There may be a certain joy in tracking down and exposing the likes of Aaron Schlossberg and Jennifer Schulte, but we should take little pride in the glee of calling out racists and then going home. This fun little tactic has very little strategic value in the war against racism.
Just the opposite, in fact.
We’re in a racist fix today in part because, starting in the 1960s, we drove racism underground by our relentless attacks on its expression. But we did not stop it, for we did not address the root. As recent events have shown, we didn’t even contain it for, thanks to Trump, it has poked through the dirt as strong as it ever was.
Shaming people for racist opinions does not stop racism.
We should have learned that long ago, but we haven’t.
Thanks to our willingness to jump to accusations of racism, and the general feeling that even a simple accusation counts as the final word on the subject (it’s impossible to argue “No, I’m not a racist”), we have no path to reconciliation, no means of changing people whose racist feelings may already be buried, exploding out (it is true) at inopportune moments for them, but buried nonetheless.
Right now, there is no means for moving forward with Schlossberg or Schulte or anyone else who acts on their racist impulses. Their only options are complete resistance or a complete mea culpa. Fight or surrender. No discussion that may allow them to examine themselves and their actions can now happen—and no surrender in a coercive situation such as either of these characters is now in will be honest (how many Confederate soldiers changed their beliefs after Appomattox? Given today’s adoration of the defeated south, I’d say very few).
The problems of racism are more complex than anything that can be wiped out by mob response. Most likely, Schlossberg and Schulte are even now retreating to ‘their own kind,’ to people who will support them and excuse them. This sort of action only reinforces racial divisions.
Not only that, but there are now people, like those at Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, who are trying to turn the tables, distracting us from discussions of racism into discussions of responsibility for the commotions. In a ‘both sides’ argument, FAIR claims that those who call out racist acts should be identified by media coverage as readily as those committing the racist acts. Writing for FAIR, Miranda C. Spencer says, “It seems the media are substituting the news judgment of the police, Starbucks and two universities [for their own] rather than retaining journalistic independence, allowing institutional protocols to limit coverage.”
Such attempts to change the subject (and, quite frankly, to intimidate those who might call out racism into silence while hiding behind the dubious claim that the names of those who point out the racism are legitimate parts of the story) aside, there is a real problem with ganging up on Schlossberg, Schulte and any others who engage is reprehensible racist behavior. Not only does it drive their attitudes back underground (where they cannot be discovered and countered) but it generally only solidifies racist feelings in them and in those who secretly feel they were right—and there are millions of those in America.
When we see racism, we need to call it out. But we do not then need to try to destroy the racist. What we should be doing is engaging them, trying to change them. They may try to resist such attempts but, when faced with what has been happening, particularly to Schlossberg, they may be grateful for a way out that does not push them into the fight-or-surrender dichotomy.
The model put forward by Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, using the principles of restorative justice, might be useful in these cases. The communities and families of Schlossberg and Schulte could be approached by locally constituted anti-racism panels with the simple and straightforward request, “Let’s talk.” A request with no preconditions. There might be resistance to this but, given time and care, the approach would probably lead to an opening of dialogue and perhaps to full-fledged discussions that could conceivably lead to changes in attitude.
Idealistic? Yes. But if we want to reduce racism in the United States, we have to think strategically and not simply in ways that pander to our own immediate angers. We have to look to our own best and not just to the worst of others. Yes, it’s fun to see racists brought down a peg or two, but that does little to destroy racism—as we should have learned, given the lack of progress over the last half century.
The result of what we’ve been doing for the past several generations? A Racist-in-Chief instead of a President.
Idealistic or not, if we don’t develop a positive strategy and change our tactics, we’re just going to get more of the same.
Let’s do what we must; let’s learn to talk and not just attack.