefs and feelings about those categories and then — often unwittingly — offer deferential treatment to certain groups based on those beliefs.
E is for “essentially innocent.”
Most societies believe that children are innocent; in need of protection. In the United States, however, this protective mentality apparently only holds for white children. At least when it comes to policing. A study released in 2015 by Goff and Jackson of UCLA revealed that police are more likely to use force against Black children — especially Black boys — and often view them as “responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent.”
F is for Franz Boas and the fiction of genetics.
In the early twentieth century, most white people believed that traits like intelligence, athletic ability, empathy and work ethic were determined by a person’s race. By everyone, I mean most American academics, psychologists, professors and doctors, as well as their wives, children, golf partners, neighbors. A notable and outspoken exception to this was Franz Boas, a German-American anthropologist.
Boas believed that it was one’s culture, rather than one’s race, that determined such traits and the bulk of his work revolved around proving his theory. His series of studies on skeletal anatomy exposed the ways the human skull, in particular, is highly malleable and revealed that the shape of one’s skull changes depending on various environmental factors, like nutrition, location and overall health. Skin color, Boas discovered, doesn’t make a difference whatsoever.
Today, however, despite the work of Boas, our erroneous beliefs about the meaning of melanin linger. Collectively we still tend to believe, for example, that Black men are more dangerous than white; that they pose more of a threat; that they can’t be trusted.
G is for George Perry Floyd, Jr.
October 14, 1973-May 25, 2020.
Father. Son. Brother. Friend.
Killed by the public servants who were supposed to protect him.
H is for highly flexible.
Race, according to biological anthropologist Alan Goodman, is “a highly flexible way in which societies lump people into groups based on appearance.” We believe that these broad designations — Black, White, Asian, et cetera — carry deeper biological or cultural connections than they actually do. Many Americans, for instance, nurture the spurious suspicion that Black women are more angry than white and Black men more violent. Most of us — even most medical professionals — believe there is a firm genetic basis for these so-called “racial traits” and stereotypes but there isn’t. “There is no genetic basis for race,” Stanford anthropologist Duana Fullwiley reminds us. Race and geographic ancestry are two very different things. Turns out that genetically-speaking, where you live matters a lot. Where your ancestors lived matters a lot. Your skin color? Not so much.
What this means for someone like me is that the at-home ancestry test I took last year, which revealed that my forebears hail from northern Europe (60% English), tells me more than I realized it would. It doesn’t tell me that I’m white. I already knew that. It tells me that I’m northern European, which means that I’m more likely to have or develop things like Parkinson’s Disease, multiple sclerosis, or basal cell carcinoma. My geographic ancestry is far more important to understanding my genetics and inherited dispositions than my skin color.
I is for interactions.
“Most Black kids have their first negative interaction with the cops when they’re still playing kickball.” During a June 2020 interview, political strategist Heather McGhee pointed out that being seen as suspicious to someone who is holding a gun makes you want to shrink away from the world. It makes you shy away from government services and legal advocates and voting, away from teachers and doctors and other people in positions of authority. Your interactions with the police — especially at such a young age — can affect your interactions with everyone.
J is for job hunting.
According to NBER Faculty Research Fellows Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan, having a white-sounding name, like Emily or Brian, makes you 50% more likely to get a callback for a job than if you have a Black-sounding name like Shaniqua or Jamal — even when your resumes are identical.
K is for kinesis.
an undirected movement of a cell, organism, or part in response to an external stimulus
The things that were set in motion in 1619 when the first enslaved Africans landed in Virginia (the external stimulus) have rippled as a stone tossed in the lake that is American life (the movement). Slavery didn’t last forever, true enough. But the movement from that one moment, as documented by Pulitzer Prize winner Nikole Hannah-Jones in her groundbreaking work on the 1619 Project, meant that slavery would eventually give way to lynching, to Jim Crow, to redlining, to segregation. Fast forward fifty years and we’re still limping along with our unjust justice system, our disparities in education, and enduring segregation in our workplaces, neighborhoods, grocery stores, schools. It would be an impossible task to comprehend the countless manifestations of racism that reverberated from that first ship sailing into Point Comfort four hundred years ago.
L is for liability.
I feel liable, being white. Responsible. It’s tempting to shrug off the discomfort and dismiss it as “not my fault” because I’m not a descendant of slave owners, after all (that I know of), nor am I a policy-maker or police officer. I’m not an obstetrician who unknowingly provides better care to white mothers. I’m not a taxi-driver who unthinkingly drives by Black faces and I’m not a professor who awkwardly calls on Black students first when the syllabus rolls around to discussing My Bondage, My Freedom. This is where a lot of well-meaning white people get stuck, I think. There is guilt, yes, but because it cannot be pinned down, cannot be bound in specificity, it flies free at the slightest pressing for proof of personal transgression.
But when we do manage to push out from under the self-preserving armor of absolvement and acknowledge our place in the system, the guilt can be overwhelming. The sense of culpability and contrition can be incapacitating because we know we are part of the problem but we don’t know how to fix it. The United States has a systemic problem with race and we are part of the system.
The good news is that guilt can be transformative. That’s the hope anyway. According to Art Markman, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, it is precisely because feelings of guilt are so uncomfortable that they can lead to new behavior and lasting change. Feeling guilty can bolster our desire to repair relationships, increase our generosity and even change power dynamics. Maybe instead of fighting it, we ought to simply make room for it – discomfort and all — and allow it to alter our behavior and cultural trajectory.
M is for the myth of black criminality. It’s also for Mufasa.
A few years ago, when my son was seven, we watched The Lion King for the first time –the one from 1994 that I had watched when I was a child. About 20 minutes in, he asked me why Scar had a black mane. Why, he wondered, was Scar’s mane different from all the other lions. I had never noticed it before and I spent the remainder of the movie puzzling it out.
Why does the cold, evil, despised brother have dark fur and a black mane while Mufasa, the much-beloved and benevolent king a lighter one? When the movie ended, I attempted to explain how socializing — by which I mean the process of teaching someone how to behave and what to believe in order to fit into a given society — works. I attempted to explain that there are messages in our movies and advertisements and books and music that we may not always notice but they are teaching us things nonetheless. I attempted to explain why we’ve come to associate dark things with that which is evil, bad, and scary but even as I spoke and tried to bring it to the cognitive level of a seven-year-old, I wondered: Am I going too far? Making a mountain out of a molehill? Or is this how socializing works? Is this how myths are perpetuated and biases unconsciously formed?
N is for Nixon’s chief domestic advisor.
When President Nixon announced the “war on drugs” in 1971, he set the wheels turning for decades of disastrous social and economic policies. Here’s what Nixon’s chief domestic advisor, John Erlichman had to say in 1994:
“You want to know what this was really all about? The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
O is for OJ Simpson.
When O.J. Simpson was found not-guilty in 1995 for the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend, Ronald Goldman, I remember a sense of genuine bewilderment at some of the responses to the surprising verdict. Admittedly I was young at the time but I could not understand the rejoicing over the acquittal of a man so obviously guilty.
I remember watching a newscast after the verdict with two Black women who said something in an interview along the lines of, “Oh yeah, we know he’s guilty. We know he’s guilty. But we are so happy right now! We are so happy. This is such a good day for Black people.”
O.J. Simpson’s was the “trial of the century” because it was about so much more than O.J.Simpson. It was about more than one man’s guilt for a one particular crime. It was about decades — centuries — of the mistreatment of Black people. It was about trial after trial after trial of white men being acquitted for murdering Black victims. It was about conviction after conviction after conviction of Black men and women by all-white juries and the staggering number of Black people wrongly incarcerated for crimes they did not commit.
It was about something much bigger than whether or not this one man was guilty of this one thing. Was it the perfect answer? No. Was it justice? No. Was Simpson guilty? Are there flaws in the system? Undoubtedly. But after seeing an untold number of guilty white defendants set free when they were so obviously guilty of pillaging a Black life (see Henry Marrow, Emmet Till, Willie Earle), it was a victory on one particular level for a long-oppressed and terrorized people.
P is for The Prejudice Lab.
The Prejudice Lab is run by psychologist Patricia Devine. The lab offers workshops for schools and businesses that promise to show people their biases. Devine’s research suggests that even when a person doesn’t believe a racial stereotype is true, it can still influence their behavior and sometimes — often — they might not even know it. Devine calls this“unintentional bias” and with work, she says, it can be overcome.
How effective are the efforts of Devine and her associates? Quite. Several weeks after training with The Prejudice Lab, hundreds of undergraduate students were questioned and the ones who received the training noticed more bias than the students who did not. They were also more likely to label the bias they perceived as wrong. Two years later, the students who had taken part in the program were more likely to speak out against racial bias than those who didn’t.
Q is for quality healthcare.
Or lack thereof. The United States has the highest maternal mortality rates in the developed world and Black women are more than 3x more likely to die during childbirth or from childbirth complications than white women. To understand this information we have to look upstream to general healthcare. Because even when accounting for comorbidities, income, neighborhood and insurance — all of which are typically cited when attempting to explain such disparities — Black people still receive lower quality healthcare than whites and are less likely to receive preventative treatments. This lack in care and prevention trickles downriver to a myriad of health problems, including pregnancy and childbirth complications.
R is for reckoning.
In his 2012 TED Talk on injustice in America, Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, said this about America’s relationship to slavery and segregation: “We don’t understand what it means to have done what we did.” In Germany, a multitude of museums and memorials stand throughout the country as monuments for remembering the Holocaust and Nazi-era Germany. Nearly every student in the country will visit one of them as part of the nation’s mandatory curriculum for all students. It’s a form of collective reckoning for the German people. More recently there have been over 30,000 brass plaques and bricks installed throughout the country, inspired by the work of Guenther Demnig, that serve as miniature memorials commemorating the specific places where Jewish people were forced from their homes. The reckoning continues. There are other countries attempting to do similar work, like Rwanda and South Africa, where there are continued efforts to remember the past and repair where possible.
The United States, however, has made no such effort. The Southern Poverty Law Center discovered in 2018 that very few American high-school students even know that slavery was the cause of the Civil War. And of the 35,000 museums in the United States, fewer than ten are devoted to slavery.
S is for socializing.
Again, socializing here refers to the ways that we, as a society, are conditioned to believe the things we believe — typically in ways that are subtle, indirect, insidious.
← This is an image that was used to illustrate an article about the connections between mass shootings and domestic violence in the New York Times in 2015.
Here’s what I see:
1. A woman in distress. She is white.
2. A man coercing her. Strangling her. Pinning her arm. Taking her by force.
I suppose it could be argued that the woman’s gray arms and the mildly Asian connotations of her facial features could indicate that she is all races at once; that she is every woman. But the overall effect is that her skin is light and it’s hard to argue that the man is anything but black. Even if we give the artist the benefit of the doubt and assume the color of the perpetrator wasn’t intended to signify anything about skin at all but rather the horrors of domestic violence, the effect is still the same. This is what it tells us, whether we actively notice it or not:
White = Innocent & Good
Black = Violent, Scary, Bad
Again, am I splitting hairs? Maybe. It’s just one image but all my months and years of reading my way to a reckoning with my own whiteness tells me that this narrative has been playing out in every conceivable space and place in our country for centuries. It’s not just one image. It’s in our movies, our magazines, our television, our books, our songs, our billboards. Advertisers rely on what is known as the repetition principle. The repetition principle tells us that if something happens often enough, we will eventually be persuaded to believe it. It’s the reason we all wonder if we should consider GEICO the next time we need to renew our car insurance. Most of us despise that goofy gecko but by sheer repetition over the last twenty years it has been seared into the American psyche that we, too, might save 15% or more on our car insurance by switching. In the same way, we have been compounding and retelling the story of Black criminality in American culture in both big and small ways for generations so I suspect that the New York Times image was but a minuscule top-off in an already over-brimming tank.
T is for Tamir Rice.
I know that most of us are already familiar with the story of Tamir Rice. I know that it will be tempting to skim this section. But my son turned twelve last fall and I feel compelled to tell Tamir’s story one more time. If you will, read it as though you’ve never heard it before. Read it and hold a twelve-year-old child that you know in your mind’s eye.
Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was at a playground with his sister in Cleveland, Ohio on November 22, 2014. School was out for the day. He was probably bored. Videos show him walking back and forth on the sidewalk near a gazebo in the park. Sometimes he pulls out his toy gun and points it in front of him. Sometimes he kicks at the snow on the ground. Sometimes he wanders over to the gazebo and sits at one of the tables that is tucked underneath.
In another part of the park someone sees him with the gun and calls the police. “It’s probably a fake,” the caller tells the dispatcher twice. But less than ten minutes later, two officers careen across the lawn in a squad car and Officer Timothy Loehmann shoots Tamir before the car even comes to a complete stop.
Videos reveal that when the officers pulled up to the gazebo, Tamir had his toy gun tucked into his pants, under his shirt and out of sight. After the shooting, the officers left him alone on the concrete and when his sister, two years older than Tamir, ran to where he had fallen, the officers tackled her to the ground, handcuffed her and put her in the squad car. Tamir died the next day.
U is for the USDA.
A hundred years ago nearly one million Black Americans farmed land in the United States. Today Black farmers own less than one percent of America’s farmland and there are fewer than fifty thousand of them left. Where have all the Black farmers gone?
As recently reported by Summer Sewell in The Guardian, a farmer by the name of John Boyd, Jr. — along with 400 other Black farmers — sued the United States Department of Agriculture in 1997 on claims of sustained discrimination, loan denial and lack of support. They were awarded $1 billion and, as a result, 16,000 Black farmers received checks for $50,000. Following the famous settlement, more than 80,000 additional Black farmers came forward with further claims of their own mistreatment. In 2010, again thanks to the work of John Boyd, they were awarded $1.25 billion. For many, though, it was too little, too late. They had already lost their farms.
Even now, Sewell says, after Boyd’s endless efforts for Black farmers in America, he still sends his white father-in-law to sell his soybeans. When he sells them himself, he gets docked for moisture or debris in his bushels. When his white father-in-law sells them, all he gets is praise.
V is for the voyeuristic male gaze.
Black women have long been the focus and the fetish of white men. White slave owners regularly raped and had sexual relationships with their Black female slaves. They justified their behavior by citing and espousing the widely held belief that Black women were “hyper-sexual.”
Sarah Baartman was a Black woman from South Africa who was put on display as an oddity and curiosity in Europe during the early 1800s. She was renowned for her pejoratively perceived overly large backside. After a short and, by all accounts, miserable life, which included rape and the repeated “scientific” study and painting of her body which was compared to orangutans and monkeys, she died a few years shy of her 30th birthday. In death, her body was dissected, broken into parts, and put on display at the Museum d’ Histoire Naturelle in France. Her body faced away from museum-goers, emphasizing her steatopygia (accumulation of fat on the buttocks), reinforcing it as the chief area of interest in her body. The display of Sarah Baartman is believed to be the origin of the Black female body stereotype — a stereotype that made its way across the Atlantic ocean and animates the white American imagination to this day.
W is for the wealth gap.
The total net worth of white people in America is roughly 2.5 times that of Black. Why do white people have more money? Are they just better at pulling themselves up by the bootstraps? Hardly. All of us — white and Black both — can trace 50-80% of our wealth accumulation to the generations that came before us, to our parents and grandparents and their parents before them. “It takes money to make money,” NYU sociologist Dalton Conley explains. “Part of the reason that there’s this enormous gap is because whites have long had higher wages and wealth to pass on from generation to generation.”
In 2010, 71% of whites owned their own home compared to 45% of Blacks. If we follow Conley’s logic, we should look further back, to the generations that came before the homeowners of the early aughts. At the end of World War II, the government gave low-interest loans to returning veterans, like my grandfather and other white men by way of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, commonly known as the G.I. Bill. But Black veterans (and other minorities) were excluded from taking part.
My husband and I can trace the purchase of our home in 2012 to the wealth and homeownership of our grandparents because we used money that we inherited from both sides of our white families to help us with our down payment. We could not have bought our house without the money gifted from our grandparents when they died. Our Black friends, on the other hand, don’t necessarily have those generations of wealth and home ownership to draw on because their ancestors were excluded from that post-war leg up. So even when all things seem equal — education level, job status, work ethic — nothing is equal.
X is for Ibram Xolani Kendi.
America believes that Black neighborhoods are dangerous neighborhoods. We believe this because we think that Black people are ontologically violent. That the color of their skin somehow predisposes them to violent behavior. But as Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Antiracist, points out, if this were true — if Black people are violent simply by virtue of being Black, — “then all Black neighborhoods would have the same levels of violent crime.” But they don’t. Higher income Black neighborhoods don’t have the same levels of violent crime as impoverished ones. It turns out that it’s poverty, not Blackness, that strides in sync with violence.
Y is for young Black women.
In a study presented in 2019, which adjusted for marital status, age, annual income and educational attainment, the risk of hypertension for Black women, aged 18 to 35, was 74% higher than for white women. When the numbers were further adjusted to include smoking, drinking, health insurance, history of stroke and diabetes, as well as self-rated health status, Black women were still twice as likely as white women to have hypertension.
Some experts suggest that the study does not account for body mass index or use of contraception, which may well be significant, I don’t know. But as with maternal mortality rates, I think we better look upstream before we move on to things like birth control and body mass. Because it’s hard to believe that the burdens of simply being a Black woman don’t play at least some role in the terrifyingly high rates of hypertension — burdens like your book club being kicked off a wine tour train in Napa because the other passengers thought you were laughing too loud (see The Sistahs on the Reading Edge); or having a white police officer pin you to the ground in your bathing suit when you’re fifteen-years-old because a neighbor thought your pool party got a little too rowdy (see Dejerria Becton); or your 17-year-old son being shot by a middle-aged white man who thought the music in his car was just a little too loud at the gas station (see Lucy McBath).
Z is for zeitgeist.
Combing through all of these statistics and probing America’s profound entrenchment in systems of injustice, I’m tempted to think that the zeitgeist is one of increasing racial resentment, violence, tension. During the writing of this essay the nation watched a white man fatally kneel on the neck of a Black man and today, as I continue to type, protests are pushing into their 36th week. But despite all current evidence to the contrary, studies show that between 2007 and 2016 the rates of both implicit and explicit race-related bias decreased. I know I should take this as a good sign, and I do, but prejudices persist — some recognized, some not — and they profoundly impact American social policies and schooling and policing and healthcare and even movies and music and books and on and on and on. Change is slow, sometimes imperceptible, but the needle is moving, even if we can’t calculate the curve or complete the figures. Who knows, maybe someday Americans will look back and say that this was the moment; this was when we woke up; this was when we felt the irrevocable tilt of the earth beneath our feet and we marched and we marched and we marched and the moral arc really did start to bend toward justice.
Image: “Black Lives Matter” by John Lucia, licensed under CC 2.0.
- An American Alphabet* - January 5, 2021