I gasped when I saw the text from my friend. An actual, audible, unintentional gasp, for no one’s benefit while alone in my office. The text contained a flier showing an image of a black fist and was advertising a Black Lives Matter rally in a local Westchester town. There was also an accompanying note from my friend saying, “I might as well just move to Harlem.”
I immediately knew I had a decision to make. I could laugh it off with an “lol” or I could politely explain how his surprisingly retrograde sentiments on race are anathema to me.
I then thought about how hard people have worked over generations to improve race relations, literally sacrificing life and limb. They risked everything as they decided whether to march across bridges and maybe make monumental, historic change. I risked nothing as I decided whether to type a few keystrokes.
Suddenly ashamed I had paused for even a moment, I typed a reply that led to a meaningful conversation, including how I had misunderstood the point of my friend’s message. Although I was relieved he didn’t actually harbor the views I originally concluded his text exhibited, I also felt like I had accomplished a little something: expanding by a small fraction the space in the world where racial hatred is explicitly deemed unacceptable, unwelcome, uninvited. And here’s the thing — during this inflection point in our country’s history, as we mourn George Floyd’s horrifying murder at the hands of Minneapolis police, it isn’t just those holding explicitly racist ideas who we need to persuade.
It’s also the generally tolerant middle-class white people often too polite to push back on subtle racism while in private conversation who we need to convince to speak out in ways large and small.
Let’s not forget, we can and do make progress in this country. From the abolishment of slavery, to women’s rights, to civil rights to gay rights, the story of our country, from a distance, is a story of progress, even if that progress feels understandably elusive when living through the painful and systemic injustices people of color still undoubtedly endure every day and in abundance.
One of the most maddening elements of today’s debate, on almost every topic, is how people quickly retreat to preconceived narratives in analyzing current events instead of evaluating circumstances of any news event on a case-by-case basis.
This unfortunate phenomenon likely helps explain Brewster Board of Education Trustee Krista Berardi’s instinct to post to social media last week that Floyd’s murder was staged and that protestors should be “hosed.”
Let me first say, I think it’s safe to assume Berardi is more than likely a good person at heart. She’s a mother, a school board member and a veteran art teacher in Carmel. While Berardi declined my interview request, I spoke with a former student of hers who described the teacher as “engaging” and an educator who “looks for potential in students.”
But this wasn’t the first time Berardi allegedly published an incendiary social media post.
What we need isn’t more amen choruses on social media, with the left cheering on the left and the right cheering on the right. We need conservatives and liberals pushing back on their own when the dialogue strays from the facts or devolves into incivility.
While we need to ensure there’s accountability, we also must be sure to avoid demonizing all those who express even hateful ideas. Hate the idea, not the person. Then aim, if possible, to engage, listen and educate, not tear down. It’s the harder but more productive path. Most people who express monstrous ideas are not monsters.
I don’t want to create a false equivalency. It’s my unequivocal view that the far right wing is the most dangerous wing on our current flight path, during a time of heightened animosity towards immigrants and minorities. But let’s be sure the far left doesn’t chill free expression by allowing us to characterize anyone as an unrepentant racist who, for example, points out (correctly and undoubtedly) how most cops are good cops.
One of my favorite conversation partners is my incredibly insightful friend Ani. Not long ago, Ani left Westchester because she wanted to “escape the latent racism that is rife in suburban white America.” In fact, I gave Ani a sneak peek of this column and she provided some valuable pushback.
“When people talk about cops, it’s not about individual cops and whether we have some that are good,” she explained. “It’s that the system too often protects and nurtures bad police and it seems like it is harder to be a good cop in current police culture than not. And that’s why 84 was shut down. The reason why the protests are designed to disrupt your day out with your daughter is because you are protected by a system that murders black people.”
What Ani observes makes perfect sense to me. Yet here’s another true thing: concluding that those who hold racist views are irredeemable is to accept racism as a fact of life, instead of a byproduct of ignorance. You’re also part of the problem if you’re unwilling to spend a dime of social capital to enhance our cultural environment when you hear a friend express ugly ideas.
I have to believe there’s someone in Berardi’s life, perhaps someone who shares her general sensibilities but who rejects these more reprehensible views, who could have enlightened her to a degree on racial issues and save her a world of pain. Without that safeguard, she posted what she posted, she was condemned by her colleagues, and she resigned in disgrace.
So next time someone makes a racially insensitive comment, realize how much is at stake. Your silence, or your voice, can make a world of difference.