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Will America ever have a #MeToo-style reckoning for racism?

We’re in the middle of a reckoning on the subject of sexual assault and sexual misconduct — especially in the workplace. Abuses long swept under the rug or covered up are being exposed, the perpetrators punished.

But just as women have long endured inappropriate conduct, with no sense that they’d get any justice if they spoke up, so have many people of color. Which led us to wonder: What would a racial “reckoning” in the style of #MeToo look like in our country?

#MeToo is a tough social movement to define, but several overarching themes emerge: Perpetrators of sexual harassment are being called out for specific bad behavior, ranging from very explicit to more subtle forms. People are losing their jobs because of it. There is a cultural conversation happening that involves identifying this behavior, once acceptable (or ignored), as unacceptable. And there is a broader conversation happening about the underlying systems that enable this kind of behavior.

What would a similar movement centered on race look like? What consequences would they suffer? What would it take to make this broader conversation about what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior happen? Vox politics and policy writer Jane Coaston, identities editor Michelle Garcia, and identities writers P.R. Lockhart and German Lopez got together to discuss the challenges of a similar reckoning for acts of racism in America. Here’s their conversation, edited and condensed for clarity.

Jane Coaston

Racists are all too often able to defend themselves by simply claiming that their racism doesn’t count as racism. I think that our history puts the “what counts as racism” bar so high that many believe to fit underneath it renders them “not racist.” “I’ve never burned a cross! I’ve never called anyone a ni**er! I just think that interracial relationships are bad!”

German Lopez

You see that kind of thing with the opposition to taking microaggressions seriously. People really, really don’t like the idea that just making a certain group of people uncomfortable might get them in trouble. They want to be able to get away with it.

Michelle Garcia

Yeah, that’s what worries me about this “politically correct/incorrect” business. For so long people were able to say things, unchecked, that were incredibly racist, or at the very least unkind to other human beings — but being held accountable for those actions is suddenly oh so stifling? Give me a break! Be a human being.

German Lopez

I do think, though, that there is an open question about how exactly you define racism. We see it with #MeToo right now, where it seems pretty clear that unsolicited physical acts and comments are out of bounds, but things get a bit murkier when dealing with, for example, someone who asks a colleague out on a date or misreads a conversation at an after-work party. I’m not sure how these kinds of situations would apply to racial harassment, but there is some gray in here to work through.

P.R. Lockhart

I’m not entirely sure that those #MeToo lines are even that solid. We’re seeing stuff that is clearly wrong, things like masturbating in front of nonconsenting women, inappropriate comments — those are happening and people are saying, “Well, but those aren’t that bad.” Or they look at it and say, “Well, that’s bad, but it wasn’t rape.” Or, “It wasn’t as bad as what [Harvey] Weinstein did.” And when you look at race and its history in this country, I feel like we’re even further back on having the understanding necessary for this.

German Lopez

As a man, I definitely started thinking during the #MeToo movement about whether I’ve ever said anything that could come off as inappropriate (even though I’m gay). I imagine a lot of men went through a similar thought process. That alone probably provides a more hidden check on bad behavior.

But with race, it seems like a lot of people don’t even want to acknowledge their biases. This is actually one of the biggest things in police trainings, for example, where trainers try to avoid calling officers racist in any way — so I’m struggling to imagine a similar self-evaluation on race.

P.R. Lockhart

I’m having a similar struggle. One of the things that I think about a lot with the racial reckoning aspect is, you know, not exactly about how it would play out, but how would it even start?

Jane Coaston

People want to believe the best of themselves. And that crosses partisan lines — how much of the discussion regarding segregation in NYC schools has involved liberal parents who simply don’t want their kids around “those” kids? There’s an infrastructure in existence already waiting to push back on that racial reckoning.

Michelle Garcia

This reminds me of the study in which a woman was confronted with her own potentially racist behavior and had a panic attack because she was so upset by the possibility that she, herself, could be considered exhibiting racist attitudes.

German Lopez

White fragility is a real thing.

Jane Coaston

Right. And a lot of media outlets are very much invested in protecting their readers from accusations of racism. When you think about the generous media focus and willingness to investigate claims with #MeToo, I don’t think you’re going to see the same type of work done on race.

German Lopez

I mean, we see this with #MeToo. How many men have proactively come out and admitted to a problem before they’re publicly accused? How many have remained in denial even after allegations pile up? The good thing is we now have cultural forces that push back against those men, but I don’t think we’re quite there yet with racism.

Michelle Garcia

I wonder if it’s because so much of the reporting on #MeToo has come down to physical interactions: grabbing people, masturbating, flashing, unwanted kissing. What’s the equivalent with race? Kinda like what Jane said earlier, it’s like cross burning is the bar, which is ridiculous. Physical interactions are clear-cut; microaggressions, to people of a certain age, sound ridiculous — even though they’re very real and very damaging.

Jane Coaston

I also think that for some, racism makes sense. Racism is “rational.” People will say, “Everyone is a little bit racist!” The idea that racism is “wrong” makes it so no one wants to admit to being a racist, but at the same time, everyone will admit to holding racist attitudes because “everyone does.” How many times have we gotten the “I don’t have a racist bone in my body” speech from someone who compared Michelle Obama to a gorilla?

German Lopez

I mean, yesterday and today we saw a story in which a Kansas lawmaker said that black people misuse marijuana more because of “character makeup” and “genetics,” and yet he insisted he’s not racist. (Black people don’t misuse marijuana or drugs in general more, for the record.)

P.R. Lockhart

I also think that with #MeToo, one thing that seemed to help was that women reporters were heavily involved in driving the story. And I don’t think there are enough supports for minority journalists to make that happen on the same scale. Just look at the backlash generated by Erica Garner’s family requesting to speak with black journalists. [After Erica Garner’s death, her family requested that only black journalists ask for comment.]

German Lopez

I kind of wonder how much population matters for that. With #MeToo, one advantage to it is women make up half the population. But black and brown people are still a much smaller slice of the population, which has to make it harder to build a movement.

Michelle Garcia

And even collectively, nonwhite people in the US make up around, like, 40 percent of the population, but within that nonwhite category, there are so many different aspects to what racism looks like and how it’s experienced. Even when you break that down by gender, sexual orientation, class, immigration status, etc.

Jane Coaston

Right. This is why discussions of race matter, even in small ways, but so often “discussing” race is positioned as in itself racist.

German Lopez

Right, the emails I get about going back to Mexico are probably not the same as what everyone else in this room gets.

Jane Coaston

Yes, I get very odd messages about being light-skinned that I would prefer to not get.

Michelle Garcia

So I worked somewhere for years that I generally loved — when people talk about co-workers being a second family, it was that kind of place. But someone joined who made me incredibly miserable, and I realized that this person would constantly say very uncomfortably racial things to me from day one, or send me weird race stuff about black hair and fried chicken — and this person’s intentions were “good,” but they also didn’t know me like that!

Eventually I started keeping a list (and I was not the only person at the company who did!). When I went to HR with the list, I was told they really couldn’t do anything about it, which was incredibly frustrating. But the sad thing is, this comes as little surprise to me, since in the same workplace, a very close friend and colleague was sexually harassed by another co-worker for years and received either radio silence or threats to stay silent.

German Lopez

This kind of reminds me of another thing: A lot of the harassment sometimes comes from the consumers people are serving. Those emails I mentioned come from readers. People in public-facing jobs, like store clerks, certainly see that too. How do you handle those cases? You can fire a boss, but do you fire a customer?

Jane Coaston

And does shaming work? Does sharing videos of “racist lady in store” move the needle?

German Lopez

Presumably, if you had cultural forces against racism in the same way as #MeToo, you would. But I bet a lot of bosses nowadays are like, “Eh, just ignore it.”

Jane Coaston

There was an idea within the LGBTQ rights movement that to know us would be to care about us, respect us, and want the best for us. You couldn’t refuse the right to marry to, say, your neighbor or your friend or your kid. But why doesn’t that work with race? Partly because of residential segregation (a lot of people simply don’t know a minority outside of TV), but for those who do, why isn’t that effective? Why doesn’t “my best friend is black” translate into “and that’s why I understand her concerns about police brutality”?

Michelle Garcia

So true — “my best friend is black” (or “our lawyer is Jewish”) too often becomes an excuse and not a reason to learn about your own biases.

German Lopez

Yeah, it speaks to how entrenched racism is. Getting to know gay people genuinely moved the needle on gay rights. I think studies show getting to know more black people moves the needle, but my guess is the effect is nowhere as strong because homophobia simply wasn’t as entrenched.

Michelle Garcia

And honestly, queer people are in every family. People of color aren’t necessarily in every family.

Jane Coaston

I think this is why I’m purposely open about things that might seem trite, like having natural hair. I remember in college a friend of mine ran a camp for kids in a predominantly white area in Cincinnati, and I let the kids touch my hair because they couldn’t understand that my hair doesn’t go down, it goes straight up. And I talked about how lots of people look like me, but lots of people don’t, but we’re all equal and interesting, and the kids really responded. And I realized that I might be the first nonwhite person they had ever been physically close to.

Michelle Garcia

Ah, yeah — I was talking to my husband and sister-in-law about this recently. When you’re a person of color in a white space, you’re so often an ambassador to your race to them, which is freaking tiring! It’s an incredible tool if you know how to use it, but I’ve had to be That Person since about middle school when my family moved to the burbs on Long Island.

P.R. Lockhart

Are we considering Black Lives Matter a racial reckoning?

Michelle Garcia

Honestly, I think that without Black Lives Matter, I wonder whether #MeToo would have been as effective, or existed at all.

German Lopez

I kind of look at it, so far, as a starting point to a broader racial reckoning: It sounds like we all agree that the first step is people have to acknowledge their racial biases. That’s really what Black Lives Matter is about.

Jane Coaston

Right. And yet it was overtaken by “whataboutism.”

German Lopez

Yeah, Black Lives Matter also shows that trying to get people to acknowledge racial biases is hard.

Michelle Garcia

And I think part of that is because when it comes to race, a lot of people never really have to face their own biases in a concrete way. Just numerically, facing gender inequality is probably a lot more likely to happen.

Sadly, though, I am kind of pessimistic about there being a true racial reckoning in America because it frankly takes work from everyone — even the people who claim to not have a “racist bone in their body.”

German Lopez

I kind of wonder if the #MeToo approach is even the right one for race. It’s really a bottom-up approach, where women came out and led the movement with these accusations. But what we’ve seen in other countries in terms of racial or similar reckonings has been more top-down, like what South Africa did with its Truth and Reconciliation Commission after apartheid and how Germany really focused on systemically admitting the wrongs of the Holocaust.

Jane Coaston

And let’s not forget, that was largely a West German effort. East Germany never had that process of self-criticism, and to this day the ramifications have been massive.

Michelle Garcia

A couple of years ago, my father was completely mind-blown when he realized that South Africa had done one thing that the US has failed to do: facilitated a national dialogue on decades of apartheid. We never did that with slavery, and because of that, we’ve failed to even address the entrenched racism we’re still dealing with today. Granted, I have no idea whether South Africa’s national reckoning was incredibly effective, but it’s a good start.

German Lopez

If people aren’t willing to admit their biases on their own, maybe a government or government-like force — or at least a mediator — is needed.

Michelle Garcia

Yeah, I think even if you show the statistics, tell the stories, report the facts, people who never have to confront police brutality or workplace discrimination, or school push-out, or other sorts of entrenched biases, can continue to refuse to admit or try to understand why these differences occur. I don’t know if this comes from the government, though — I don’t think Americans are quite so into that!

P.R. Lockhart

When we look at a lot of the issues facing minorities, multiple racial reckonings are needed. And while I’d love for people to stop following me in stores, I think that the government can play a role more broadly.

German Lopez

I definitely agree that people would be averse to government interference here. There’s a great case for reparations, yet people aren’t willing to even approach the topic. But I still think it might be the best way forward.



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