Egg shells are never a very solid foundation on which to have a discussion. Honesty is the quickest and surest way to a more fair society. But, in order to be honest, people have to feel able to speak freely. Just the opposite is going on right now.
The pattern has become all too familiar. Someone says something innocuous. Next, somebody charges that the innocuous comment is actually horribly racist or sexist. The poor subject of the charge begs for forgiveness, never mind they’re not quite sure just exactly what they said that was wrong in the first place. The request for forgiveness is summarily denied. Sensitivity training is ordered up. Consultants are hired.
That, by now somewhat tired, scenario played out yet again in Madison last week. The offender this time was Denise DeMarb, by all accounts a fine alder when she served in that role until recently, and a good human being. DeMarb made the mistake of speaking up at meeting of the city’s Sustainable Madison Committee. Here’s her offending remark as reported in the Cap Times:
“God bless George Floyd.” Then she went on to say how his death, “awoke white people to racism in this country.”
That’s it. That’s what she said.
In reaction to those comments, two of her colleagues on the committee, Matthew Braunginn and Nada Elmikashfi, resigned in protest and called for DeMarb and other members to resign their seats as well due to their insensitivity. But they did not confront DeMarb or others at the meeting itself.
“The very idea George Floyd’s death somehow shook white people awake is a lie in itself,” they wrote in their resignation email. “It also dehumanizes him, it makes him a martyr for white people to become better, to drop the project of whiteness.”
Well, no, DeMarb’s statement didn’t do any of that. She was simply stating the fact that Floyd’s gruesome murder at the hands of Minneapolis police, and caught on camera, served to elevate the issue of unfair treatment of Blacks (in a lot of realms) among many people who hadn’t been concerned enough about it beforehand. There was nothing at all wrong with what she said.
And it didn’t stop there. Braunginn and Elmikashfi were also offended by committee member Lance Green. Again according to the Cap Times story, the duo claimed that Green, “equated being poor and being Black by saying making energy-efficient homes more accessible to low-income people is anti-racist work.”
It’s clear here again that Green was both well-intentioned and correct. There is, unfortunately, a high correlation between being Black and poor. We should want to change that, not deny its existence, right?
Braunginn went on to make the curious comment that he was too “exhausted” by his own anti-racist work to have even tried to bring this up with DeMarb or Green at the meeting or to remain on the committee at all. He did summon the strength to write his resignation letter.
Now, if you’re like me, you’re scratching your head, parsing over DeMarb’s and Green’s words, trying to understand how statements that were so obviously true and made by people who were so clearly well-meaning could prompt such outrage.
The clear answer for sensible people is that there was nothing at all wrong with what they said. And, seriously folks, if we’re going to make any more progress on issues of race we need to be more willing to accept people’s good intentions.
Unfortunately, DeMarb did what too many people do in these situations. She apologized. “I understand that my words caused harm and had a horrible, negative impact regardless of my intention,” DeMarb said. “I’m committed to being an antiracist and to be an ally and this is a huge example of the work that I’ve yet to do.”
No, her words, which were both sensitive and true, did not cause harm to anyone who wasn’t eager to be find fault. They had no horrible or negative impact. And her intention matters a great deal.
And Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway just compounded the error. In response to the resignations she said the incident, “pointed out that we have work to do in the city to live up to our anti-racist ideals.”
No, mayor. It pointed out that this kind of thing is getting us nowhere. About 90% of Madisonians look at a story like this, throw up their hands, and decide they’re just not going to say anything at all. Except among their closest of friends, they’re just going to avoid the topic altogether because they don’t want to step on a landmine. They, like Braunginn, are just exhausted by it all.
And, as a result, who does that leave conversations about race to? It leaves them to the hyper-woke and to outspoken racists. And they’ll just scream at each other across their picket lines, either literally or metaphorically. Most people, who acknowledge that systemic racism exists but think that it doesn’t explain 100% of every problem, well, they just switch channels. They don’t want to get caught in the crossfire.
Most of us are neither racists nor oppressors. We’re fundamentally fair-minded people who want to see everyone treated with dignity and respect. We don’t want anyone to be discriminated against based on their skin color, gender or anything else that isn’t relevant.
Let’s just all recommit ourselves to those ideas; stop accusing, on the one hand, or apologizing, on the other. Maybe then we can make some progress.