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Confronting Racism Is Uncomfortable And That’s Okay

by MITCH LANDRIEU

I have said many times that racism is this nation’s most traumatic issue. Part of that stems from our instincts to run away from tough fights, to protect ourselves from vulnerability. It is much easier to talk about the virtues of diversity and inclusion. But diversity isn’t our problem–we have a lot of that in America, and it’s for the better. Racism is our problem, most specifically institutional racism.

Our collective avoidance creates a toxic situation, where each individual racist act, each system action, each crisis compounds. Centuries of oppression mixed with dueling current tragedies–the tragically disproportionate impact the coronavirus has had on Black Americans laid on top of watching police kneel on the neck of George Floyd for over eight minutes–and we get a boiling point. What else would anyone expect?

These centuries old wounds are still raw because they never healed right in the first place. This latest jolt seems to have woken the consciousness of white America in a way past police brutality or even the Mother Emanuel AME killings did not. Americans of all races, ages, and religions are joining together to march in protest. Corporate leaders and major brands are taking a stand, showing that there must be an economic case for advocating for racial justice. Books about tackling racism are topping bestseller lists. Congress is talking about doing something at all. NASCAR, yes NASCAR, is banning the display of Confederate battle flags at races.

I’ve considered myself an ally my whole adult life and have been an active part of these fights but never have the stakes felt as high nor real progress as close as they do today. Progress is made one voice, one person, one vote at a time. And so I have hope.  I also have hope because many people seem to be looking deeper within themselves, their values and actions in this time.

My passion for work on race and helping those oppressed is rooted in my Catholic faith. I was raised by great Jesuits in New Orleans, including my dad who was shaped by movement leaders like Father Louis J. Twomey. But it’s words from my mentor, Father Harry Tompson, that stick with me right now. He said to go where you can do the most good for most people in the shortest amount of time, to run to the fire and not be afraid to fail.  He also educated me on the power of “we” and the awesomeness of “responsibility.” I remember him saying you have a responsibility, even if you don’t want to do something, even if you’re not at fault. I’ve tried to live my entire life, particularly on the complicated issue of race, with these lessons in mind.

To get to “the other side” of racism requires more than learning and words, it requires action. This is where we’ve fallen short in the past.

Action can start with having honest and fact-based conversations about the depth of the challenges presented by racism and how we as white people have and continue to contribute to those challenges. Part of that action can be having the courage to have tough conversations at home and with family and friends, your book club, your kids. We can all be more courageous in responding to acts of racial discrimination. This requires discomfort and being willing to sit in it. It’s hard. That’s what is required to change hearts and minds.

In our work traveling the south, having honest conversations about race and class was overwhelmingly cited as a solution to many of the issues communities face. Yet these conversations about race and class rarely take place. Too many withdraw from conversations around the topic and feel alienated by unfamiliar language or terms used to discuss issues of race and inequality (e.g., “white privilege”). As so many have explained to me over the years, this “white privilege” we talk about doesn’t mean your life hasn’t been hard; it means that your skin color has not made it harder. Even though I am working on issues of race every day, I too find myself struggling with new lingo and shifts in language and accountability. But I know that moving through these conversations with vulnerability, and not with our defense mechanism up, is necessary. It may get uncomfortable. That’s really the point. Isn’t that what our faith calls us to, the uncomfortable places to see each other the way God sees us?

Conversation must then lead to action. So we all must dive more deeply into the public policy debates we’re in now. There are major disparities in wealth, health, education, housing, and criminal justice to start. Pick one you really care about. There’s history to uncover and rules, regulations, and policies that need re-iminaging.   As we found in our Divided by Design work, the sheer size and scope of institutional racism scares people away from tackling it. My team at E Pluribus Unum took a first crack at some of the specific actions the federal, state and local government can do to create more equitable communities. Read up on areas that you care about and then donate or engage online with organizations in your local community who are working to address these disparities.

For many of us, our faith shapes our values, and those values that call for the equitable treatment of all people shows up in the way we vote. Support candidates that put equity at the forefront. Do deeper research on candidates’ positions on making bold, systemic reforms. Challenge candidates you support to go farther. Help elect people who will muster the courage that is necessary to finally heal our past wounds.

The events of the past weeks and months have laid bare the divisions we seek to heal and the consequences of systemic racism we seek to correct at E Pluribus Unum. As we’ve seen in the last few months, from the disproportionate impact of COVID to the murder of George Floyd, simply wanting not to be racist is not enough. We have to act in order to heal. Healing demands uncomfortability. And that’s okay. We can’t go over, under or around the issue of race anymore. We have to go through it.

This essay was featured in the June 14th edition of The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper inspires hearts and minds to rise above the noise. To get The Sunday Paper delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.

MITCH LANDRIEU

Mitch Landrieu, who served as Louisiana’s Lieutenant Governor from 2004 to 2010 and mayor of New Orleans from 2010 to 2018, founded E Pluribus Unum to help break down barriers across race and class in the South. He is the author of In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History.

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