Racism is a highly-charged emotional issue in this country. Rightly so. But I find it helpful to step back from the emotions every now and then to take a rational pragmatic look at where we are and what our goals should be going forward.
In order to do that, its important to recognize the two broad categories of racism: personal and systemic. Personal racism includes both the covert messages we've all internalized as a result of living in a white supremacist culture as well as overtly racist words/actions. Personal racism is basically a white-people's problem as my friend Robinswing articulated a while ago when she said "We Can't Fix Ya!" Ending personal racism is an individual journey.
I can't speak for anyone else, but that journey for me was initiated and has been maintained by some very patient people of color in my life. I have tried my best on this blog platform to pass those lessons on to the few people who read here. White people are "my people," and its important to me that we eventually get it.
But the truth is, people of color can walk away from personal racism. Unless they care individually or collectively about our opinions, they can chose to ignore us. Even the racist rantings of a Sterling or Bundy or Robertson (Duck Dynasty) are meaningless unless we give them weight.
Ultimately it is systemic racism that impacts people of color directly. It happens when racism becomes embedded, both overtly and covertly, in institutional patterns and practices. Both the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement were successful in ending different forms of systemic racism: slavery and legal segregation. But those patterns and practices have been embedded in our systems of education, health care, housing, employment, immigration and criminal justice.
While personal and systemic racism are certainly intertwined, I believe that the former is a slow process of personal transformation. No one can control when/if another person is open to that process. We can only seize the moments that are presented to us.
But if, as Rev. William Barber has articulated, we are in the midst of a Third Reconstruction, I think it behooves us to focus on further eradication of systemic racism. Others may disagree, but I think the most pressing areas today are in our education, immigration and criminal justice systems.
When viewed in this light, our "talk" about racism should be focused on gaining allies to do the work of dismantling systemic racism (you can see that on display with Rev. Barber's Moral Mondays Movement). This is where the current work of criminal justice reform presents a fascinating opportunity. Conservatives have joined the fight - not to rid the system of racism - but to reduce government spending. There are similar alliances developing with big business on the issues of education and immigration.
Now...if you've been paying attention, you might have seen how President Obama is providing leadership on these issues. His administration is busy advocating for universal pre-K, ending the school-to-prison pipeline, opening up the opportunity for a college education to more young people, passing comprehensive immigration reform, cracking down on police brutality, initiating a clemency initiative, and being Smart on Crime.
When the President's critics - like Michael Eric Dyson - say he needs to step up, use the bully pulpit and provide leadership, what they mean is that he should talk about racism. That is aimed at tackling the personal. For better or worse, this President has decided to focus on the systemic.