CLAY JENKINSON: The Future In Context — Reflections On A Year Of Reading About Race In America

Since I woke up a little after the killing of George Floyd on May 20, 2020, I have done a good deal of what I regard as required reading about race in America. I started with Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.” Then I read Carol Anderson’s White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide.” I read The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation.” And most recently, I read Robert Jones’ White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity.” Whew. I recommend them all, but if you only have time for one, read White Rage.

What have I learned? First and foremost, though I am a well-educated person, I didn’t know anything. My ignorance was staggering. And a good deal of it was willful ignorance. What did I know about Reconstruction after the Civil War? What did I know about the Black Codes or Jim Crow laws? Of course, I am still ignorant, but thankfully less so than I was two years ago. How did I go through so much of my life on what amounts to a white cultural track? The literature on the different experiences of Black and white Americans is large and growing, and much of it has been written for white people — with the purpose of patiently easing us into a more enlightened way of thinking about race in the United States.

Talking About Race

Second, DiAngelo is right: White people have a really hard time talking about racism in the abstract and our own racism in particular. We like to think of ourselves as enlightened, decent and colorblind. And we recoil in indignation and high dudgeon when we are told we are racist, no matter how sweetly. In any conversation on this topic, you are sure to hear one or more people say, “I don’t have a racist bone in my body,” which is an essentially meaningless statement. It’s not so much about what you consciously think or say about Black people, or Native Americans, or Hispanics, or the LGBTQ community; it’s about deeply embedded patterns of mind that are difficult to recognize and even more difficult to confront.

Third, most white Americans are not overtly racist in the George Wallace and Strom Thurmond mold, their “lips dripping” (as Martin Luther King Jr. put it) with ugliness and hate, and they genuinely do not think of themselves (ourselves) as racist, but that doesn’t mean they (we) aren’t. That’s the hardest concept to come to terms with: that every American (of every ethnicity) is encoded from birth with cultural constructs — assumptions, presuppositions, characterizations, notions, stereotypes, descriptors — that perpetuate white supremacy, “even if you never consciously think of white people as superior.” And our most basic institutions — education, religion, police, health care, the court system, social welfare, and our jails and prisons — are unconsciously steeped in what is called structural or systemic racism. In other words, our basic institutions favor white people, in part because they were designed by white people for white people and everyone else has been invited or allowed in, so long as they don’t make any fuss about it.

The Time Is Overdue

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. (Flickr/Alan Kotok)

Fourth, to cite the Rev. King again, “Now is the time.” The George Floyd killing and its extraordinary aftermath in America (and across the world) have given us the best chance in our time to wrestle America’s race problem to the ground. These opportunities don’t come around very often. We can do this. It is not too big for us. If we choose to duck this opportunity (and we might), we will bear a heavy burden in the annals of history, because it is pretty late in the game to repudiate Jefferson’s great statement, “that all men are created equal and they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.”

As I write these words, I know that some of my readers will reject what I am saying. They will deny that America is, in 2021, fertile ground for racism. They will not only deny that they are capable of racism but strenuously dispute the very concept of structural or systemic racism. They will acknowledge the legacy of slavery and racial discrimination in American history, but argue, in effect, that “that was then and this is now,” or declare that whatever was true of white America in 1890 or even 1957 does not make them complicit because their forebears came directly from Germany or Ireland or Norway to take up homesteads in Iowa or Nebraska and never owned a slave, perhaps never met an African American. They will say that the playing field is now more or less level and that the future success of minority communities will depend on how well they pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. (All of these arguments, or dodges, are covered in chapter one of DiAngelo’s “White Fragility.”) They are important challenges to wrestle with alone and in community, but they are an argument for the status quo, and every cultural marker reminds us that it is too late for the status quo.

How Racism Works In America

Let’s just look at a few examples of how racial bias works in America.

After the Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the national Capitol by angry supporters, who refused to believe that Donald Trump had lost the 2020 election, and who wanted to prevent the certification of the election by the U.S. Congress, President-elect Biden asked the American people to imagine how things might have been different if it had been hundreds of African Americans who stormed the Capitol. “You can’t tell me that if it had been a group of Black Lives Matter protesters yesterday they wouldn’t have been treated very differently than the mob of thugs that stormed the Capitol. We all know that is true. And it is totally unacceptable.”

Who can refute this argument? It’s hard to imagine Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley raising his fist in solidarity as hundreds of Black people stormed the Capitol, pummeled the Capitol Police and broke into the House and Senate chambers; or Sen. Ted Cruz arguing that they were just exercising their First Amendment rights when they shattered glass, broke furniture, stole laptop computers, sat for selfies in Nancy Pelosi’s office chair, assaulted Capitol police and “maced” them with bear spray and defecated on the marble floors of the building where America’s public business is conducted. Had the rioters been Black, it’s hard to imagine Rep. Andrew Clyde of Georgia declaring that the whole thing seemed like a “normal tourist visit.”

America’s Daughter And The Other “Others”

Missing person flyer for Gabby Petito.
Missing person flyer for Gabby Petito.

Or take the national outpouring of grief for Gabby Petito (22), who first disappeared and was then murdered in late August in northwestern Wyoming near Grand Teton National Park. Every news network sent teams of reporters, producers and videographers to every significant place on Gabby’s cross-country itinerary, and to the North Port, Fla., home of Gabby’s boyfriend, Brian Laundrie, and his parents. CNN produced an hourlong documentary on her disappearance and death. Some people on social media called Gabby “America’s daughter.”

Why did the Gabby Petito story go viral? Well, she was young, bubbly, attractive, adventurous and innocent, posting cheery you-are-there video snippets on her social media accounts and posing for photographs in all the usual ways in places like Arches National Park.

And she was white.

A white girl goes missing on a cross-country vacation and she gets greater national attention than a SpaceX launch. And yet in that same Wyoming where Petito’s body was found on Sept. 19, 2021, more than 700 Native Americans, mostly women and girls, have disappeared in the decade between 2010 and 2020, according to a report by Wyoming’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Task Force. Where was Anderson Cooper then? Not one of these stories got national attention. Google Gabby Petito and you will find a dozen intricate timelines of the last months and days of her life, as if we were collectively following the escape route of John Wilkes Booth in 1865 or the road to the Little Bighorn in 1876.

Alex Piquero, a criminology professor at Monash University and sociology professor at the University of Miami said, “There are a lot of women of color, and especially immigrants, this happens to all the time, and we never hear about it.” What if Gabby had been Black, or Latino, or Native American? Would that story have caused the entire national media establishment to hurl production teams into the outback of Wyoming, with CNN reporter Randi Kaye on location trying to determine if Brian and Gabby parked their van at this primitive turnoff in the national forest or on a nearly identical spot a few hundred yards down the road? Tens of thousands of young people disappear every year. Very few, as USA Today reporter Suzette Hackney put it, “receive the national spotlight that seems reserved for white women and white girls.”

Northern Arapaho missing persons advocate Lynnette Grey Bull said, “It’s kind of heart-wrenching, when we look at a white woman who goes missing and is able to get so much immediate attention. It should be the same, if an African American person goes missing, or a Hispanic person goes missing, a Native American … we should have the same type of equal efforts that are being done in these cases.” Maybe if she had been Miss Indian America she might have received some coverage or if she were an African American Olympic gold medalist.

Our Disquieting Moment

Be it resolved: “The American Dream is at the Expense of the American Negro”— a 1965 debate between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley still resonates today.

This is all deeply disquieting. I would not have been capable of seeing the race differential in these stories had I not done the hard, and not always pleasant, reading that is now available to all Americans. We have to hope that James Baldwin was wrong in 1968 when he wrote, “I will flatly say that the bulk of this country’s white population impresses me … as being beyond any conceivable hope of moral rehabilitation. They have been white, if I may so put it, too long; they have been married to the lie of white supremacy too long.”

You can hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, The Thomas Jefferson Hour,” and the new Governing podcast, Listening to America.” Clay’s new book, The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota, is available through AmazonBarnes and Noble and your local independent book seller.

Clay welcomes — actively solicits even — your comments and critiques of his essays, interviews and reviews. You can reach him directly by writing cjenkinson@governing.com or tweeting @ClayJenkinson.

2 thoughts on “CLAY JENKINSON: The Future In Context — Reflections On A Year Of Reading About Race In America”

  • Francine Podenski November 14, 2021 at 12:49 pm

    Thanks for this essay. Very good points made.
    Another book you might find worthwhile on the subject of racism is “Woke Racism: How A New Religion Has Betrayed Black America” by John McWhorter.

  • Julie Donley June 25, 2022 at 8:25 pm

    So interesting to see your name in print Clay. Whenever I do, I always tell my mother , Marion Donley, that I have come across you again. She is forever reminded of your mother.


Leave a Reply