They have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world.
~ Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
My heart is breaking, I want to say, but that doesn’t really capture what’s happening. My whole body feels as if it’s in convulsions, turning itself inside-out. I see the protests, the massive waves of people, and I think, I should go there. I should get myself there, bring my broken, inside-out heart and lay it at the intersection of Franklin and Nicollet, stand among those beautiful, multicolored waves of people who imagine we can build something better, who demand that we do it. Heartache for my hometown, care for my friends and family there, love for those I don’t know but with whom I share a love for the place: I’m homesick for all of it.
And then the twisting begins. I have to ask myself: Why the sudden sense of urgency? One of the reasons for my heartbreak, I’m facing, is my abject failure as a white person to have engaged in any meaningful way with the oppressive systems that allowed me to operate under the delusion that race relations were something that happened elsewhere.
The city in which I grew up considered itself tolerant and open-minded. We poo-pooed Southern whites for their history of slavery, their embrace of segregation, their enthusiasm for Jim Crow laws and vigilante justice, their Confederate flags and monuments, their insistence on calling the Civil War “the War of Northern Aggression.”
Our tolerance was largely abstract. No people of color lived in our neighborhood. Two girls in my class were among the first Black students to attend our elementary school. Race itself “happened” somewhere else: in the South, in Detroit, maybe in a few small pockets north and east of us.
In the early 2000s, I moved back to Minneapolis. The city had grown substantially since my childhood, in overall numbers as well as diversity. A robust network of social services organizations had welcomed over 100,000 refugees. Once a family settles, other relatives join them, buoyed by their success. As a Somali man once told me, “Yes, you’re in the tundra. But at least you’re with family.”
People of color now make up nearly 40 percent of the city’s population. Our family recently delighted in the crowd at Q. Cucumber’s, a popular cafeteria-style restaurant in Edina: the West African family that invited us to share their birthday cake, the Indian families with moms in saris, alongside … well, us. Who would have thought, 30 years ago, that Minneapolis would look like this, that such a group would one day coalesce around a suburban salad bar?
Though I reveled in the city’s vibrance, I was by this time also less naïve about the existence of entrenched structures of discrimination. Still, where was I when my friend David was hassled by police while he ran his dog in a friend’s backyard? A neighbor had called – though David himself was also a neighbor. It didn’t matter that he was carrying identification, which showed his own home was just around the corner, or that he had his dog and leash with him. They questioned him for nearly an hour. (And where would he have been without these signalers of suburbia – his driver’s license, his “respectable” address, his yellow lab?)
I listened to David’s story, believed him, supported him, let it anger me (do you hear that? I “let it.” I had so much choice). It never occurred to me that I could have donesomething – anything – in response. Written a letter, made a phone call: Dear Suburban Police Department, I’m dismayed to hear of the treatment of your officers’ treatment of my friend David. Or when I learned that a colleague from out of town, finally decided to move away because he was so tired of getting pulled over. I had nothing to say about this, either. I convinced myself I didn’t know enough of the story.
It wasn’t until I moved to the South that I saw the Northern smugness about race for what it was.
In 2016, the Mapping Inequality project published digitized maps created by the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation (HOLC) in 1935-1940, a program of the federal New Deal. The maps grade residential areas of cities around the country based on home values and, in turn, the level of required mortgage security. The grades, in turn, became “a tool for redlining: making it difficult or impossible for people in certain areas to access mortgage financing and thus become homeowners.” (Even if you don’t look at the maps, the introduction to this project alone is fascinating.)
It’s not difficult to overlay the HOLC maps and discover that, lo and behold, those areas of a city that still struggle most with poverty and crime are the areas marked red and given a “D” grade back in the 1930s. Let’s not wring our hands puzzling over how hard it is to break a cycle that was constructed to repeat, to embed, to reify; wondering why poverty and crime affect black neighborhoods at an astronomically higher rate, why “they” can’t seem to get a toehold on the ladder of American opportunity. We know perfectly well – the ladders were removed. I was right that race relations happened somewhere else. The whole place was designed that way.
It was hard to admit that the North had done it too, just more quietly, sneaky and insidious.
Sometimes, when the conversation takes this turn, people who have “made it” get uncomfortable. They fear that talk of privilege undermines the hard work they and their families have devoted to their success. I don’t feel that way. I’m super proud of my Minnesotan roots, of the work ethic and moral compass that led people like my great-grandfather and his contemporaries to build companies of integrity and spearhead a tradition of down-home philanthropy. Those generations invented civic pride (see this interesting article on the roots of the Minnesota GOP for a sense of its motivating values). “We thought segregation was outrageous!” my grandmother once told me, passionately. And they did. For example, my grandfather served on the board of the United Negro College Fund. When my grandmother helped found a children’s hospital, they chose an inner-city location so the families living in that area would have better access.
These two truths can exist at once. These people accomplished great things. Also, they had access to things like business loans and property that would have been considered a “hazardous risk” to grant to people of color. They lived in a segregated city, even as they believed in its outrageousness and worked for good.
While my own sense of urgency feels disingenuous, it also does feel that maybe something has changed, that maybe this is a moment. I no longer hear white people saying, “We need to hear more of the story.” Christian Cooper and George Floyd, back to back – it was just too much (and that doesn’t even include the late-in-coming information about Ahmad Aubrey and Breonna Taylor). Of course, it’s always been too much, but we can no longer pretend, deflect, put off.
We know enough of the story.
We’re often reminded in social justice work that the problem isn’t a broken system. In fact, “the system” is working exactly as intended: systems of racial terrorism and white supremacy designed to perpetuate themselves, designed so that people like me believed the problems happened elsewhere. The system is working as it was designed to. And now a whole lot of people are saying, “We don’t want this system anymore.”
A few nights after George Floyd was murdered, I dreamt I was in a war zone. The scene was so vivid that when I bent down to tie the laces on my black boots, I could feel the mud grit between my fingers. My subconscious mind, my fingers, my feet – they were down in the world.
The next night, I dreamt that I called my younger daughter in because a storm was brewing over the water. As I went out to meet her, I watched an enormous wave sweep her out to sea.
Sit with that, my dream said. Feel what it feels like to feel so powerless. This is the most painful lie of all, the one over which my body contorts: that I enjoy protection for my children that other mothers don’t.
What I am feeling — finally — is the rot on my soul from the distance between us. It’s not theoretical, not in a book or a lecture or a listicle or a conversation. It is embodied. It’s not “somewhere else.” It’s here, inside you. Remember, my soul says. ‘Cause your body can’t stand the lies anymore.
In the waking hours, bleary from restless sleep, I called on my grandparents, though they are no longer the visible. Why? I asked. And what now?
It’s true, they said. We didn’t understand. We might have done more, done things differently. That doesn’t mean you can’t. Don’t you dare take a pass by telling yourself it’s too late, or that nothing will change. It’s time to get down.