Joe Biden Owes a Public Apology to Anita Hill

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Until this year, a script existed for America's reaction to women accusing powerful men of sexual misconduct. That playbook was perfected in 1991, on the eve of confirming Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, when the United States Senate’s Judiciary Committee asked Professor Anita Hill to testify.

Professor Hill alleged that Thomas had sexually harassed her when they both worked at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The Committee put Hill and her credibility on trial, under the guise of hearing her testimony. Given the recent shift in how sexual misconduct is treated in the public sphere, it's no surprise that America is revisiting this questionable chapter in our shared history.

The televised interrogation of Hill – a Black woman – by the Senate Judiciary committee – fourteen White men – is an unforgettable symbol for how power works in America. The Committee degraded Hill, confirmed Thomas, and set the tone for a generation of abusive men sidestepping accountability. Hill reflected on that experience during an interview with The Washington Post last week. “I wanted to be on the record. I wanted it to be in my words … We understood that this was a big moment in terms of the issue of sexual harassment,” said Hill, demonstrating a resilient willingness to stand for all women, even when her personal reputation was at stake.

The Post interview includes accounts from five women who were members of Congress at the time of the hearing, revealing important details about the machinations of power. Congresswoman Pat Schroeder of Colorado recalls the role played by then-Senator Joe Biden, who chaired the Judiciary Committee, before later becoming Vice President. “We went to see Biden,” Schroeder said, “And he literally kind of pointed his finger and said, you don’t understand how important one’s word was in the Senate, that he had given his word to [Sen. John Danforth (R-Mo.), Thomas’s chief sponsor] in the men’s gym that this would be a very quick hearing.”

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I was nine-years-old in September of 1991, when the United States Senate Judiciary Committee, under Joe Biden’s leadership, dragged Professor Hill. That hearing constituted a formative political experience for many people of my generation, but I did not then appreciate the totality of the stakes. Given the current national discussion of sexual misconduct, now is an opportune time to revisit Hill’s treatment. I regret that I waited almost thirty years to learn more about Professor Hill’s story, and I recognize that as a White man, it is my personal choice to remain oblivious to issues that involve the intersectionality of race and gender.

In that spirit, there is another White man in our country who I hope will revisit this episode with greater understanding: Joe Biden. Professor Hill has been explicit about Biden’s role in the hearings. Biden has expressed some regret in private, but Hill wants a deeper and fuller reckoning:

I still don’t think it takes ownership of his role in what happened. And he also doesn’t understand that it wasn’t just that I felt it was not fair. It was that women were looking to the Senate Judiciary Committee and his leadership to really open the way to have these kinds of hearings. They should have been using best practices to show leadership on this issue on behalf of women’s equality. And they did just the opposite.

Joe Biden possessed extraordinary power over an issue involving women's equality, and at that particular moment, he blew it.

From one White man who is a work-in-progress to another: I ask Joe Biden to apologize to Anita Hill, in public.

I like Joe Biden. I’m a lifelong Democrat, and I grew up thirty minutes from Wilmington, Delaware. My first political act as a young person was a Synagogue field trip, wherein we took a bus from Cherry Hill, NJ to Washington, DC, to lobby Biden and his colleagues to pass the Violence Against Women Act, which he had sponsored. I had the privilege of voting for Biden and his boss twice, in 2008 and 2012. I can trace my penchant for political activism to his Senate doorstep. It is because of these things, not in spite of them, that I want Biden to apologize.

Our current national discussion about sexual misconduct demands that powerful men reckon with their role in the status quo. By apologizing Biden could do three things simultaneously. First, he would show other men how it's done. He shouldn’t say, “I’m sorry if she was offended,” or, “I’m sorry if she interpreted my role in a particular way.” He should say, “I’m sorry, and I was wrong.” It’s rare, especially for a politician, to apologize without caveat. Biden could use his credibility to show men that it is possible to err and then accept responsibility.

The second thing that a Biden apology would offer is an opportunity to have a national discussion about how men with significant political power, even progressive ones, play a role in disenfranchising women. While some of Biden’s mistakes in 1991 were overt, like allowing Senate republicans to interrogate Hill as if she were on trial, there are other eyebrow-raising details in the Post account, including the fact that Biden was cutting deals in the gym. Given that our current president once used the “locker room” to signify a space where men say awful things about women, we must examine these subtler abuses of gendered power. Biden was a powerful man, even among other powerful men. He used his perch to exculpate another powerful man, who now is serving a lifelong term on the United States Supreme Court. In the meantime, Professor Hill still struggles to reclaim her name and place in American history.

Finally, in revisiting this episode, Biden could accelerate a national conversation about gender and racial diversity in political leadership. Congress remains one of the Whitest and most male corners of American power. While half of the people in the United States are women, only twenty percent of the members of the Unites States Senate identify as such. The current Congress is over 80% White; while that constitutes an improvement in racial representation over prior years, both chambers are still disproportionately White, relative to the demographics of the United States. The symbolic potency of fourteen White men interrogating a Black woman seems obvious now, but we still acquiesce to similar dynamics in professional spaces. Considering the experiences of Kamala Harris, Maxine Waters, Sally Yates, Hillary Clinton, and many others, the legislatures of the United States remain inhospitable to any sort of power that is neither White nor male.

Biden will not change history when he apologizes. He will not erase the fact that he presided over a show trial, nor will he reverse the appointment of an accused serial harasser to the United States Supreme Court. That said, in a country that does not know how to have a serious public conversation about the intersectionality of race, gender, and power, Biden could use this moment to encourage other White men to be honest about their role in perpetuating immoral political structures. If he does take that opportunity, it will still be too late, and he shouldn’t reap rewards just for doing the right thing. But I will be the first person in line to recognize him for his honesty and integrity.

This Yom Kippur, I'm Atoning for White Supremacy

When Jews around the world observe Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, the word “celebrate” is not quite appropriate. Saturday, on this “Day of Atonement,” Jews will ask forgiveness for the various sins of the past year. Many pray, observe a ritual fast, and attend services.

The Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, now the home to the National Civil Rights Museum.

The Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, now the home to the National Civil Rights Museum.

But the central tenet of Yom Kippur – captured in the moving “Al Chet” prayer – requires us to seek public, private, and spiritual atonement, not just for our “intentional” sins, but also for those we “inadvertently” commit. I thought about this prayer on the Jewish New Year, which I spent in Memphis last week, with a group of close friends visiting the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Hotel. As I stood in silent, tearful reflection in the room where Dr. Martin Luther King was killed almost fifty years ago, I contemplated atonement.

I considered forgiveness on that day, in that place, because all White Jews in America have participated in the maintenance of White supremacy. The privileges created by our uniquely American system benefit all White people, including Jewish people of European heritage. Some of the effects are subtle. As a White, Jewish dude, I can walk into the lobby of a fancy hotel and pretend it’s my home office, with little fear of confrontation or consequences. There also seem to be no limits to how many red lights I can ignore while riding my hipster bicycle through Brooklyn, while my Black friends get ticketed for tiptoeing in crosswalks. Those quotidian advantages can seem inconsequential, but they are not. Black Americans experience extraordinary harassment, often masquerading as mere inconvenience, from law enforcement and other authorities, just for living in their own skin.

Those daily micro-privileges, however, pale in comparison to how years of systemic advantages have compounded to White people in much more concrete and pecuniary ways. My White, Jewish grandfather – whose parents were refugees from the pogroms of Eastern Europe - served in the army during World War II, worked for the federal government, and bought a house in a middle-class neighborhood. A cousin of his once tried to steal his right to a Veterans’ Administration home loan, that’s how tangibly valuable these government-sponsored ladders to the American Dream were. My dad benefitted from my grandfather’s ability to accrue wealth, as did I. All of this happened after the abolition of slavery, not to mention in the putatively progressive American Northeast.

In the meantime, while my grandfather “played by the rules,” the rules were rigged against people who didn’t have White skin. Black families – whose longevity in this country far outstrips that of my Jewish forebears – were barred from voting, holding federal jobs, buying homes in middle-class neighborhoods, and attending public schools. My grandfather attended what was then one of the country’s few mixed-race public high schools (Philadelphia’s Central High), and he reminds me still today that there is simply no comparison between the advantages he has enjoyed, and the hardships his classmates of color have faced.

Several years ago, my grandfather – who is now in his mid 90s – went to a high school reunion at a country club in the Philadelphia suburbs. The president of his class, who was Black, looked around at the few living members of the class, all of whom were either Black or Jewish. Reflecting on their similarities and differences, he said, to big laughs, “You know, we never had everything in common. But I can tell you one thing: NONE of us would have been ALLOWED in this country club when we were in high school!”

My grandfather's middle school picture.

My grandfather's middle school picture.

My grandfather cracks up when he tells this story, even though the punchline is impossible to get without knowing this country’s complicated relationship to race, Whiteness, and discrimination. When he was in high school, Jews weren’t really considered “White.” But after generations of assimilation and social progress, Jews of European descent can seem indistinguishable from other White Americans.

Eventually, though, something shatters that fragile sense of belonging and progress. When White supremacists marched in Charlottesville last month, chanting Nazi slogans and proclaiming “Jews will not replace us,” they brought into the surface something that Jews have always understood about their status in America: “provisionary Whiteness.” Provisionary Whiteness can be revoked for a whole host of reasons: for speaking forcefully against White supremacy; for looking TOO Jewish; for not looking Jewish ENOUGH; and for many other perceived offenses against the supposed benevolence of the dominant culture.

But while anti-Jewish sentiment is real, White Jews must reckon with the fact that we will never walk in Black skin, that our history in America is nowhere near as devastating as the history of that of Black Americans, and that our Jewish-ness does not give us a “get out of jail free card” when it comes to being allies in the fight for racial justice. We must not say “but what about us?” when we bear witness to the racism visited upon Black Americans, and we cannot ignore the injustices that are invisible only because we do not experience them.

From left to right: me, my grandfather, and my dad.

From left to right: me, my grandfather, and my dad.

On this Yom Kippur, I will atone for White supremacy. It is the most devastating sin in which I inadvertently participate, and I do so just by walking in the skin in which I was born. While I possess no choice regarding my skin-tones, I can control how I either uphold or undermine the unfair advantages conferred to me by those hues. Some prominent White Jews want to define White supremacy on their own terms, so that we might avoid culpability. These efforts at rebranding are an evasion of responsibility and an affront to the work of our friends of color, who have worked for generations to define and fight these bedrock sins of our culture. Until all White people – Jewish or not – take responsibility for the faults of our country, none of us can ever truly be free.

I ask my Jewish brothers and sisters to join me in this act of atonement. Please don’t stop there, though, as you should also talk to your family and friends about racism, while preparing yourself to be a part of a long struggle. The rooms that precede Dr. King’s at the National Civil Rights Museum constitute a march through several decades of activism and organizing. Each exhibit is striking on its own: the Montgomery Bus Boycott; the Freedom Riders; the Memphis Sanitation Strike; the March on Washington; and more. The overall effect is to contextualize each action as part of a much larger, multi-generational movement for justice. As Jews, we have no shortage of that particular theme in our own history. What better way, then, to spend our holiest day, than in solidarity with our friends and families of color, whose multi-generational march for progress endures today.

Interview: Joshua Starr, CEO of Phi Delta Kappan International

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Today on the blog I interview Joshua Starr, the CEO of Phi Delta Kappan (PDK) International. You may recognize Starr from an earlier guest post, wherein he shared guidance for how superintendents can cultivate anti-racism in their school districts. PDK is a professional association for educators, and they are best known for their annual poll on American attitudes towards schooling. In the interview Starr and I discuss the most recent poll results and what they might mean for public policy.

Me: What does this most recent polling data tell you about our national education conversation? Are we having the right discussion? Are we talking past each other?

Starr: There’s something missing both from how we talk about the classroom and from how we talk about policy. I’ve been encouraging people not to think of these two things as dichotomous.

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What we do in our poll is that we look at things broadly and try to anticipate what the issues might be. The results tell me that something is missing from our national discussion. Standardized testing is a big part of the landscape, and people understand that. But they want more from testing. They want to see career readiness embedded in schooling. In conversations I have had with people, they want to see an emphasis on both college and career. But right now, the conversation feels too binary: it’s either standardized testing or authentic learning.

People are pretty reasonable, and if they can see that the testing that their children are undertaking, or the curriculum they’re doing, increases their ability to navigate the world in the long term, they’ll be okay with it.

But overall, I think the results tell us that there’s something unsatisfying in the experience of today’s schools. It’s not that it’s bad, or that people reject it. They just want more.

Me: Do the results give you a clue as to what "more" might look like?

Starr: One big issue is career readiness. That looms large. Whether that’s certificate programs or job embedded skills. Huge.

The other piece is the interpersonal dimension. In the poll, we called that “respect, cooperation, and problem solving.” There is huge support for those things. That’s what people think is missing from today’s classrooms.

On the other hand, there are educators who think they’re doing those things everyday. That may be the case, but that’s not how people are feeling as they respond.

Me: Are people assuming that the presence of testing leads to a lack of these other things? Is that a fair assumption?

Starr: People are frustrated with the emphasis on testing, not the presence of it. It’s the notion that when I hear my principal or teacher or superintendent talk about kids passing tests, and that there are pep rallies for it, and that the most communication I get is when it’s testing time.

Again, this my interpretation based on my experience. So I think that it may just be that it’s conflation. Parents see the kinds of work that kids are getting, which tends to be worksheet driven; it’s work that is pretty rote and basic and not really helping them learn how to solve problems, which is much more important than passing tests. I think people see the disconnect.

Me: You asked more questions than usual about diversity, segregation, inclusion, and equity this year. Why did you do that?

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Starr: We have asked one-off questions about integration in the past. Most respondents said that they support it. Given the conversation we are having nationally, it felt important to ask about it. My own personal experience is as a superintendent of diverse systems. It’s an increasing part of the conversation. The re-segregation of white districts seems like a theme. We felt this was an area of interest.

One the one hand, when you look at the data, nothing really jumps out at you. On the other hand, on paper people prefer diverse schools, but they don’t really want to work for it. So it’s unclear whether it’s just a socially desirable answer.

That said, as a whole, white people don’t even say that. There’s an interesting divide between the perspectives of white people versus African-American people. White liberals tend to say that integration is good for society. African-Americans and Latinos are more like, “Yeah, that’s fine, but for me it means that there are better teachers and more resources for our kids, and why can’t you just provide that in my kids’ school regardless of the racial makeup?”

Me: From my perspective, there is a giant mismatch between the elite conversation about integration, and the presence of policy ideas that have a viable constituency. Do you see that?

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Starr: I think about this more on the local level than on the federal or state level. It’s a matter of value proposition. If you just talk about integration and diversity in terms of who sits next to whom, you aren’t giving parents anything, whose ultimate interest is self-interest. Even if you’re liberal and progressive, your interest is still your own kids. The mentality is, if I’m going to put my kid on a bus, or I’m going to send my kid to a school where there are diverse needs, what’s the value proposition? The value proposition of saying, “diversity is better” doesn’t really resonate. There’s a slight majority that thinks that racial diversity will improve things for black kids, but not so much for poor kids. In my mind it has to be framed around teaching and learning, and the improvement of what kids get in the classroom.

When I did this work in Stamford as superintendent, it was framed around teaching and learning. We created core science projects, core books in social studies. For the first time, we said all kids are going to have access to advanced work. The staunchest opponents of integration – always white folks – will come up with reasons for not doing it. But most folks are pretty reasonable. If the white folks on the soccer field are worried that they’re going to be sitting next to black kids and English language learners, they might get antsy. Their mentality is, "I won’t send my kid to a school JUST for diversity," but if a diverse environment also gives them more things that jive with their beliefs about transforming the learning experience for kids, maybe you win over more people over.

And that’s a local decision. You have to do that along with curriculum and instructional improvements, and resources for professional learning.

Me: I’m asking this sincerely, even though I have my own personal biases as to the answer: Why are white parents worried about their children sitting next to a black kid or an English language learner in a classroom?

Starr: In my experience, it’s two fold. One is just contact theory and this idea that the more contact I have with somebody who is different from me, the more likely I am to have a give-and-take relationship with them. And vice versa as well. As a consequence of that, as a parent, I might not believe that the needs of my child will be met. This relates to how parents conceive of teaching. The thought is, the more time a teacher spends with my kid, the better off she is. If all of a sudden one-third of the kids in the classroom have greater needs than my child, my child won’t get what she needs, and that's what I think my tax dollars are for. This ties into the idea that the school is a private commodity, not a public good. I bought a house, I pay taxes, and I expect that my kid will be the beneficiary of those tax dollars. This goes along with the belief that other parents didn’t pay for that experience.

And then I think there’s some straight up racism. There is a sense of entitlement, and the idea that the whiter something is, the better it is. There’s a sense that something is more valuable if I have it, and you don’t. There are white parents who believe that their child is getting a better off education because of the makeup of the school and the cost of the house they built. They have no idea that some of the best instruction happens in the schools with the most vulnerable kids. Honestly, sometimes teachers don’t have to work as hard in schools with privileged kids. But I think there’s a perception that, if it’s white, it’s good.

Me: What do you hope policymakers take away from this polling data?

Starr: You have to make decisions about resource allocation. But the work of educating kids today is so unbelievably complex, and we have to figure out how to embrace that complexity. How do we balance all of that stuff? I think the poll results shed some light on that. On the hardest stuff, you can act much more quickly at a local level. At a national level? Right now, it's very hard to see how you could act on any of this.

You Must Choose a Side

While occupying a cell in a Birmingham jail in 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote one of his most pointed critiques of American culture. Addressing his “Christian and Jewish brothers,” he excoriated the lack of urgency among his fellow clergy:

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action” … Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.

This insight into the psyche of white America remains prescient. When hundreds of torch-bearing white supremacists can march proudly in a significant American city, it is clear that we are at a point of moral crisis. Despite the obvious stakes involved, there remain prominent individuals who equivocate and blame “both sides” for the events in Charlottesville. The American president, regrettably, is one of them.

I’m here to tell you that you must choose a side.

This should not be a hard decision. On one side you have torch-wielding, Nazi-slogan-chanting, out-of-the-closet, white supremacists. They chanted "Jews Will Not Replace Us" as they terrorized local activists seeking refuge in a church. Their avowed strategy is the maintenance of a racial hierarchy that places people of European descent in a position of permanent superiority over people of other races. They sometimes do business under the euphemistic name “the alt-right.” They have pseudo-scientists who buttress their claims, and they rely upon tacit support from mainstream members of the political right for sustenance.

On the other side you have ... people who are NOT Nazis.

 

 

That’s literally the end of my argument.

 

 

I’m not sure why we’re still talking.

I’m already on the couch, watching Netflix.

Yet, somehow, some of you are still saying, “Yeah, but ….” What follows the, “Yeah, but … “ can vary:

1)    “ … it’s more complicated than that!”

2)    “… her emails!”

3)    “ … antifa has baseball bats!”

4)    “ … not all white people are Nazis!”

5)    “ … maybe we need to listen to what they’re saying!”

To each of those things, my response is the same: “Are you seriously confused over whether to side with literal Nazis?”

Those who equivocate over siding with Nazis can be seen taking firm positions on a whole variety of non-Nazi-related issues. They have strong opinions about the Common Core State Standards, the role of the federal government in healthcare, and a host of other domains occupying grayer moral area than Nazi fighting. Their hemming and hawing forces us to consider that they might not actually view Nazism as a bad thing.

To be more charitable, perhaps the equivocators have become desensitized. For decades our political culture has played fast and loose with the idea of Nazism. Have a political opponent? He’s a Nazi! Disagree with a policy idea? That’s the sort of thing they would do in Nazi Germany! In the meantime, it's possible that the equivocators are confused about what to do when actual Nazis show up ... which is now, and should always be, to take the other side reflexively.

Maybe the problem for the fence-sitters is that they’re concerned about tactical imperfections among the Nazi fighters. This is a favorite bête noir among very serious conservatives. The problem with that argument is that we shouldn’t anticipate tactical perfection among the opposition, because they’re literally fighting fucking Nazis. We should provide significant room for suboptimal decision-making, because Nazi-fighting presents an existential crisis for the American public. A moral crisis of this magnitude requires hard decisions, firm leadership, strategic flexibility, and many other intangible things. Tactical perfection is very low on that list.

My real suspicion is that the middle-grounders are wary of what the Nazi-fighters want: racial equity, religious tolerance, equal rights for women, an inclusive approach to understanding sexual identity and orientation, and basic human rights. The Movement for Black Lives, in particular, wants the state to kill fewer innocent African-Americans and reform the racial inequities in the criminal justice system. The moral vacuity necessary to equate these ideas with white supremacy is stunning. The cowardice required to side with Nazis in order to oppose them is wicked.

At the end of the day, the fence-sitters should consider the trajectory of American history. In the first half of the 19th century, some people were abolitionists. They recognized the moral imperative of ending slavery, despite the myriad political complexities posed by abolition. We celebrate their foresight. In the middle of the 20th century, some people were Civil Rights activists. They stood shoulder to shoulder with leaders who we now valorize, because they put their lives on the line to fight back against a racist policy regime. We revere their courage.

Nowhere in the history books, however, can we find praise for the valor of the people who, in the midst of a moral crisis, cried “well, actually.”

At the dawn of the 21st century, we remain an unequal society, riven through with bulging veins of racism and white supremacy. While there have been incremental improvements in the conditions of nonwhite America, the events of the last several years should leave no doubt that a vocal plurality of the American public – with explicit backing from a bigoted American president – wants to reverse that progress.

In a fight like this, there is room for thoughtful critique. There is room for debate, nuance, the free sharing of ideas, and vigorous disagreement.

But there are no sidelines. There are only sides. And you must pick one.

An Imagined Dialogue Between the Game of Thrones Showrunners and a Fictional White HBO Executive (Who Thinks Critically About Race)

Yesterday, The Wrap broke news about the next big project from the creators of HBO’s mega-hit, “Game of Thrones”:

After “Game of Thrones” wraps up, showrunners David Beinioff and D.B. Weiss will continue onto their next project for HBO — an alternate history series called “Confederate,” the network announced Wednesday. Benioff and Weiss will executive produce the series, which exists in a fictional timeline where the South succeeded in seceding from the Union. In this version of the United States — or what’s become of it — slavery has remained legal and has continued into the modern era.

Like many of you, my first reaction to this news was:

And then I was like:

I wanted to write an open letter to Benioff and Weiss, as that is one of my favorite ways of holding white celebrities’ feet to the fire when they do racially insensitive things (Hi Justin Timberlake!) I wanted to ask them why they thought it was a good idea for two white producers to run a show that would involve the inevitable glorification of a lightly-fictionalized slaveholding America. The optics alone are terrible, and that’s before we even consider what the culture on the set might be like.

I realized, though, that I couldn’t blame the two showrunners alone, as this specious idea had accomplices at the highest reaches of media. Someone at HBO heard about this idea and not only didn’t laugh in their faces, but gave this show the proverbial “greenlight.”

So rather than write a stern letter to Benioff and Weiss, I decided to imagine a fantasy world, wherein the white people with power understand why this was such a terrible idea.

I know. Crazy, right?

***********************

[Scene: A corner office in an elegant high-rise in midtown Manhattan. David Benioff and D. B. Weiss sit on a leather couch, drinking Pamplemousse flavored La Croix water out of orange cans. A fictional middle-aged HBO executive – let’s call him “Wokey McWokerson” – sits behind an enormous steel and glass desk, wearing horn-rimmed glasses and a Brooklyn Nets hat.]

David Benioff: Look. We all know that, after Game of Thrones, we could have just retired.

DB Weiss: It was a great run, and the Game of Thrones money was no joke. In all honesty, we don’t have to do shit again. Like, ever.

David Benioff: But it’s time to change the TV game once more, and I really think that we are the guys to do it. We have a vision, and it’s just begging to jump out of us! 

Executive Wokey McWokerson: Great! Let’s hear it! You made us so much money on Thrones, not to mention the Emmys and street cred. Our marketing department is chomping at the bit to get to work on whatever you guys have up your sleeves next. We love being in the “Benioff and Weiss” business.

Benioff: We love to hear that. So picture this: the South won the Civil War.

Executive Wokey: I’m gonna stop you right there. Say that again.

Weiss: Follow me for a minute. The new series takes place in a totally fictional America. The South won the Civil War. During the last century and a half, the Southern way of life has dominated the land that we call the United States. Slavery exists. Today. And people are still fighting over it, but there are real slaves, and slaveowners, and plantations.

Weiss: And there are also politicians who totally hate slavery, and abolitionists and stuff. Some people are still super pissed off about it.

Executive Wokey: Let me put this as plainly as I possibly can: Are you fucking out of your fucking minds?

Weiss and Benioff look at each other, confused

Weiss: No, man. That’s the idea. What’s the problem? It’s perfect for your network. There’s conflict. There’s oppression. It’s incredibly relevant to our contemporary discourse, just in a somewhat different setting. It has a lot of the same elements that made Thrones so successful.

Benioff: Let’s be clear. People are talking about race. Today. Constantly. In this country. This will be a real conversation starter.

Executive Wokey: You realize that both of you are White, right? And that viewers of color make up a disproportionate share of your audience, even though you have employed almost no black actors with speaking roles in seven seasons of one of the biggest series in television history. There are at least two hashtags whose sole purpose is to signify the people in the Black community who watch your show. Do you have any idea how your viewers would react to this?

Benioff: What does race have to do with this?

Weiss: Yeah, I mean, this isn’t really about race, per se. It’s about the erosion of the social contract. The way people use power against each other. It’s like Thrones, but in a lightly fictionalized contemporary America. Where slavery still exists.

Wokey stares at Weiss. Blinks twice. Says nothing.

Weiss: Look, if you insist on making this ALL about race, we can certainly play up that angle.

Benioff: Well actually, let’s be smart about this. The Civil War wasn’t ALL about slavery. It was about money and power and states’ rights and a whole bunch of other issues. Slavery was an important factor, but let’s not get hung up on the slavery part of this.

Executive Wokey: Get the fuck out of my office.

Benioff: Aren’t we being a little hasty here.

Executive Wokey: The fuck out. Now.

Weiss: We made you so much money.

Executive Wokey: I don’t care. Some things are more important than money.

Benioff and Weiss laugh hysterically

Benioff: Really? There are? You know we can just take this to CBS right?

Executive Wokey: Good luck. Make sure it has a white male lead. It will fit in perfectly with their nightly line-up.

We Don’t Need More White Dudes in Charge of Things, But the Ones Who Are Should Be More Like Mitch Landrieu

Last week, the city of New Orleans removed four monuments commemorating the Confederacy from the city’s public spaces. The action was the result of sustained pressure from local activists at "Take 'Em Down NOLA," like Angela Kinlaw, Malcolm Suber, and Michael "Quess?" Moore.

To mark the event, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu delivered a stunning speech that is getting a lot of attention, during which he dismantled a false, yet sticky, narrative about the Civil War:

… the monuments that we took down were meant to rebrand the history of our city and the ideals of a defeated Confederacy. It is self-evident that these men did not fight for the United States of America, They fought against it … These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for. After the Civil War, these statues were a part of that terrorism as much as a burning cross on someone’s lawn; they were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge in this city.

I debated whether to write anything about this speech, because my normal rule of thumb is:

“White dudes shouldn’t congratulate other White dudes just for doing the right thing.”

 

But the remarkable thing about Landrieu’s speech is that, in 2017, his ability to tell the truth about the past renders him an exceptional member of the coterie of White-men-who-still-run-shit. Landrieu mentions slavery eight times in a twenty-minute speech, while naming the rape, torture, and violence that accompanied America’s foul practice of systematic dehumanization. He calls the Confederate monuments “symbols of White supremacy,” while wondering aloud why his city offers no visual reminders that New Orleans was America’s most active marketplace for trafficking enslaved people.

In recounting these facts of history, Landrieu, with a bit of exasperation, says, “Surely we are far enough removed from this dark time to acknowledge that the cause of the Confederacy was wrong.”  

He’s right to be anxious about what constitutes “The Obvious” in America. Telling a consistent, factual story regarding this country’s history of slavery and racial violence is undermined by the same false narrative that was perpetuated by these monuments. The narrative receives the balance of its oxygen from textbooks, history teachers, cable news, and unsubtle paeans to making America great again.

This is the ACTUAL original text from one of the  monuments  that Landrieu ordered removed. For real. 📷: : Jonas Chartock 

This is the ACTUAL original text from one of the monuments that Landrieu ordered removed. For real. 📷: : Jonas Chartock 

It is rare for a politician – let alone a White southern one – to challenge this sanitized mythology in such stark terms. Georgia Governor Zell Miller tried in 1993, when he implored his state legislature to remove the Confederate battle emblem from the state's flag, arguing that to reject his plea meant identifying Georgia with the “dark side of the Confederacy.” President Lyndon Johnson also tried during his 1965 commencement address at Howard University, asserting that “white America must accept responsibility” for “centuries of oppression and persecution of the Negro man.”

What is striking about Landrieu, Johnson, and Miller is that they all told the truth, even though that truth is a direct challenge to White supremacy, from which they all benefit, whether they like it or not. The false narrative about the American South is hard to uproot not just because White people can choose to ignore their privilege to their own benefit, but also because the myth is more appealing than the truth. There is no joy in acknowledging that your ancestors were complicit in the systematic dehumanization of millions of enslaved people, and it’s hard to find pride in hearing that your grandparents’ heroes were bigoted losers. The lies start as a coping mechanism, but after centuries of metastasizing they have become a giant dam behind which we contain the crushing power of our collective past.

As James Baldwin said, though, "To accept one's past - one's history - is not the same thing as drowning in it.”

The only way to prevent ourselves from drowning in the real pain of our collective history is to stop aggrandizing the traumatizing events of our past. Landrieu spares no words in correcting the record, but he offers a life preserver of sorts to the folks set adrift by the accurate version of the war. Towards the end of his speech, he proffers a new narrative to replace the old one:

… we are becoming part of the city’s history by righting the wrong image these monuments represent and crafting a better, more complete future for all our children and for future generations. And unlike when these Confederate monuments were first erected as symbols of white supremacy, we now have a chance to create not only new symbols, but to do it together, as one people … It is in this union and in this truth that real patriotism is rooted and flourishes.

Landrieu casts pluralism as patriotic, offering a rebuttal to the ugliest corners of our contemporary discourse.

Roadside billboard in Harrison, Arkansas, 2017.

Roadside billboard in Harrison, Arkansas, 2017.

White supremacist rally in Virginia, 2017.

White supremacist rally in Virginia, 2017.

The reality of pluralism in this country, however, has never matched the aspiration of its idealized form, just as the removal of the symbols of White supremacy does not mean its inevitable demise. Pluralism in practice too often means that people of color continue to be on the receiving end of institutional racism, while White folks get to celebrate having a Black friend or two. Correcting the narrative is a necessary, yet insufficient, component of making this country a more just place for people who don’t look like Mayor Landrieu.

The future of American life will be much less White than its present, and as a result its political leadership should become much less White – not to mention much less male – than its current incarnation. Many White people struggle with this idea, because they view that outcome as an inevitable loss. The only thing we have to lose, though, is a false sense of unearned superiority. We must tell different stories if we’re going to have a different America, and the next generation of American political leaders should aspire to speak the truth about our past. They should speak that truth not just so that all of us can hear, but so that all of us can see our past and future selves in the narrative. Mitch Landrieu offered both words and deeds last weekend. Neither were perfect, but they’re a good start

Guest Post: John Thompson Responds to My Chalkbeat Article

John Thompson is a retired teacher, historian, author, and regular contributor at The Huffington Post. He writes about public schooling and has been an outspoken critic of "education reform," as it is practiced in this country today. Thompson and I have had regular, spirited, and cordial disagreements about education policy over the years. One time, we even got on the phone to talk about de-escalating the rhetoric between "education reformers" and "education traditionalists." (How delightfully old-fashioned of us!) When Thompson sent me this guest post, as a direct response to something I wrote in January, I couldn't resist posting it in its entirety.

Justin Cohen is “a technocratic public school graduate” who has been contemplating the ways that Betsy DeVos and Donald Trump could “kill the bipartisan education reform coalition.”  If that happens, Cohen will be disappointed, though not surprised, to see the movement dissolve.

Cohen fears that left-leaning reformers will then be “subsumed by the traditionalist agenda” which “still hews to the positions of management interests and labor leaders, and not closely enough to the needs of vulnerable families.”

Of course, I reject the implication that we in the traditional public schools - who accept challenges far more daunting than those faced by charter schools – are not closely attuned to the needs of the most vulnerable families. So, I’ll half-seriously counter Cohen’s technocratic game plan with a football coach’s aphorism. Darryl Royal famously said, “Three things can happen when you throw the ball, and two of them are bad.”

The contemporary school reform movement’s incomplete pass sowed discord between allies in the fight for students' welfare, making it more difficult for us to come together in support of critical issues, such as healthcare, poverty, civil rights, and jobs.

The dramatic interception prompted by the reform coalition is that it has made so many teachers “miserable.” To his credit, Cohen acknowledged that teachers’ pushback includes “a genuine response to feeling like the teaching profession has become unmoored from joy and creativity,” and “that’s bad for children.”

Cohen counts charters as his conservative/neoliberal/liberal coalition’s completion. Of course, some charters do well. I’d say that Cohen overplays his hand when writing about “amazing charter schools that get stunning results.”  We could debate whether charters have done more good than harm, especially for the poorest children of color left behind in even more segregated schools. But what would be the point of continuing that debate?

I could also chide Cohen for his faith in technocracy.  But what good would that do?

I believe that reformers were terribly misguided when they tried to leverage “teacher quality” to drive increases in student performance. It was a mistake to believe instruction could advance in front of the other interconnected features of schooling. Certainly they misjudged how much could be changed inside classrooms before addressing healthcare, poverty, civil rights, and jobs.

I could say, “We told you so!,” but what good would that do?

On the other hand, I hope Cohen will ask why he and others were so willing to attack teachers and unions even though we had long been allies in the campaign for civil rights and economic opportunity? Why was Cohen so sure that he and his coalition was right, and teachers were so wrong, that they assaulted us so vociferously?

Cohen has campaigned for transformative change. I’ve committed to incrementalism. I believe that the best way to improve schools is to slow down, “plan your work and work your plan.” The biggest gains come from thinking ahead and avoiding “unforced errors.”

So, Cohen and his remaining teammates should take inventory of our differences, and ask how they could see them as equivalent to what separates us from Trump. We who seek improvements in the traditional public school system aren’t perfect, but neither are we evil.  If reformers joined in a Big Tent liberal reform movement, they would not need to be “subsumed by the traditionalist agenda.”

If we can’t unite against Trumpism, however, the consequences could be dire – even world historical. Cohen and other liberal and neoliberal reformers collaborated with quite a team of conservative reformers - who are now comfortable with DeVos and Trump. I don’t claim that that it would be easy for him (or us) to forget the bitter battles of the last 1-1/2 decades, but he should support a truce. I’d think it would be easier for him to bury the hatchet and work with teachers and unions than it was for him to deal with many of his former allies.

Swapping Out the White Lens

In the documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, filmmaker Raoul Peck excerpts large sections of an interview that James Baldwin, the film’s subject, gave in 1968:

I don’t know what most white people in this country feel, but I can only conclude what they feel by the state of their institutions … I don’t know whether the labor unions and their bosses really hate me. That doesn’t matter, but I know I’m not in their unions. I don’t know if the real estate lobby has anything against black people, but I know that the real estate lobby keeps me in the ghetto. I don’t know if the board of education hates black people, but I know the textbooks they give my children to read, and the schools that we have to go to. This is the evidence. You want me to make an act of faith, risking myself … my children … on some idealism which you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen.

Even in a downtown Manhattan theater, deep within the womblike comfort of the coastal-elite-NPR-tote-bag-carrying bubble, white people shifted in their seats during this scene, myself included. The discomfort was heightened, because the filmmaker juxtaposes Baldwin’s incisive words with glittery dancehall scenes from Hollywood’s golden age. In his New Yorker review of the film, Hilton Als  describes the La La Land-imagery as an indication of “how whiteness views itself.”

While white America revels in the triumphant version of itself feted in splashy musicals, Baldwin and Peck offer a counter-narrative.  So do Jordan Peele, the director of the film Get Out, and Justin Simien, whose 2014 movie Dear White People is in the process of being revived as a series on Netflix. These auteurs are interested in engaging whiteness, but not on whiteness’s terms. Peele, Peck, and Simien cast whiteness through a different lens, which has been honed over four centuries of being on the receiving end of white culture’s most oppressive tendencies.

This is not a lens through which white America enjoys peering for very long. When Netflix released a trailer for new episodes of Dear White People, a former BuzzFeed reporter called for a boycott, arguing that Simien’s satire advocated “white genocide,” a favorite bête noir of the alt-right. Armond White (seriously) of the National Review called Get Out an entry in the “Get-Whitey” genre, arguing that the movie plays on the “Trayvon Martin myth” to arouse sympathy for a black character.

It is a damning feature of white culture that makes myth creation the necessary antecedent to feeling empathy for a dead black child. That same feature – which we sometimes shorthand as “privilege” – led Camilla Long, in her review of Moonlight, to suggest that the Oscar-winning best picture is not “relevant,” because it does not revolve around whiteness. White privilege cannot tolerate the relevance of other cultures, as its sustenance depends on the perpetuation of a fiction about its own primacy.

In a critique of Long’s review, Josh Manasa posits that, “Whiteness maintains its dominance, in part, by presuming that we are incapable of doing or being anything outside of what it thinks of us.”

Another way that whiteness clings to power is by avoiding hearing or seeing what anyone else thinks of it.

 

All of these films challenge that avoidance strategy. Peck and Simien even construct their titles in the second person, addressing white audiences directly, leaving little confusion as to whose culture is being examined.

White faces have been behind the literal and metaphorical cameras of American culture since the country’s inception. What’s so important about the films of Peele, Peck, and Simien is that they all eschew a critique of cartoonish bigotry, in favor of shifting the frame to shed light on the passive acquiescence of white liberals to their own privilege. If the contrapuntal weight-shifting of my peers in the Manhattan theater was any indication, liberal white folks are aware that something is rotten in their state, but they have no idea how to stanch the decay.

Plenty of white audiences enjoy these films, because fortunately artistic appreciation does not require us to “like” the versions of ourselves we see in these metaphorical mirrors. Whether we like the reflections, however, has no bearing on their accuracy. White culture was built on a racial caste system that never went away, and it will never go away without outside pressure. Or to paraphrase someone who is being recognized more and more these days, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.”

The amplification of these nonwhite cultural voices has coincided with quixotic changes in the national political culture. Those mutations have unleashed a flurry of activity among the white liberals of America. We are protesting, marching, writing letters, promising to dismantle racism, and acknowledging the existence of white supremacy. What we continue to not do, however, is take adequate responsibility for the problems of whiteness.

In the rush to explain and understand the chimerical “white working class,” the white liberals of America have once again cast ourselves as innocent bystanders in a cultural war, looking for other people at whose feet we might lay the blame for America’s persistent injustices.

 

Peele, Peck, Simien, and Baldwin have a different, and more important, demand for liberal white America: be quiet, listen, and try not to freak out at what you see in the mirror.

The Milo Yiannopoulos Affair and the Hypocrisy of White Identity Politics

Alt-right wunderkind Milo Yiannopoulos made his career through frequent and flagrant flaunting of free speech. Like the shocking disk jockeys who are his intellectual peers, Yiannopoulos used inflammatory jibber jabber as a shortcut to fame. He wraps bigoted ideas in the warm blanket of “free speech,” but the covering is a cloak, obscuring the fact this his notions are just repackaged hate mongering. He is a slightly more dashing David Duke, or as I called him last November, a telegenic Rush Limbaugh.

Yesterday, though, Milo’s rhetorical training wheels collapsed under him:

Milo Yiannopoulos, a polemical Breitbart editor and unapologetic defender of the alt-right, tested the limits of how far his provocations could go after the publication of a video in which he condones sexual relations with boys as young as 13 and laughs off the seriousness of pedophilia by Roman Catholic priests. On Monday, the organizers of the Conservative Political Action Conference rescinded their invitation for him to speak this week. Simon & Schuster said it was canceling publication of “Dangerous” after standing by him through weeks of criticism of the deal. And Breitbart itself was reportedly reconsidering his role amid calls online for it to sever ties with him.

The individuals who espouse free speech as a first-among-equals political value were quick to defend Yiannopoulos when the targets of his ridicule were women, members of the transgender community, black folks, or the dreaded liberal protectors of “PC culture.” Moderates and conservatives alike cheered Yiannopoulos as he pilloried the PC-ers, but they are speechless now that their darling aimed his verbal weaponry at the victims of child rape.

The Milo melee reveals a few uncomfortable truths about mainstream conservative culture, which is just a more extreme manifestation of the white identity politics at play across political lines in this country. First, the defense of free speech was never about defending open discourse, but rather about the dominant culture drawing lines around whose humanity and dignity is worth defending. Some conservatives in my own field, public education, ridicule “PC culture” until their own views are challenged … at which point they furiously invoke the need for their own safe spaces. The platforms on which free speech occur are controlled by gatekeepers, most of whom are white and privileged. The defense of free speech collapses whenever the dominant white culture perceives that its own mores are being challenged.

Second, the reaction to Yiannopoulos demonstrates the extent to which most folks misunderstand the actual first amendment to the Constitution. The right to free speech guarantees that Congress will not make laws restricting speech; the Constitution does not prevent a person from being ridiculed, marginalized, or disinvited from the halls of dignified adult discourse for espousing ideas that harm people. Fortunately, the fact that Milo lost his book deal means that our broader American culture thinks that there should be some social costs for advancing harmful ideas. Unfortunately, the fact that pedophilia was the wire that Milo had to trip, means that neither racism nor misogyny nor transphobia seem to be on the list of mainstream white America’s punishable offenses. If you are surprised by this particular parsing of personhood, I invite you to observe the perspectives of the sitting president of the United States.

Finally, by drawing the virtual line-in-the-sand” at child rape, the conservative movement, which is almost entirely composed of white people, demonstrated what they have in common with white progressives: white people will defend their values with vigor, until their own children are involved. “Free speech” was the hill on which conservative critics were willing to die, until the topic was the sexual safety of their own children. Similarly, white progressives will thump their chests about social justice, until they are asked to enroll their own children in a racially integrated elementary school. In both cases – whether the topic is social justice or free speech – whenever children get involved, the political grandstanding of white folks morphs into a long discourse about “safety.” Political values have a way of becoming dispensable once they are tested on one’s own kin. If only the actual harm of the black child in America raised as many alarms as the hypothetical harm of the white one.

Yiannopoulos will have a few bad days in the media, after which he will almost certainly rehabilitate his image, get another book deal, and emerge as the victim of this whole affair. When that happens, and he rises like a White-Fragility-Phoenix from the ashes of his current self-inflicted shame, I hope that we remember why he was punished in the first place. There should be tangible social costs to perpetuating harmful ideas, particularly those that historically have served as antecedents to mass violence and cultural dissolution. The only upside of the Milo dustup is that America, in its own late-to-the-party way, is reasserting the idea that some ideas deserve to remain in history’s waste bucket. The next step is to decide that racism, white supremacy, transphobia, and misogyny belong in the barrel as well.

Talk to Your Cousin Becky About This Ignorant Cartoon

On Monday I started writing a follow-up letter to Justin Timberlake. Justin and I had a little conversation last summer, after he pulled out his All Lives Matter card on twitter. While not everyone remembers JT’s outburst, hearing Adele’s vulnerable acceptance speech at the Grammy Awards on Sunday night made me think he might learn something from her humility and grace in the face of a moment with racial overtones … and that reaching out to Timberlake might be a teachable moment for White folks more generally.

Then this happened:

The Problem We All Live With by Norman Rockwell

The Problem We All Live With by Norman Rockwell

German Lopez at Vox explains the history of the Norman Rockwell painting to which this cartoon refers, while historian Kevin Kruse explains why the new image is so offensive

If you’re somewhere on the “Wokey McWokerson” side of the White person spectrum, this situation probably pisses you off. If you're red in the face over this cartoon, circle up for a quick meeting!

Are we all here? Great. Listen closely:

The person who made this cartoon is related to one of us.

It’s true! And even if a member of your own family did not draw this cartoon, someone in each of our families looked at this ignorant slander against Black history and thought, “Well, that’s a reasonable comparison.”

It’s probably our cousin Becky, right? Becky lived her whole life going to holiday meals with us, yet still thinks it’s acceptable to compare a second-generation billionaire heiress, to a Black child being ushered by armed guards to attend school in the Jim Crow South.

Why does Becky think this? I have no clue. Her dad was kind of bigoted, so maybe she absorbed prejudice by osmosis. Maybe she, like so many of our White relatives, was subjected to an endless stream of racist imagery, spewing out like flickering embers from our television screens throughout our entire childhoods. Perhaps she watched that parade of propaganda, featuring criminalized Black folks and victimized White ones, while not a single level-headed person challenged the truth or data behind that narrative.

In light of Becky’s peculiar perspectives, we have one job as “aspiring allies” this week: have a conversation with our cousins about this picture. We could have been the level-headed influence during Becky’s childhood, but we weren’t. We had other priorities. We were somewhat less woke in those days, right?

There’s no excuse now, though. We’ve gone to a bunch of protests, and we’re constantly reminding our Facebook friends that we want to “do more” right now.

As part of our penance for letting Becky drift into alt-right-adjacent territory, we must talk to her. Let’s start with these three questions:

1) Do you know the history to which this cartoon refers? If Becky says “yes,” proceed directly to question number two. If she says “no,” you might discuss the history of schools segregation; the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education; the way in which segregation persists even today; and the massive disparities in wealth and educational attainment that accompany that history. Once you have established a fact base, proceed to the second question.

2) Why do you think this comparison is fair? When you ask Becky why she thinks the comparison is a fair one, I want you to actually listen to her answer. Do not judge her with your face, even though I KNOW you totally are judging the fuck out of her in your head. Force yourself to pause and listen, even if what she says afterwards is COMPLETELY indefensible. Okay, let’s be honest: whatever she says is probably going to be Charlie-Sheen-circa-2011 levels of incoherent. But I want you to listen for opportunities to go deeper. Does she think that conservatives suffer the same discrimination that women of color do? (They don’t.) Does she think that protest-driven discomfort is tantamount to the state forbidding the education of black children? (It’s not.) At this point in the conversation, I predict that something is going to happen to Becky, which leads to the third and final question for this session …

3) Why are you so mad? If my experience is any indication, Becky is going to get mad and defensive at this point. Her arguments, whatever they are, have deep roots in decades of misinformation. Defending an argument with a flawed premise is hard to do, but she’s trying. Becky may have never questioned the fundamental underpinnings of her beliefs. As a result, she’s going to get that tingling feeling in her spine. You remember that feeling. It’s the way you felt the first time you realized that the whole world around you might be predicated on a series of lies about yours, and others’, identities. The only way your cousin can justify her current beliefs is if she continues to deny the existence of institutional racism, white privilege, and white supremacy. Perpetual denial is much easier than the tension of justice.

Once she’s mad, you should end the conversation. If you try to lecture Becky about racism and white privilege right now, while she’s angry, you’re pursuing a pointless path. People can’t hear anything when they’re mad. Was it possible for you to listen to reasonable discourse after Adele won that third Grammy? How about election night? Were you susceptible to logic then?

Yeah. That’s what I thought.

I know it sounds unfair to let your cousin stay mad after this first conversation, but I promise you that she will never hear your extremely logical, and historically valid, arguments about racism and white supremacy while she’s feeling defensive about her own identity.

Here’s the most important part though: letting Becky stay mad after this conversation doesn’t mean that you can let her off the hook. Call her a couple of days later. Ask her how she’s feeling. Mention that you were surprised by how angry she got. Then have that follow-up conversation, wherein you casually mention the concept of institutional racism. Perhaps you can discuss white supremacy in a fourth or fifth conversation

Yes, I know this sounds crazy … you have to engage in TWO WHOLE conversations with Becky, who you suspect might be kind of racist. This sounds like a big “ask,” right?

Well, guess what’s worse than having two conversations with Becky? The extraordinary resurgence of overt racism and white supremacy that’s happening in our country right now. The process of educating other white people about racism is textbook “White folks' work.” You have the power to do something about Becky. Her education is going to be a long process, for which we should hold ourselves accountable. Stop asking what you can do. Start talking to your cousins.