A Better Conversation on Race

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:

Former Madison alder Deinse DeMarb said a perfectly sensible thing at a recent committee meeting. She’s paying the price for it now.

“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.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

10 thoughts on “A Better Conversation on Race

  1. Accusations of this type are, for sure, counterproductive when it comes to equity efforts.

    But what gets me most is the wanton personal cruelty. Here are a couple of civic-minded people, DeMarb and Green, taking time out of their undoubtedly busy lives to make things better for their fellow Madisonians. Think how it must feel to try so hard to do good and then be publicly denounced as racially insensitive – for expressing racial sensitivity! Among Madison progressives, ‘racially insensitive’ is surely the most hurtful of insults.

    Being cloaked in a righteous cause doesn’t mean you can treat people however you please.


    1. Michael C. wrote, “Being cloaked in a righteous cause…”

      What if that “righteous cause” is unsupported by facts and appears to be nothing but innuendo based propaganda? Unfortunately many of these kinds of righteous causes grow out of false information like “hands up don’t shoot”, police officers are trained to kill black kids, all white are racists, etc, etc.

      Beware when any group is claiming their cause is a righteous cause, the will justify unethical, illegal and immoral tactics in an ends justifies the means scorched earth campaign.


  2. The only answer is to vote out Progressive Dane wherever it rears its ugly head. That means voting against Nikki Conklin and for Paul Skidmore, against Rebecca Kemble and for Charles Myadze, against Brandi Grayson and for Sheri Carter on April 6.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Dave wrote, “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.”

    I’m a reasonably open minded guy and no one has effectively proven to me that systemic racism actually exists and I’ve literally asked on Facebook, Quora, and across the web and now I’m going to ask here.

    Here’s the question. Please use critical thinking and facts not your gut emotions to answer the question.

    If you are one of the people that claims that systemic anti-black racism exists in the United States please do me a favor and provide evidence other than superficial innuendo and accusations to prove that systemic anti-black racism actually exists. If you are not one of the ones that claim systemic racism exists, please don’t comment I’m truly not looking for speculation or contradictory information.

    Here is the kind of evidence/proof/etc that I’m looking for.

    1. To prove that systemic racism exists there must first be evidence to show that the racism they claim exists actually exists. Accusations and innuendo are not proof of racism. Facts, nothing but the facts will do.

    2. If you can prove that the racism you claim exists in number one then you must provide evidence that the racism has a verifiable pattern showing that it’s systemic. Accusations and innuendo are not proof of systemic racism. Facts, nothing but the facts will do.

    Here is your chance to publicly support your opinion. If you don’t want to do it publicly then please send me a personal message. It’s the individual responsibility of the individuals making the claim to support the claim, it’s not the responsibility of others to prove the claim is false.

    “We the People” Really Want To Know


    1. Steve, You can look at all kinds of data from wage differentials to police stops to show that people of color are treated differently. And, unless you’re willing to say that that’s all because of personal behavior, then you have to concede that at least some of that is accounted for by systemic issues. My disagreement with the left is that they seem to want to say that everything is systemic. I think it’s more complicated than that. Dave


      1. Dave,
        Systemic has a specific definition, “relating to a system, especially as opposed to a particular part”

        The accusations of systemic racism, as I’ve come to understand them, are two fold;

        There is specific systemic anti-black racism intentionally built into our justice system that starts at policing across the United States that unfairly targets black people for arrest and paints black people as targets for police brutality including murder and this anti-black racism goes all the way up to the top levels of the justice system that unfairly convicts and incarnates black people that happen to survive the anti-black murder/arrest gauntlet.

        Systemic racism is perceived to be ingrained in ALL things in the United States because the outcomes of a lot of black people are not equivalent to the outcomes of a lot of white people; this is deemed a racist system of white privilege and it exists to oppress all black people.

        My view of the accusations is simple; Correlation ≠ Causation! Those making the accusations must prove their accusations, period!

        Does anti-black and other forms of racism still exist, yes and it’s all deplorable and immoral and it’s not likely that it will ever not exist. Does specific anti-black systemic racism exist across our society, I don’t know because no one has ever actually proven that it does exist. Personally I think it’s not likely to exist, with all the rhetoric about it it would have been proven by now but all we get are accusations, innuendo and some truly ignorant correlation = causation arguments.

        Dave wrote, “unless you’re willing to say that that’s all because of personal behavior, then you have to concede that at least some of that is accounted for by systemic issues.”

        Without proof that anti-black systemic racism exists, I am willing to say that it’s because of personal behaviors and not a systemic problem. The ones claiming systemic racism exists must support their arguments with proof not accusations, innuendo and correlation = causation arguments.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: