This summer, I’ve had the chance to spend a few weeks on the road, exploring the vast, forgotten America west of the Acela corridor and east of Hollywood. In June, I drove from Brooklyn to Arkansas and back, and just last week coursed through the whole continent, landing at a beach bar in Venice Beach. One thing I noticed everywhere I went, in the bars and restaurants I haunted along the way, was a level of racial harmony that belies the notion of our nation as a hotbed of racism.
The people I met along the way, and there were a lot of them, were white, black, brown, Asian, and Native American, and they weren’t self-segregated within the establishments I found. Much the opposite: they were mixing, mingling, laughing, and drinking together without even a hint of racial tension.
So how could this be in a nation that is purportedly teeming with racial strife? Was I to believe my lying eyes and the convivial conversations I witnessed and engaged in? Or was I to believe that somewhere underneath all of this good-spirited community life lies a bedrock of inescapable racism?
Overcoming Racism Starts With Individuals
What becomes clear very quickly is that for Americans who do not choose to center their sense of self on their demographic identities, a whole host of other interests and qualities animate their social behavior. Whether they were college football fans in a Barstow hotel bar, truckers sitting out front of a Greenville, Illinois, motel smoking and sharing beer and tales from the road, or more upscale denizens of a fancy Tulsa wine bar sniffing and swishing a new rosé, nobody seemed to care much about skin color.
None of this is to say that racism is dead in our society; of course it is not. Many, maybe all of us, sometimes make irrational assumptions about people based on their skin color. These can result in negative outcomes for certain groups in employment, education, and the criminal justice system.
This is why rooting out and unwinding these irrational assumptions individuals sometimes make is a better anti-racism method than attacking vague, massive concepts such as privilege theory or systemic racism. At the end of the day, after all, systems are administered by individuals.
We’ve Come So Far
But as far as America has to go to live up to the promise of equality for all, it is wrongheaded and even dangerous not to celebrate how far our country, as diverse as it can be, has come. That hotel in Barstow was hosting a wedding that night that told the tale of integration beautifully. An older Hispanic couple was getting married, and among the relatives and friends assembled, almost every racial group in America was represented. In fact, interracial marriage and positive attitudes toward it have skyrocketed in recent decades.
It is vital to remember that in some Americans’ living memory, segregation was the law in many places, and openly supporting such laws was acceptable in polite society. Something telling about those who suggest ours is a deeply racist country is that often the examples they cite are supposed backlash to genuine and constant progress.
The media wonders, for example, what the reaction will be to a black Captain America, when, in reality, basically nobody will care very much beyond maybe thinking it’s cool to have reached this point. But that won’t stop the media from chasing down stupid comments from a handful of Twitter accounts with fewer than 100 followers, who may or may not be foreign trolls, and pretending it’s some huge backlash.
We Need a Vision
In part, this disconnect between those who insist that racism is America and those who live work and play with all manner of folks in the small towns and cities of lonely America is the result of an industry of racial grievance. This is not just the case on college campuses, which seem to have more diversity officers than math teachers. It is also true in corporate America, which spends millions to hire specialized companies to conduct training.
These diversity officers and “trainers” all hew to a single concept of what racism is and how everyone should battle it. By their own accounts, it isn’t working. They say the race problem is getting worse even as their anti-racism methods gain steam. Perhaps they think they must raise the fever to break it, but what if their entire diagnosis is wrong?
I have never been and never will be a person of color in the United States, and it is not my intention to downplay the very real and unique risks that still exist for people who are. But if we are to mitigate or even end these risks, we need some vision of what a country without irrational racial judgments would look like. We need something to aspire to, not just an endless cycle of forever racism and forever anti-racist training and education.
That something to aspire to exists. It exists in bars and eateries across the bulge of our land, in the stadiums and Little League games, on the golf courses and tennis courts, in book clubs and churches and concert halls. It exists in a mixed America where people enjoy each other regardless of race, an America that to people 70 years ago would appear shocking — to some in horror, to more in wonder and hope.
So let’s cut ourselves a break. Think about where we want to go, but also appreciate and celebrate how far we have come.