King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ explains the rage over the NFL anthem protests and the persistence of racial injustice Re-reading the famous letter today shows how much still needs to change

On Feb. 11, at 8 p.m., The Undefeated will present Dear Black Athlete, a one-hour special on ESPN featuring conversations with athletes and community leaders about social justice. Inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” the program will be taped at Birmingham’s Sixth Avenue Baptist Church, where King spoke and led civil rights marches. Below, we examine the meaning of King’s letter in today’s racial climate.

Martin Luther King Jr. penned his Letter from Birmingham Jail in a narrow cell on newspaper margins, scraps of paper and smuggled-in legal pads. He had no notes or reference materials. Yet, King’s eloquent defense of nonviolent protest and searing critique of moderation continues to resonate in a nation still divided by race.

In 1963, the letter spoke truth to white clergymen who called him a troublemaker for coming to Birmingham, Alabama, to confront that city’s harsh segregation and racial violence. In 2018, King’s tract stands as a beacon to a new generation of activists impatient with injustice perpetuated less by flush-faced bigots than by the ostensibly colorblind institutions that structure our society.

King’s letter famously said creating tension was necessary to the work of nonviolent protesters, and that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” He called out the white church for being an “arch supporter of the status quo,” and castigated its ministers for urging members to comply with desegregation because it is the law, not because it is morally right and “the Negro is your brother.” He also expressed grave disappointment with white moderates, whom he described as “more devoted to order than justice.”

The letter was “prophetic,” said Lecia Brooks, outreach director for the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks racial extremist groups. “King really calls out systemic racism and, particularly, systemic anti-black racism. And, of course, it persists today.”

Brooks hears echoes of the white clergymen who accused King of inciting violence in the stinging criticism of NFL players who protested racial inequities by taking a knee during the national anthem.

“What they have done is in the tradition of nonviolent protest. It forces people to have a conversation,” she said. “But the pushback has been ugly. It’s like, ‘We’re sick of you, the nerve of the NFL players.’ They are like the outsiders that the clergy mentioned in going after King.”

King’s letter was written nearly a decade after the Supreme Court outlawed school segregation, but Alabama’s largest city operated under its own rules. Black people could not work or try on clothes in downtown stores. They were given used books in separate schools, and made to wait in separate waiting rooms at public hospitals. Those who challenged the established order risked the wrath of the Ku Klux Klan or other terrorists who enforced apartheid so savagely that the town was nicknamed “Bombingham.”

Today, the city is no longer segregated by law, and violent racists no longer run amok. But segregation remains: Many whites fled the city, and its schools are 99 percent black and Hispanic. The city’s poverty rate is more than 30 percent. Then there is the racial wealth gap, income gap, unemployment gap, school achievement gap, incarceration gap and life expectancy gap. It is a story common to many parts of the country.

“The pushback has been ugly. It’s like, ‘We’re sick of you, the nerve of the NFL players.’ “

Birmingham is now led by Mayor Randall Woodfin, 36, a proud Morehouse College graduate who is among the more than 10,000 black elected officials serving across the country.

“It is hard to read King’s letter and not want to re-reread it and re-read it again,” he said, calling it the civil rights leader’s seminal piece. Not only does it lay out the steps, from self-education to negotiation, that should precede protest, Woodfin said, but it also makes a historical case for why black people are impatient for real change.

“We have black leadership now. But some of the things Dr. King was talking about as it relates to poverty and better education and opportunity, they still exist,” Woodfin said. “We need to be bolder in correcting things we know are not working for many people.”

Better education funding, longer school years, seamless coordination between schools, libraries and recreation centers are some of the things that Woodfin thinks could help. “We are not spending enough time with our children,” he said. “We need to do more with workforce development, that entire pipeline from birth until young people cross that stage.”

But winning support for such initiatives is difficult in Birmingham, much like it is in Detroit or Baltimore or East St. Louis, Illinois. The city alone does not have the wealth to pay for those things, and white taxpayers in neighboring communities do not see problems in places like Birmingham’s as theirs. If polls are any indication, almost none of those white suburbanites see themselves as racist. But they are the present-day equivalent of the moderates King wrote about, minimizing the importance of discrimination in the ongoing struggles of places like Birmingham.

Seven in 10 African-Americans surveyed in a 2016 Pew Research Center poll cited discrimination as a reason blacks have a harder time than whites getting ahead, a view shared by just 36 percent of white respondents. A series of independent studies have found that black people still face discrimination from the criminal justice system, from employers, from real estate agents, and from banks and mortgage companies. Yet, when asked about the racial fairness of institutions fundamental to American life — courts, police, the workplace, mortgage companies — white people are much less likely than African-Americans to say black people are treated unfairly. White evangelicals, who are most prominent in the South, were the group least likely to perceive discrimination against blacks, according to a 2017 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute. Only 36 percent of white evangelicals reported perceiving a lot of discrimination against black people.

Growing up white in Birmingham, the Rev. Jim Cooley said segregation was a way of life that as a child he never stopped to examine. “It was a different planet then,” said Cooley, who is now pastor of the city’s First Baptist Church. One of his predecessors, the Rev. Earl Stallings, was among the eight clergymen who signed the statement that prompted King’s famous letter.

“I remember seeing separate bathrooms and separate water fountains as a youngster. I guess it was a tribute to my parents that I did not think of it as this is ‘upper’ and that is ‘lower.’ My impression was that there was some natural reason for this that I did not understand.”

Now he knows better, and he thanks King for helping to transform his city. He says the new Birmingham is evident in his own church’s growing racial diversity and the fact that its black organist causes no one in the congregation to as much as raise an eyebrow. He also sees black and white people coming together in civic groups to address the city’s many problems.

Still, Cooley acknowledged that huge racial disparities remain. Some are no doubt the result of Birmingham’s long history of racism, he says. But he thinks the gaps have as much to do with educational shortcomings and social isolation that he said also hinders many white people.

“If I walk around my neighborhood, there is an English couple. A man across the way is involved in the Sons of the Confederacy. There is an African-American doctor. Next to him, an Indian veterinarian and a Chinese pharmacist,” Cooley said. “There is less friction now, for sure. While everything was so drastically race-driven 50 or 60 years ago, now it is about opportunity and education. And that cuts across all kinds of racial strata.”

Freeman A. Hrabowski III, 67, the longtime president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, grew up in middle-class black Birmingham, as did former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, activist Angela Davis and Alma Powell, the wife of former Secretary of State Colin Powell. It was a nurturing world of high aspirations tightly controlled by the constant threat of racial violence.

“When we went downtown, we knew we were not part of mainstream Birmingham because there was nobody black in a position of power, not even at a cash register,” he recalled. “No police, firemen, nothing. It is hard to understand if you were not there just how dramatically different the world was then.”

Hrabowski was 12 years old when he was arrested and held for five days for taking part in the “Children’s Crusade,” waves of demonstrations that King launched not long after he was released from the Birmingham jail.

“When we went downtown we knew we were not part of mainstream Birmingham because there was nobody black in a position of power, not even at a cash register.”

Hrabowski brings the lessons he learned then to his work as president of UMBC, a public university just outside Baltimore. During his more than quarter-century at the university’s helm, he has turned the once nondescript commuter school into one of the nation’s top producers of African-American doctorates in science, technology, engineering and math.

That has not happened by accident. Hrabowski had made it his business to mentor and support black students and those from other underrepresented groups. Hrabowski promotes his school with evangelical zeal and brings at-risk students to campus to help them learn the habits of academic success. He promotes his sharpest science nerds as if they were rap stars, and he singles out basketball players with high grades so they can be seen as both athletic and academic role models.

He shed tears of joy in November when a black woman from suburban Maryland, 21-year-old Naomi Mburu, was named UMBC’s first Rhodes scholar. And when the university opened its new basketball arena and events center last weekend, he made sure Mburu strode onto center court, where she was introduced to the crowd at halftime.

It’s his way of battling the pervasive injustice he once endured in Birmingham.

Hrabowski noted that back when King penned his letter only 2 or 3 percent of African-Americans were college graduates, as were roughly 10 percent of whites. Now, according to the Census Bureau, 23 percent of African-American adults are four-year college graduates, as are almost 37 percent of whites.

“We’ve made tremendous progress since Dr. King’s letter, yes we have,” Hrabowski said. “You want to acknowledge that progress. But a lot of people are left behind, and to solve that we have to look at the unjust policies that Dr. King talks about. Just because it is in the structure, doesn’t mean it is just.”

‘The Rape of Recy Taylor’ explores the little-known terror campaign against black women Just as black men were lynched, black women faced systemic sexual violence under Jim Crow

For Southern black women, the era of separate but equal was also a decades-long reign of white sexual terror. If Southern trees bore strange fruit, the homes and streets they shaded contained secrets that until recently have largely been swept over and ignored.

The Rape of Recy Taylor, a documentary that opens in New York theaters Friday, concentrates some much-needed sunlight on this period of American history and the women who lived through it. Directed by Nancy Buirski, the woman behind both the narrative film Loving and the documentary The Loving Story, The Rape of Recy Taylor brings attention to a little-discussed but common reality for black women in the Jim Crow South: racially motivated rape by white men.

Taylor lived in the small town of Abbeville, Alabama. In 1944, when she was 24, Taylor was walking home from church when she was kidnapped, blindfolded and raped at gunpoint by six white men. Forced to beg for her life, Taylor promised to stay silent so she could go home to her husband and 9-month-old daughter.

But Taylor wasn’t silent. Left on the side of a dark country road, Taylor walked home and told her family about what happened. Rosa Parks, who began her career in civil rights as an anti-rape activist, came to Abbeville to agitate for the prosecution of Taylor’s attackers. For their troubles, Taylor’s home was firebombed, forcing her and her family to move in with relatives. When the family turned to the police, they found no refuge. Rather than pursuing justice, Abbeville’s sheriff circled the home of Taylor’s relatives, eventually stopping to drag Parks out and threaten her with jail if she did not leave town.

It’s a horrifying account, made worse by two startling facts:

1) Taylor’s rape was not an exceptional occurrence. It was part of a continuous campaign of terror that was just as much a threat to women as lynching was to black men.

2) The history of black women as victims of white terror has largely been ignored, silenced and minimized, even as their quest for safety fueled their pursuit of civil rights as far back as the 1890s.

What happened to Taylor and countless other black women and the obscurity of their story within the broader narrative of American history is emblematic of the way black women’s trauma is repeatedly given short shrift even today. The absence of black women from the spotlight of #MeToo has historical roots that predate Taylor’s rape. Taylor’s story isn’t just about her. It’s about thousands of women just like her whose stories we may never know, who were victimized and brutalized without recognition or recompense for their injuries.

A campaign of terror

Buirski’s documentary focuses on Taylor’s life and the devastation that followed her attack: Her marriage fell apart, she was unable to have more children and her only child died in her early 20s in a car crash. The book that inspired the film is far more expansive and devastating. Historian Danielle McGuire spent a decade researching At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance — a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power. She writes of more than 40 separate cases but insists there are far more stories that went untold, calling her work “the tiniest tip of the iceberg.”

“Between 1940 and 1965,” McGuire wrote, “only 10 white men were convicted of raping black women or girls in Mississippi despite the fact that it happened regularly.” It was rare for white men to be arrested for attacking black women, and even less likely for all-white grand juries to indict them. Convictions were even rarer.

“These are not just bad apples,” McGuire told me during a recent interview. “This is part of a systemic approach to dehumanizing black women and girls.”

In one chapter, McGuire detailed an attack against Melba Pattillo, a 12-year-old Arkansas girl. A white man chased her into the woods, tried to pull off her underwear and rape her, and yelled, “I’ll show you n—-s the Supreme Court can’t run my life.” The attack happened on May 17, 1954, the afternoon the Supreme Court announced its decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

In the same chapter, McGuire recounted the story of Annette Butler. On Mother’s Day 1956, four men in Tylertown, Mississippi — Ernest Dillon, Ollie Dillon (his brother) and their friends Olen Duncan and Durora Duncan (who were cousins) — went searching for a black woman to rape. Armed with a shotgun, they entered the house of Stennis Butler, a black sharecropper, and took his 16-year-old daughter, Annette, holding off her mother at gunpoint. The men drove her away deep into a swamp, raped her, then left her to find her own way home. They were charged with “forcible ravishment and kidnap.” Ernest Dillon pleaded guilty to assault and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. The other three men served no jail time for rape. One pleaded guilty to kidnapping, another was acquitted despite a confession and the third had his charges dismissed after his trial produced a hung jury.

At best, white law enforcement officials were lackadaisical about investigating sexual assaults on black women. At worst, they were perpetrating such assaults, not only on public streets but also in jails.

“These are not just bad apples. This is part of a systemic approach to dehumanizing black women and girls.”

In March 1949, Gertrude Perkins, 25, was assaulted by two Montgomery, Alabama, police officers. She was walking home in the dark when they stopped her, accused her of public drunkenness and forced her into their car. They drove, McGuire wrote, to the edge of a railroad embankment and raped her at gunpoint.

Even if men were convicted of rape, the political system found ways to excuse them. According to Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow, Cole Blease, the governor of South Carolina from 1910-14, made prolific use of his pardoning powers, issuing 1,700 during his tenure. Blease pardoned both black and white men who had been convicted of attacking black women and girls. In an official pardoning statement, Blease stated, “I am of the opinion, as I have always been, and have very serious doubt as to whether the crime of rape can be committed upon a negro.”

McGuire details how rape was used with lynching to terrorize and subjugate black people in the years leading up to and during the civil rights movement. Other historians, such as Darlene Clark Hine, have stated that the onslaught of interracial sexual violence visited upon Southern black women during Jim Crow was just as much a motivator for the Great Migration as lynching was.

“If you have a slave culture for hundreds of years, what happens when slavery ends?” McGuire said. “Does the culture change? That was part of my question doing this research, and the answer was of course it didn’t. White men were raised to believe that they could do whatever they wanted to do to black women and there would be no punishment, and when they did whatever they wanted to do, there usually wasn’t a punishment. These are lessons handed down from grandparents and fathers, uncles. They were encouraged to get a black woman for their first sex act so that they could practice … in the ’40s, they just picked them up on the side of the road just like Recy Taylor.

“It happened all the time.”

Disappearing history

If the violation of black women was so widespread that it contributed to one of the most monumental migration patterns in American history, why don’t more people know about it? How did our understanding of black women and interracial rape begin with slavery and end largely with the conclusion of the Civil War?

There are multiple reasons for this absence: Race men like Booker T. Washington didn’t think civil rights organizations had a role to play in protecting black women from rape. White women’s organizations were equally reluctant to acknowledge that their husbands and sons were attacking black women. White women like Rebecca Latimer Felton, America’s first female senator, not only ginned up fear that black men were raping white women en masse, they sucked away attention from the real epidemic of rape that was actually occurring.

Furthermore, the documentation of abuse was limited. Often, stories of abuse were passed down orally by grandmothers and mothers. Even now, it’s difficult for historians to find detailed, written accounts of these attacks. McGuire referred to it as “detective work.”

And these threats weren’t memorialized in song, as was lynching in Billie Holiday’s 1939 recording of “Strange Fruit.” If there were references, they were so oblique as to require their own decoder ring.

Even in places dedicated to telling the story of black American history such as the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., or the Great Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore, there is limited acknowledgment of interracial rape during Jim Crow, and certainly not as a reality endemic to black Southern life.

The Blacks in Wax Museum has an entire room dedicated to the horrors of lynching, which includes a re-creation of the murder of Mary Turner and her 8-month-old fetus in Brooks County, Georgia, but nothing specifically about the rape of black women during Jim Crow. The Blacksonian does include displays of news clippings about the assaults on Taylor in 1944 and Perkins in 1949. And it also produced videos that include quotes from Ida B. Wells and Dorothy Height about the threat black women faced.

While black women such as Wells, Mary Church Terrell, Nannie Helen Burroughs and Anna Julia Cooper were all devoted to mobilizing to secure black women’s safety from sexual violence in the 1890s, they’re remembered chiefly as anti-lynching activists or as buttoned-up practitioners of respectability politics. The same goes for their ideological sisters who came later, like Parks and Height.

In her speech as the first president of the National Association of Colored Women, Terrell addressed their estrangement from the rest of society.

“We wish to set in motion influences that shall stop the ravages made by practices that sap our strength, and preclude the possibility of advancement,” she said, referring to rape by white men.

Cooper bitterly implicated black men in black women’s victimization. “It is absurd,” she said in 1892 in A Voice From the South, “to quote statistics showing the Negro’s bank account and rent rolls, to point to the hundreds of newspapers edited by colored men, and lists of lawyers, doctors, professors, D.D.’s L.L.D.’s etc. etc. etc while the source from which the life-blood of the race is to flow is subject to the taint and corruption of the enemy’s camp.”

While the national office of the NAACP was working to dismantle separate-but-equal, the organization determined that any mention of interracial marriage or sex would derail its efforts. “Everything had to be as asexual as possible,” McGuire said. “Working on rape cases of black women who had been assaulted by white men would screw that up.”

There is so much photographic evidence of lynching, in part because it was a public spectacle, complete with photographers who profited from the murder of black people the way modern artists might sell concert posters. Genitals and other body parts of black men were preserved in jars and kept as mementos. Their charred bodies, hanging from trees, served as ominous warnings to other black people that they best remember their place.

But there is little visual record of the interracial rape of black women, save for photographs of them clutching their obviously biracial children. In The Rape of Recy Taylor, Buirski offers these images as a small record of an enormous epidemic.

We use art to document and memorialize the human condition. But the art that preserves the experience of black women during Jim Crow is limited and often deliberately opaque. The race films of the early 20th century are among the few remaining cultural artifacts that re-created black women’s experiences under threat from white men. Buirski employs their footage in her documentary.

But, by and large, the work of tracking and quantifying interracial sexual assault is difficult for historians. The language referring to such attacks in first-person accounts is often not explicit, although news clippings from the black press were clearer. Furthermore, there was a concerted effort to silence and discredit black female victims. That silencing was often twofold: first in the primary documents, such as white newspapers and police reports, and then again by white historians and archivists who may have deemed such accounts unworthy of preservation. In Taylor’s case, her attackers slandered and dismissed her as a prostitute whom they paid.

There is little visual record of the interracial rape of black women, save for photographs of them clutching their obviously biracial children.

“There wasn’t a good uniform record keeping of these kinds of assaults, largely because of racist police forces that didn’t take black women’s stories seriously, and also because a lot of these assailants were police officers,” McGuire said. “Sometimes within their own community there would be perhaps shame and silence in coming forward for a crime like this just because of the gender politics of the time, which were not limited to racial groups.”

When sexual violation was recorded, survivors often recounted their experiences through allusion. A woman might not say she was raped, but that a man “talked under my dress” or “played with my body.”

While “Strange Fruit,” the dirge made famous by Holiday, is the most recognizable protest song of the lynching era, there is no such work from the era that deals so explicitly with the threat of rape. Instead, in the same way historians must read between the lines of slave narratives, oral histories and other accounts of rape, so too must those examining art of the era. And so songs such as Nina Simone’s chilling rendition of “Pirate Jenny” and Aretha Franklin’s “At the Dark End of the Street” take on more sinister undertones when interpreted through this lens. They’re both songs appropriated by black women to tell different stories from the ones they were originally telling. The difference in tone, phrasing and the style in which these songs are sung is designed to evoke a dark, unsettling horror.

That sort of opaque doublespeak was another form of self-preservation. Anything other than silence could be punished with death. Remember, Taylor’s attackers firebombed her home because she told her husband what happened to her. Just as it was de rigueur to ignore that slaveholders owned fair-skinned children who bore their features and mannerisms, it became standard to look at black women during Jim Crow and ignore the obvious source of their lighter-skinned children.

Modern implications

There are through lines from the epidemic of sexual assault during Jim Crow to our modern era. The most obvious may be the case of Daniel Holtzclaw, the Oklahoma police officer who sexually preyed on poor women of color with criminal records. His predation was directly connected to the way law enforcement made black women’s lives worse. If black women weren’t directly victimized by police, their assaults weren’t taken seriously, which is why white men were so rarely prosecuted for them.

Even the current #MeToo moment is different for white and black women.

“I think the floodgates have opened for white women,” actress Gabrielle Union recently told The New York Times about #MeToo. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence whose pain has been taken seriously. Whose pain we have showed historically and continued to show. Whose pain is tolerable and whose pain is intolerable. And whose pain needs to be addressed now.”

The Equal Justice Initiative is behind the national lynching memorial that will open in 2018 in Montgomery. An official from EJI told me the organization has plans for “an entire section dedicated to the sexual exploitation of black women, including Ms. Recy Taylor” in its Legacy Museum, which will open on April 26. But it doesn’t appear that there are plans to include sexual violence against black women in the lynching memorial, which will exist alongside the museum.

“I don’t think they need to be separate because, again, it’s part of the same terror structure, systematic terror against black people,” McGuire said. “Part of the issue that I’ve always had with cold case civil rights investigations and even in some ways the Equal Justice Initiative’s focus on lynching is that it becomes heavily gendered and is another way of kind of disappearing black women’s experiences under a regime of white supremacy and American apartheid. By focusing on those kinds of cases only, we’re not getting a full picture of the reign of terror that existed and that was inflicted upon black communities and black bodies. It ends up focusing on what happened to black men.”

Even as she was decrying lynching, Wells made a similar point in 1900 to a crowd gathered in Chicago.

“The negro has been too long associated with the white man not to have copied his vices as well as his virtues,” Wells said. “But the negro resents and utterly repudiates the efforts to blacken his good name by asserting that assaults upon women are peculiar to his race. The negro has suffered far more from the commission of this crime against the women of his race by white men than the white race has ever suffered through his crimes. Very scant notice is taken of the matter when this is the condition of affairs. What becomes a crime deserving capital punishment when the tables are turned is a matter of small moment when the negro woman is the accusing party.”

The way these stories were silenced reinforces a social hierarchy that contends black women should be grateful for attention from white men, even if it’s unsolicited or unwanted. Worse, it tells the world that black women and the assaults on us simply don’t matter. Ignoring this area of history has enormously harmful consequences, feeding into how we process accusations of sexual assault from black women today.

The rape of Recy Taylor and so many other unnamed, unrecognized and unheard black women reminds me of Cooper’s words from 1892: “Only the black woman can say ‘when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole … race enters with me.’ ”

HBO’s ‘Baltimore Rising’ shows a city stuck after Freddie Gray’s death An instant-message conversation about the documentary’s portrayal of a community and police department struggling to find solutions

A better name for Baltimore Rising, the new HBO documentary on black life in the city after the death of Freddie Gray, might be Baltimore Stuck. To characterize the city as rising, as director Sonja Sohn does, might be a reach, given the deeply entrenched problems of its poorest residents.

Baltimore Rising attempts to highlight ways community leaders and the Baltimore Police Department are addressing the divide between police and the citizens they’re supposed to protect. It’s a refrain that’s all too familiar: A young black man dies at the hands of police and his community reacts with anger, frustration and contempt for a criminal justice system that appears heavily tilted against them. By the end of the film, which airs Monday night on HBO, there’s not much of a resolution. The city’s problems of joblessness, drugs, violence, racism, structural inequality and intergenerational poverty seem far too complex for one documentary.

One of us (Fletcher) has lived in Baltimore for 36 years and once worked for The Baltimore Sun. When Gray died in the custody of Baltimore police, he wrote an essay about the many circumstances that converged to lead to Gray’s death. He’s also written about Sandtown, the neighborhood where Gray was from, and the parallels in the lives of Gray and William Porter, one of six officers charged after Gray’s death.

We shared our observations of Baltimore Rising in an instant message conversation that has since been edited for length.

Soraya: What did you think of the documentary overall? I felt it wasn’t able to get a granular focus on the historical causes behind eruptions like the ones after Gray’s death.

Michael: I really like how it started. I like how the focus immediately went to the roots of the uprising. It raised urgent questions. Why did this happen? Why do we tolerate entrenched poverty? But, in the end, I’m not sure it answered those questions.

Soraya: It says this tension between the community and the police started when cops began driving their beats instead of walking them. I was a little skeptical of that. Does that ring true to you?

Michael: It is one of those convenient things to say. Like when everybody talks about the good old days when neighbors would discipline kids. I’m old enough to remember the good old days, and I think those narratives, like many narratives, are oversold. Back when cops patrolled the streets on foot in Baltimore, the city was hypersegregated. For years after they introduced patrol cars, black cops in Baltimore were not allowed to use them. The roots of the problem are so much more complex than the lack of foot patrolmen, or footmen, as some say in Baltimore.

Soraya: Right. I feel like this could easily be a documentary series, broken up into episodes. That would allow for an opportunity to look at everything with more detail and nuance.

Michael: That’s it. Just to linger on the police for a moment, you often hear things about policing such as cops should be from the communities they patrol, as if that would be some panacea. But here in Baltimore, where more than 40 percent of the cops are black, many officers are from the neighborhoods they patrol. Some of that is captured in the doc. But the tensions and distrust persist. Why? You could do an entire episode on that.

I’m old enough to remember the good old days, and I think those narratives, like many narratives, are oversold.

Soraya: You mentioned in your essay that Baltimore’s policing problems aren’t necessarily about race. So is it class? Is it just abuse of power? Given the Fraternal Order of Police’s reaction to any sort of community oversight, it seems like there’s just way too much concentrated power. And that always ends up screwing over the people with less.

Michael: Probably a bit of both, along with a lack of empathy. I am often struck by the disdain some cops display to people they are sworn to protect and serve, just as I am sometimes appalled by the lack of respect some people accord to cops. Add to that what I think is Baltimore’s biggest problem, the tens of thousands of people addicted to drugs, and you have what you have. Not to be too cynical, but I think you could staff the cops’ trial board with nothing but ACLU lawyers and the city would not be much better off. The issue is attacking poverty. We have to figure out how to do it as a society, and we haven’t.

Soraya: I kept thinking as I was watching that you have to address the social issues that lead to crime in the first place: namely, poverty. And Genard Barr, one of the community organizers working with the cops, said that too. When police commissioner Kevin Davis is asking him what’s needed to prevent another uprising, he’s like, ‘Jobs.’ He seems to have the most realistic perspective on what’s needed. And that’s not something that can be solved overnight.

But I was also frustrated with Davis. Because if you know that’s so much of the problem, is it fair to expect people to just ignore their situations because the city doesn’t want property damage and ongoing footage of flames on CNN?

There’s this line in the movie where Davis is meeting with cops and community members and someone says that they want residents to ‘value [their] city.’ But it doesn’t seem to value them. And they know that. How are you supposed to feel ownership over something that’s not really yours, that really wasn’t built for you?

Michael: Exactly. And we have to be clear-eyed about the investment that takes and the frustration that is involved. And it is more than jobs, per se. We have to get people ready to work. National coverage sometimes creates the impression that Baltimore is an economic wasteland. It is not. I looked it up: Baltimore’s official unemployment rate is 5.2 percent (however flawed that number is). Yet, it is more than double that figure for African-Americans. And this city has had black leadership for more than a generation. But walking around town, you see ads for $13-an-hour jobs at the Amazon warehouse, for decent-paying jobs in restaurants and the tourist trade. So it’s all very complicated.

Soraya: So we’re also talking about specific neighborhoods within Baltimore, not the whole city, right? Is that because of redlining?

Michael: It is partially because of redlining. It is partially because of middle-class flight. It is partially because of the rise of poverty in some areas, and all that comes with that: disinvestment, crime, drugs, the disintegration of community and even many families. These issues plague huge swaths of West and East Baltimore. But there also remain many strong black working-class communities populated by teachers, bus drivers, postal workers, etc.

Is it fair to expect people to just ignore their situations because the city doesn’t want property damage and ongoing footage of flames on CNN?

Soraya: The film focuses on the neighborhood of North Penn, although Freddie Gray was from Sandtown.

Michael: They are basically adjoining neighborhoods in West Baltimore. Very similar too. Thurgood Marshall is from over there. Billie Holiday, and many other legends, performed on Pennsylvania Avenue during its heyday. Interestingly, the young activists we meet in the film seem to be from the ‘other,’ more prosperous (but still black) Baltimore.

Soraya: Let’s talk about them for a bit. Sohn [who played police Detective Kima Greggs on The Wire] focuses on three main characters: Genard Barr, Makayla Gilliam-Price and Kwame Roseborough. Makayla was a high school senior, and Kwame was 21 at the time this was filmed. It’s that age when you see things that aren’t right and you want to protest them. It’s always young people who are on the frontlines of that. Genard’s a little different, though. He’s a former gang member whose father was a cop.

Michael: They added an intriguing element to the film. To my mind, Genard — who works at a drug treatment center and has connections with gang members, and works to get the formerly incarcerated into the workforce — is the one most deeply immersed in the hard realities of Baltimore. The others, as you say, are committed, bright and passionate, but young. I found the conversations between them and their parents especially illuminating. At one point, Makayla is reading an autobiographical piece and her mother basically tells her she doesn’t recognize the person described in the essay. I found that fascinating. Kwame’s brunch with his parents, who are at best ambivalent about his choice to quit work to be an activist, was also interesting.

Soraya: Their parents seem much more pragmatic. And they’re side-eyeing their children’s idealism a bit. The parents are like, ‘Get your education so you can do something substantive about this.’ And the activists are like, ‘We have to raise our voices about this RIGHT NOW,’ which I can understand. When you see someone your own age or younger be killed, and no one faces any real consequences for it, I imagine that’s incredibly galvanizing. And also scary.

I wish the film, again, had a little more focus. Because Makayla actually seems to have a bit of a journey from when we first see her. By the end, she’s talking about recognizing that protest by itself doesn’t bring about change. I’ve said this about other documentaries, too, not just this one, but I always find myself wanting to know more about policy and what can be done to change people’s lives. I want to see illustrations of the way structural racism or bad policy is baked into governing and how that ends up resulting in black death, mass incarceration, etc. I don’t think we got enough of that. Though, given the FBI’s targeting of ‘Black Identity Extremists,’ I do think it’s important to include how modern protesters and organizers are targeted for retaliation. I had questions about Kwame, in terms of where he fits within Campaign Zero or other Black Lives Matter orgs that funnel money to protesters for bail funds, legal assistance, etc. Is he outside of that network? What’s going on there? I wish Sohn had spent more time on the Justice Department’s findings from its investigation into the Baltimore Police Department and tying that back to Gray’s death, and others.

Michael: I agree with all of that. And here’s maybe my bottom line on the film: If all I knew about the state of Baltimore police-community relations was what I saw here, I’d be confused. As portrayed here, the police are the only ones really getting their hands dirty dealing with Baltimore’s harshest realities. Talk about black death: The city has already seen more than 300 murders this year, as it did last year. The cops we see: commissioner Davis, Lt. Col. Melvin Russell, Detective Dawnyell Taylor, are shown on the street fighting what looks like an unwinnable fight.

There is no mention of the cops on the city’s gun squad indicted for stealing drugs and reselling them. Or the cops accused of planting evidence on suspects. Or the millions paid out to brutality victims. There is a backdrop of injustice, as we hear about the cops charged in the Freddie Gray case acquitted one by one. It feels infuriating, because Gray’s case is so stark. He is arrested, put into a police van and comes out with his neck broken.

But as someone who followed the trial closely, I can tell you that the evidence was thin. The presiding judge (who was the decider, as these were all bench trials) was a black man who formerly prosecuted bad cops for the Justice Department! I say all that to note that there is so much more to explore.

Soraya: Oof. I’m not sure, if you do a deep dive into all that, that you can still call the movie Baltimore Rising. It doesn’t sound like an accurate name. What I see is a city that’s stuck. And I just don’t think things like football games between gang members and cops fixes that. It’s a tiny, tiny Band-Aid.

Michael: At first, the football game came off to me as almost trivializing the deep issues the film raises. But its one virtue is that it humanizes people on all sides. Perhaps that is the only hope here: if we can see the humanity that exists behind these labels we all use — gang member, cop, ex-con, poor person.

Texans players enraged over Bob McNair’s ‘inmates’ comment and these are the facts Players react and social media delivers as the story unfolds

It’s Week 8 of the NFL season and more drama is unfolding following President Donald Trump’s statements during a speech at a political rally Sept. 22 in Huntsville, Alabama, against kneeling during the national anthem to raise awareness of racial inequalities that started the storm.

While some players are still standing in solidarity and exercising their right to freedom of expression, other players are looking for solutions. But after Houston Texans owner Bob McNair’s statements in a private meeting about the protests were revealed, players are faced with a new issue.

On Oct. 18 during a meeting attended by NFL owners, player union representatives and team executives, McNair said, “We can’t have the inmates running the prison.”

The comment was reported by ESPN’s Seth Wickersham and Don Van Natta Jr. and in ESPN The Magazine, where they cited complex details about the meeting.

As Friday went on, and the story unfolded, here are some facts to consider and players’ reactions.

Others in the meeting were offended by McNair’s characterization.

NFL executive Troy Vincent said he’s been called many things including the N-word but he never felt like an “inmate.” McNair later pulled Vincent aside and apologized, saying that he felt horrible, a source told ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

McNair issued a public apology Friday following the ESPN The Magazine report.

“I regret that I used that expression,” McNair said in a statement. “I never meant to offend anyone and I was not referring to our players. I used a figure of speech that was never intended to be taken literally. I would never characterize our players or our league that way and I apologize to anyone who was offended by it.”

McNair’s comments enrage players despite the delivery of the news.

Texans head coach Bill O’Brien held a morning meeting Friday so the players would not be blindsided, sources told Schefter.

Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins was not having any of it.

About 10 players, including Hopkins, left the facility Friday. Sources told Schefter that Hopkins’ absence from practice Friday was directly related to McNair’s comment. Most of the players who left returned to the facility, the source added, and the remaining players were talked out of staging a walkout by the coaching staff. The team is expecting that all players including Hopkins, will make the flight to Seattle Saturday for Sunday’s matchup against the Seahawks. O’Brien called Hopkins’ absence from practice a “personal day.”

An emotional meeting was held for players.

O’Brien, general manager Rick Smith and assistant head coach Romeo Crennel led a 90-minute meeting to allow players to honestly express their feelings. The goal was to make sure that the organization did not splinter and that it would turn protest into progress. The players were emotional during the meeting. The meeting delayed the start of practice.

“When it happened, there’s a thousand emotions going through your mind,” Texans left tackle Duane Brown said. “Obviously, one of the emotions is to leave the building immediately. We decided to go to work. The situation’s not over. It’s something that we’ll reconvene and talk about again, but we had practice today.”

O’Brien said he’s for his players.

“I’m 100 percent with these players,” O’Brien said. “I love these players, I love this coaching staff. We will show up in Seattle and play. We will play very hard. Seattle is a great football team with a great coaching staff. But we will be there when the ball is kicked off in Seattle.”

Brown said he “can’t stay quiet about it.”

The Texans players have not decided what they’ll do for the national anthem but Brown is speaking out. “I think it was ignorant,” Brown said. “I think it was embarrassing. I think it angered a lot of players, including myself. We put our bodies and minds on the line every time we step on that field, and to use an analogy of inmates in prison, that’s disrespectful. That’s how I feel about it.”

When asked if Brown would consider not playing on Sunday because of McNair’s comments, he said he wasn’t sure.

“This game, this locker room, this field that we play on isn’t just about him,” Brown said. “So it’s a lot of factors you have to consider when you step on that field. Definitely something that myself, and I think a lot of people in there, have to consider going forward.

Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said the players were looking forward to change.

“From a player’s perspective, I think we’ve done a great job of trying to work in a collaborative manner with the league to really come up with solutions, to move forward and create some real change, and I don’t see that changing,” he said. “Obviously, his comments will represent him, but from a player’s standpoint, we’re focused on our goals, we feel like we still have an opportunity to move forward with whoever is interested in doing that, and so hopefully we can get that same type of commitment from those in league leadership.

“That’s our goal. It’s not to appease one another, it’s not to change someone’s personal opinion, it’s just to get some actual work done and change done. That’s what our focus is going to be. Obviously you have quite a few different comments come from different owners, but I feel like players have been very, very diligent in making sure that our message has been one that we want to continue to push forward, that we want to continue to collaborate and move forward. So hopefully we can get to that point.”

Other players and notables took to social media regarding the incident.

Instagram Photo

Gregg Popovich’s speech about white privilege felt like a personal rebuke But now I’m starting to understand what it means

White Privilege: (noun). The fact of people with white skin having advantages in society that other people do not have.

Monday afternoon in downtown Washington, D.C., and every one of the overhead office televisions is leading with NFL franchises responding to the 45th president of the United States, who called anthem-protesting players “sons of bitches” last week and implored owners to tell these kneeling men, reality TV-style, “You’re fired!”

Then Gregg Popovich’s cloudy-white visage filled the screen, making me feel like crap.

“We still have no clue of what being born white means,” the coach of the San Antonio Spurs said in the middle of a three-minute, Check Your Privilege, Mr. President, scolding. “It’s like you’re at the 50-meter mark in a 100-meter dash. And you’ve got that kind of a lead because, yes, you were born white. You have advantages that are systemically, culturally, psychologically there. And they have been built up and cemented for hundreds of years.”

My colleagues, almost all of whom are black, nodded approvingly because Pop “gets it,” and some vowed to become Spurs fans simply because of his comments. I did the same.

But I also had this pang gnawing at me all day and into the night.

The truth: Many well-intentioned white people I know lose their minds when they hear about their “white privilege.” It’s not that we haven’t acknowledged our ancestors’ original sin — the dehumanization of a people, manifested in tragically being able to call another human being “property.” We have.

But fully accepting that the color of our skin benefits us today is often too much to unpack.

When we hear, “Check your privilege,” we feel ostracized from the people we thought shared the common purpose of equality with us. Further, if we are directly confronting racism in our online and physical worlds, we don’t want to hear, “Thanks, but there is no extra credit for doing what is right.”

We want an impossible validation: to be told that, unlike those Confederate-lovin’ nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, we don’t have white privilege.

And that gets to dissecting the meaning of privilege — separating the feelings of personal slight from a systemic inequity. Which is flat-out hard. We either a) don’t believe it; b) don’t think we are participants in it; or c) will engage to a point but ultimately decide, “I’m sorry, I don’t share this outlook on the world.”

It was only after hearing Popovich that I realized that we who continue to bullheadedly think that way represent a real obstacle toward achieving this elusive better place we always talk about.

Look, this isn’t something Colin Kaepernick or Michael Bennett can fix alone, just as Tommie Smith and John Carlos couldn’t fix it in 1968. This isn’t something any person of color can change by himself.

This is a difficult white-person-to-white-person conversation that has to happen between white men and women of all classes for any lasting change to occur. Black and brown people already know this. It’s not news to them that we have advantages bestowed at birth that they don’t.

If you can’t accept that white people have it easier, then you will never accept why someone would kneel during the national anthem. And until those two are reconciled, we shouldn’t expect people to stand — especially those most adversely affected by society’s unfair constructs.

We want an impossible validation: to be told that, unlike those Confederate-lovin’ nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, we don’t have white privilege.

The display of unity on Sunday, with some NFL owners linking arms with their players, was indeed an act of togetherness. But it was in response to the president crudely calling out their employees — not black men being killed by police. They were standing up for the NFL, not human rights. If Sunday was it, all they did was participate in a photo op that made everyone feel good.

We don’t need to feel good right now; we need to feel uncomfortable.

It’s a process. For one, hearing we have “white privilege” feels like it carries a stigma, as if we have been branded “racist” and don’t know why. It’s almost like a virus one needs to be inoculated from at a CVS pharmacy each fall.

But, of course, it doesn’t work like that. We don’t have a disease — society does.

Author and consultant Frances E. Kendall’s 2002 essay Understanding White Privilege put it this way: “For me, the confusion and pain of this knowledge is somewhat eased by reminding myself that this system is not based on each individual white person’s intention to harm but on our racial group’s determination to preserve what we believe is rightly ours. This distinction is, on one hand, important, and, on the other hand, not important at all because, regardless of personal intent, the impact is the same.”

In other words, hearing you have “white privilege” shouldn’t carry an ounce of baggage, even if the language feels accusatory. I know it took me a while to get there.

I have, for much of my life, failed to acknowledge that privilege. I rationalized that I did not have it because my papa-was-a-rolling-stone father moved us to a rural area of Hawaii when I was 12 — and I faced ugly prejudice for being white. (Everyone, by the way, should be on the other side of the fence at least once in their life to see what it’s like.) Given my own life circumstances, I reasoned it didn’t apply to me, that my own broken-home, abusive childhood didn’t involve any suburban cul-de-sacs or regular visits to the dentist, so what do I know about privilege?

But when you begin to think deeply about your own life experiences compared with your friends of color, it’s harder to dismiss.

I’ve never had to educate my young sons to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection, to warn them of law enforcement officers who might not give them the benefit of the doubt.

I’ve never applied for a home loan and suspected that I was turned down because some of my prospective neighbors only want to live next to and around people who look and think like them.

Privilege is when a deranged racist murders multiple black worshippers at a church Bible study and, upon seeing the race of the individual who did it, you did not have to say to your friend, “Damn, now they’re going to think all of us white folk are racist killers.”

The biggest benefit of being white: Our problems are far less likely to be attributed to some racial/cultural failure. Our government will hear our cries and not tell us to get over it but rather, in point of fact, ask us how it can help (even if the help doesn’t always come).

If Popovich is honest, white privilege is what allows him to make those statements in the first place. Meanwhile, coach Mike Tomlin, who’s never had a losing season, has been to two Super Bowls, won one and has guided the Pittsburgh Steelers to more wins the past decade than any team except the Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots, is walking a tightrope at this minute, trying to keep his protest-torn team together while not being shunned by his boss and the team’s customers.

“People get bored. ‘Oh, is it that again? They’re pulling the race card again, why do we have to talk about that again?’ ” Popovich said. “Well, it’s because it’s uncomfortable and there has to be an uncomfortable element in the discourse for anything to change. People have to be made to feel uncomfortable, and especially white people — because we are comfortable.”

I don’t like hearing this. It forces me to confront truths I don’t necessarily want to accept, because I don’t remember any breaks given me or job opportunities offered because of my complexion. But I’d be in denial to not believe that in numerous situations my race has helped me — in ways I never even notice.

Popovich’s statements are a piece of a conversation between white people that needs to happen more frequently. Whether there are enough people who look like me willing to engage in that conversation is an open question.

At least this week, though, his gruffness and often-annoying certainty about everything turned out to be good for more than just lighting a fire under Tim Duncan’s tush:

“Many people can’t look at it because it’s too difficult. It can’t be something that is on their plate on a daily basis,” he said. “People want to hold their position. People want the status quo. People don’t want to give that up. And until it’s given up, it’s not going to be fixed.”

Anyone else white want to take a stab at it? It’s the only way the work of everyone from Muhammad Ali to Colin Kaepernick will ever get done.

Ibram Kendi, one of the nation’s leading scholars of racism, says education and love are not the answer Founder of new anti-racism center at American University sees impact of policy, culture on black athletes

It’s a Wednesday night at a bookstore in a well-off part of Washington, D.C., and every seat is taken. More than 100 people spill into the aisles or crowd the stacks past the philosophy and cookbook sections to hear Ibram X. Kendi talk about the racist ideas that founded the nation. About how racial progress is always followed by new and more sophisticated racist progress. And, especially, about the deeply held beliefs that most Americans, including black people and liberal whites, woke up with this morning that they don’t even know are racist and wrong.

For instance, “Black neighborhoods are not more dangerous than white neighborhoods and neither are black people,” Kendi tells the crowd. Layers of racist ideas account for why we think so.

Last year, the 35-year-old scholar became the youngest person to win the National Book Award for nonfiction in 30 years for Stamped from the Beginning, The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.

And this year, his moment continues. He’s just moved to Washington, where he is launching the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University next week. He’s a historian of racism at a time when our public conversation is fixed on it, when successive presidents have triggered the tribal apprehensions of our Mason-Dixon lines, and when the threat of shoot-you-down, run-you-over racial violence feels as close at hand as the peril to the republic from fake facts and revisionist history. This convergence of circumstances keeps him perpetually on book tour.

Ibram Kendi, right, addresses the audience as Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery, who was the presenter for the event, stands by.

André Chung for The Undefeated

A diverse group made up a standing-room-only audience during Dr. Ibram Kendi’s recent book promotion event at Politics and Prose.

André Chung for The Undefeated

With the breadth of his scholarship and expanse of his reach, Kendi has been compared to the famed late historian John Hope Franklin, except he wears his locs long and his edges laid. He used to fantasize about a career in the NBA — or, at the very least, on SportsCenter. He’ll hit you back on Twitter.

Just so you know, black people are not inherently better athletes than white people, Kendi says. We only think so because “black people have not only been rendered inferior to white people, they’ve been rendered like animals,” and thus physically superior creatures. It’s an old racist idea that helped justify African-Americans’ suitability for backbreaking labor and medical experiments and the theft of their children. “When we embrace this as part of our identity,” Kendi says, “we don’t understand.” He wants to correct our misunderstandings.

Education, love and exemplary black people will not deliver America from racism, Kendi says. Racist ideas grow out of discriminatory policies, he argues, not the other way around. And if his new center can help identify and dismantle those policies in the U.S. and around the world, he believes we can start to eliminate racism. At least that’s the goal.

As the evening wears on in the crowded bookstore, people line up at microphones to question, challenge or offer up hosannas to this young scholar, who, in many ways, is just getting started.

Ibram Kendi is the new founding director of The Anti-Racist and Policy Center at American University. He is a leading thinker on race and his 2016 book, “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America” won the National Book Award.

André Chung for The Undefeated

Kendi apologizes for the spare office space he shares with a colleague inside American University’s School of International Service. The walls are bare, and his name has not yet made it outside the door. He’s still unpacking from the move to D.C. with his wife, Sadiqa, a pediatric emergency room physician at Children’s National Health Center, and their 1-year-old daughter, Imani. It’s an ambitiously busy life.

Besides being the founding director of the research center, he’s teaching history and international relations as part of a joint appointment that brought him from the University of Florida, where he was a professor of African-American history.

He’s learning the city, and working on priorities for the center — part think tank, policy shop and incubator for anti-racism strategies — which formally launches next fall. It joins dozens of other customized centers of racial research. One of the earliest and most notable, the W.E.B Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University, rose to prominence under the leadership of Henry Louis Gates Jr. This year, “year zero,” is to raise funds and recruit researchers, faculty and students.

The goal is to identify inequalities, identify the policies that create and maintain those inequalities, and propose correctives in six areas: criminal justice, education, economics, health, environment and politics. Kendi also hopes to create an online library of anti-racist thinking. He’s still considering initial projects.

But when he talks about racism, he is not still puzzling out his ideas. Kendi has spent thousands of hours reading thousands of documents, including “some of the most horrific things that have ever been said about black people,” to uncover the origins of racist thought. His words are distilled, precise, authoritative. His voice never rises. He is, temperamentally, an antidote to the heat of the subject matter and the hyperbole of the times.

“We have been taught that ignorance and hate lead to racist ideas, lead to racist policies,” Kendi said. “If the fundamental problem is ignorance and hate, then your solutions are going to be focused on education, and love and persuasion. But of course [Stamped from the Beginning] shows that the actual foundation of racism is not ignorance and hate, but self-interest, particularly economic and political and cultural.” Self-interest drives racist policies that benefit that self-interest. When the policies are challenged because they produce inequalities, racist ideas spring up to justify those policies. Hate flows freely from there.

The self-interest: The Portuguese had to justify their pioneering slave trade of African people before the pope.

The racist idea: Africans are barbarians. If we remove them from Africa and enslave them, they could be civilized.

“We can understand this very simply with slavery. I’m enslaving people because I want to make money. Abolitionists are resisting me, so I’m going to convince Americans that these people should be enslaved because they’re black, and then people will start believing those ideas: that these people are so barbaric, that they need to be enslaved, or that they are so childlike that they need to be enslaved.”

Kendi boils racist ideas down to an irreducible core: Any idea that suggests one racial group is superior or inferior to another group in any way is a racist idea, he says, and there are two types. Segregationist ideas contend racial groups are created unequal. Assimilationist ideas, as Kendi defines them, argue that both discrimination and problematic black people are to blame for inequalities.

“The actual foundation of racism is not ignorance and hate, but self-interest.”

Americans who don’t carry tiki torches react viscerally to segregationist ideas like those on display at the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that left one young counter-protester dead. Assimilationist ideas are more subtle, seductive and coded.

“You can be someone who has no intention to be racist,” who believes in and fights for equality, “but because you’re conditioned in a world that is racist and a country that is structured in anti-black racism, you yourself can perpetuate those ideas,” says Kendi. No matter what color you are.

Anti-racist ideas hold that racial groups are equal. That the only thing inferior about black people is their opportunities. “The only thing wrong with black people is that we think there is something wrong with black people,” a line that Kendi uses like a mantra.

The Blue Lives Matter (the problem is violent black people) Black Lives Matter (the problem is the criminal justice system, poor training and police bias) and All Lives Matter (the problem is police and black people) arguments are extensions of the same, three-way debate (segregationist, anti-racist and assimilationist) that Americans have been having since the founding of the country.

“We’ve been taught American history as a steady march of racial progress,” but it’s always been a dual march of racial and racist progress, which we see from Charlottesville to “their Trump Tower,” Kendi says.

This is the jump-off Kendi uses to frame the most roiling issues of the day. But before he could build that frame, he first had to deal with his own racism.

Ibram Kendi

André Chung for The Undefeated

Kendi was born Ibram H. Rogers in Jamaica, Queens, New York, to parents who’d been student activists and were inspired by black liberation theology. He grew up playing basketball and still is an ardent New York Knicks fan.

The family moved to Manassas, Virginia, where Kendi attended Stonewall Jackson High School (named for the Confederate general) and dreamed of a career on the hardwood. The slim, 6-foot-1 former guard says he specialized in the no-look pass. “I consider the beautiful pass the most beautiful part of the game of basketball,” he says.

Sweet passing aside, his basketball aspirations were irrevocably dashed his sophomore year when he failed to make the junior varsity team. “I was so crushed,” Kendi says.

He studied journalism at Florida A&M University and initially wanted to be a broadcaster or a sportswriter. But after internships at The Mobile Register and The Atlanta Journal Constitution, he began to shift his career focus. He wound up getting a doctorate in African-American studies from Temple University. His first book, on the black student protest movement in the ’60s and ’70s, was published in 2012. He began researching Stamped from the Beginning the following year.

That’s when he started to re-examine some of his most deeply held beliefs about race. “I was born into a world of racist ideas, many of which I had consumed myself,” says Kendi. “I had to come to grips with … some of the things that I imagined and thought,” about black people “and one of the first and most obvious ones was the idea that black neighborhoods are more dangerous than white neighborhoods, which is a very popular idea.”

The highest instances of violent crime correspond with high unemployment and poverty, and that holds true across racial lines, Kendi found. Most white poverty, unemployment and thus violent crimes occur in rural areas, while for blacks those ills are more concentrated in densely populated urban neighborhoods. If impoverished white communities “had five times more people, then that community would have five times, presumably, more violent crime.”

“I was born into a world of racist ideas, many of which I had consumed myself.”

Another racist idea: “I believed that black children were achieving at a lower level than white children. And I believed in the existence of an achievement gap,” says Kendi. Standardized tests prioritize reading and writing as measures of verbal proficiency, as opposed to the wider ability to articulate. And they test subject areas where black schools are vastly underresourced.

“I certainly am somebody who advocates equalizing the resources of school and creating a situation in which we actually live up to our pronouncements that we live in a meritorious society,” says Kendi. “But even if these schools persist in being resourced unequally, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the students in the schools with lesser resources are intellectually inferior to the students with better resources.” He reaches into history to illustrate his point: Just because slaves’ lives were circumscribed, they faced more adversity and they dealt with more violence, that doesn’t mean enslaved people were inferior to people who were free.

A “more lighthearted area” he had to confront was his ideas about dating black women. “Black women were angry, they didn’t know what they want, they’re difficult,” he’d heard. “And from my standpoint, those are some of the things that I said when I was having some difficulties in dating.” When we have negative experiences with individuals, “we often say there’s a problem with that black group,” without realizing those are racist ideas.

Now, he’s a poster child for black love. He and his telegenic wife met on and debuted their new last name Kendi (“loved one” in the Kenyan language of Meru) at their 2013 wedding in Jamaica, which was featured in Essence magazine.

Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University, calls Kendi part of a vanguard of young black historians, which includes Treva Lindsey at Ohio State and Brittney Cooper of Rutgers, who are transforming the field. Part of what makes him right for the moment is his ability to speak to millennials, who have access to lots of information but can’t always decipher what is good or bad. “What he has written is an accessible history of black folks,” said Neal. In terms of a book for general readers “that covers such a wide historical period, the only thing I can think about in terms of comparison is John Hope Franklin’s From Slavery to Freedom.”

Kendi’s book resonates like the 2015 National Book Award winner, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, said Neal. “Ta-Nehisi’s was kind of an emotional analysis of what this moment is. Kendi’s was to bring that kind of energy, except to do it in a historical context. I think it’s important to be able to talk about the history of these racist ideas, the impact they’ve had on black people and black life.”

With regard to the most front-and-center issue in sports today, athletes and activism, Kendi says it’s important to remember that the athlete/activists of the 1960s — Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown and Tommie Smith — all spoke out in the context of the Black Power movement, which is “precisely what’s happening now” with Colin Kaepernick and others who were inspired by Black Lives Matter. “We look for athletes to generate movements, when historically athletes have been good at being athletes, which is precisely what they should be good at, and we should be looking to activists to generate movements.” There will then be those athletes who use their platforms to support those movements and ideologies.

Kendi says that while the numbers of black players on the fields, courts and arenas have increased dramatically over the past 50 years, it’s been harder to make shifts at other positions.

“We should determine diversity in sports, just like outside of sports, not by the transient players but by the people who are permanent, like the owners, like the coaches, like the sports writers, like the executives.” If those groups “are lily-white, then [a sport] is simply not diverse.”

This kind of analysis gives Kendi cachet beyond the ivory tower and makes him popular with students, Neal said. Young people see Kendi with his locs and his ability to communicate in a vernacular they know and that expands their thinking about the possibilities for their own lives. They’ll say, “This is somebody I can imagine being somewhere down the line,” said Neal.

“We should determine diversity in sports, just like outside of sports, not by the transient players but by the people who are permanent, like the owners, like the coaches, like the sportswriters, like the executives.”

Peter Starr, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at American University and one of those responsible for bringing Kendi to the university, cites Washington as an organic place to do anti-racist work. “To make real lasting change, change that lasts beyond changes of administrations and flips from one party to the next, you really need to reach out to people who are making more fundamental policy on the ground, in the agencies and throughout the government,” he said.

Starr calls Kendi’s vision to use researchers from around the country an approach that mirrors what happens in the sciences. “He’s got a very expansive vision of the center, and we really think this is a center that’s not just the usual, relatively small, one-person shop,” he said.

He calls Stamped from the Beginning the kind of book scholars write in their 50s and 60s. But Kendi’s impact will transcend the written words, Starr said. Especially since American has struggled with racist incidents recently.

In May, bananas were found hanging from nooses at three locations on the American University campus. This followed racist social media messages and a banana thrown into a black student’s dorm in the past few years.

For students of color and “all students, being able to look to someone like Ibram Kendi, who is a model of intelligent scholarship and activism informed by deep contextual and historical understanding,” is powerful, said Starr. He’s got “a fire to make a difference in the world that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen in another scholar, frankly.”

Ibram Kendi greets fans at Politics and Prose after discussing his book.

André Chung for The Undefeated

At the bookstore, the questions, and disquisitions posing as questions, continue as the crowd grapples with, or pushes back against, Kendi’s ideas about race and America.

“I think that the issue is that the Africans and the Europeans really can’t mix,” one person steps to the mic to say.

Across the room, another questioner says, “Gentiles are underrepresented on Wall Street. White males are underrepresented in the NBA. At what point does the assimilation shift into something where other factors come into play?”

“All right now, tell it like it is,” says E. Veronica Pace, a genealogist who steps to the microphone and identifies herself as a student of Howard University sociologist E. Franklin Frazier. She asks about the book’s title, which was taken from a speech in which Confederate President Jefferson Davis called racial inequality “stamped from the beginning.”

Finally, the talk is over and people form a line that stretches toward the door to have him sign their books. “If we are all mindful about this and put our hearts and souls into it, we can turn this ship around,” says James Kilgore, whose wife is in the line. He’s says he’s waiting to see what Kendi is going to do.

For starters, he’s working on another book, a memoir entitled How to be An Anti-Racist. “Racist ideas become almost like a drug. Once you hear them and become hooked, you need more in order to sustain the way you see the world, right?” Kendi says. “I was hooked for a long time,” and now “I’m trying to relieve other people.”

And he’s focused on launching the center he’d like to help change the world. The former sports reporter reaches for a metaphor. It’s a rare moment where his equanimity seems to falter, just for a bit, perhaps from the weight of the task at hand. “I’m on the court and I’ve suited up. Now the game is about to start and I have to be ready to perform,” Kendi says. “And to win.”

The fight for reparations can be a useful decoy in solving America’s racial wealth gap ‘Baby bonds’ is a more politically viable answer to the disparity in black and white wealth

Reparations can help close the racial wealth gap — just not the way you might think.

America’s racial wealth gap should leave us all gloomy. For every dollar owned by the median black household, the median white household owned $13. And for every dollar owned by the median Latino household, the median white household owned $10. Those numbers are from a recent study, The Asset Value of Whiteness, produced by researchers at the think tank Demos and Brandeis University, based on data from 2013.

Our path to this inequity began centuries ago: Slavery. Segregation. Redlining. We don’t appreciate how much programs like the GI Bill disproportionately helped white World War II veterans attend college and buy homes with guaranteed mortgages. This and other federal policies intentionally bolstered a largely white American middle class while crippling that of people of color.

A country in which wealth is so unevenly distributed along racial lines reproduces racial stratification generation after generation. As the study notes, if “a substantial racial wealth gap persists, white households will continue to enjoy greater advantages than their black and Latino neighbors in meeting the financial challenges of everyday life and will be able to make greater investments in their children, passing economic advantages on.”

Crucially, the report refutes theories that a lack of personal responsibility explains the gap. Minorities should just attend college more. Raise their children in two-parent households. Get full-time jobs. Spend less money. None of these appreciably closes the racial wealth gap, though.

How can we ameliorate this situation? I see two ways forward.

One way is to champion universal policies that help all racial groups but disproportionately help people of color because they disproportionately lack wealth. An idea called “baby bonds” is the best version of such a policy.

The other way is to push for race-conscious policies such as reparations. The former provides a more viable route, given political realities, but reparations can be a strategic decoy that eases the acceptance of baby bonds. We must walk both paths if the racial wealth gap is to ever be closed.

William “Sandy” Darity Jr., a Duke economics professor, and Darrick Hamilton, an economics professor at The New School in New York, came up with the idea for baby bonds.

Each newborn child would be granted a bond, a federally funded trust fund of sorts. The poorest child would get, say, $60,000, with the amount dwindling to nothing for the children of the richest families. The money would be put in an interest-bearing account that becomes accessible upon adulthood and could only be used for wealth-building activities, such as going to college or putting a down payment on a home. They figure the program would cost about $60 billion per year, which, Darity and Hamilton wrote in an academic paper, is “less than 10% of the non-war spending budget for the Department of Defense.”

Some might contend that baby bonds, by focusing on wealth rather than race, unsatisfactorily address a racial problem. But, Darity and Hamilton argue in their paper, “Since the distributions of white and non-white wealth are so disparate — 85% of black families have wealth holdings below the median white family — wealth can be an effective non-race-based instrument to eliminate racial inequality.” Darity told me he thinks baby bonds “could go a long way toward closing the racial wealth gap.”

The universality of baby bonds also gives it the potential to attract support from an interracial coalition of working-class people pursuing their own economic self-interest. Such a coalition could form a base that a political majority can rest upon. A poor white person in West Virginia would have as much reason to support this program as a poor black person in rural Alabama. Baby bonds might get people to appreciate their commonality with others who, because of race, rarely think of themselves as having the same interests.

Given our political climate, many will be pessimistic about the likelihood of forming such an interracial coalition. Although that sentiment is understandable, we have reason for optimism.

The current era in American politics can be compared to Southern Redemption, the period when white supremacist politicians regained power after Reconstruction. In the wake of Redemption, however, Southern populist movements in the late 1800s gained traction, getting poor white folk to ally with poor black folk by explicitly arguing that powerful white elites kept them both in poverty. These populist politicians carried a consistent and truthful message: White elites used racism to separate white and black folk who were mired in destitution yet could be lifted together through responsive lawmaking.

These times call for a similar movement, which will admittedly require a gargantuan effort. But the fact that politicians in the 1880s, two decades after the end of slavery, were able to join working people of different races should give us hope. Baby bonds — particularly because they focus on what people are most concerned with, the future of their children — can be a policy that drives this movement.

Reparations are the most prominent race-conscious means to address the racial wealth gap. But when can we conclude that a seed will never germinate? Black folk have been working the reparations land for more than two centuries with little to show for it.

During the Revolutionary War, Peter, a free black man behind British lines, was enslaved by William Steel, an American officer. Peter was freed after six months, but years later he sued Steel for back wages, one of the first claims for reparations for the atrocities visited upon black people. The court held that he articulated a viable claim but awarded him no money.

Toward the end of the Civil War, when black folk who freed themselves cried out for land of their own, Gen. William T. Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15 provided them a loaned mule and 40-acre plots on the Southern coastline. President Andrew Johnson later revoked it, however, returning the land to its original white owners.

In 1894, a bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate that would have paid a lump sum of at most $500 and monthly pensions ranging from $4 to $15 to formerly enslaved people and their children. This and comparable bills never received floor votes in either house of Congress, and the “pension movement” fizzled once World War I started. Reparations arguments bubbled up again during the 1960s. And in every congressional session since 1987, Rep. John Conyers has introduced a bill that would form a commission to study the effects of slavery and American apartheid and “recommend appropriate remedies.” This bill has gone nowhere. The struggle continues, but the goal is still far away in the distance.

Reparations were once just about slavery. Its proponents have updated the claim to include harm from Jim Crow, 19th- and 20th-century white-over-black governing and 21st-century racial discrimination. The underlying claim is simple: A series of evils have been inflicted on black people, causing various lacerations requiring healing. That healing, under the most-discussed scenarios, would come in the form of taxpayer-funded payouts. And therein lies the issue — the belief that white folk would ever take billions out of their pockets to specifically remedy the harm perpetrated upon black folk.

The reparations movement has never managed to get around that impasse, as many white people are loath to do right by black people without also reaping a benefit.

To flesh out the point, let’s examine Sherman’s field order. He devised it not to champion black interests but to aid himself: He needed a way to discard, while also providing for, the freedmen who had followed his troops during their march from Atlanta to the Atlantic Ocean. And he desired to punish the Confederates who started the war. He achieved both with one move. If he thought the order would have helped the freedmen but undercut the Union’s interests, Sherman would never have championed it, and President Abraham Lincoln would never have endorsed it.

Besides doing nothing to close the racial wealth gap regarding Latinos, reparations provide little to black folk — because it’s a dream that will never come to life.

Despite my pessimism about reparations, the movement can act as a strategic decoy to help popularize a policy like baby bonds.

Think back to Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights movement triumphs. He was one voice among many petitioning for racial equality. Several of the others who registered nationally came from his political left. Malcolm X and black power advocates like Stokely Carmichael helped King because they made his militancy appear moderate. King’s desire for black folk to be equal partners in American democracy departed dramatically from the status quo, yet he looked judicious in a sea of more militant aesthetics.

Advocacy for reparations can have the same effect: It can be the radical idea that makes baby bonds seem like a moderate panacea to the racial wealth gap.

Even so, reparations should be sold differently to be a better strategic decoy. Al Brophy, a law professor at the University of North Carolina and the author of Reparations: Pro and Con, told me that, “one time I flippantly suggested we should [put forward a reparations bill] in Congress and call it the ‘White Supremacy Maintenance Act.’ Call it something that will be acceptable to the voters and put something else in it.” I concur with Brophy’s main thrust. The times perhaps call for a marketing shift that plays to many white folks’ self-interest.

That new rationale for reparations should focus on how centuries of racism has created a market inefficiency that harms everyone. American capitalism underperforms since black folk, 13 percent of the country’s population, are unable to contribute as much as they should because of a lack of wealth. The injustices that black folk have suffered hurt all participants in our economy, not just black folk. Perhaps an unemployed white man from Cincinnati, for instance, would have a job if a black woman had the money to start a small business. Reparations for black folk, in other words, would redound to everyone’s benefit.

According to a 2016 YouGov poll, two-thirds of Americans oppose reparations. I don’t expect this new rationale to drag reparations across the all-important “50 percent in favor” threshold. This is a smart tactical shift, nonetheless, for two reasons. First, it could make reparations more popular, coaxing its opponents to favor a less radical idea like baby bonds. Second, selling reparations like this teaches white people to cease thinking about wealth as a zero-sum game — more wealth for people of color doesn’t necessarily mean less wealth for them.

Why do so many white people deny the existence of white privilege? They’re surrounded by pieces of the puzzle, but can’t put them together

Team Westport, a town-sponsored diversity committee in predominantly white Westport, Connecticut, recently caused an uproar by sponsoring an essay contest for high school students. An essay contest — how could something so innocuous incite anyone? But this was no ordinary contest. No, it was one that asked students to — gasp — consider white privilege and search for any marks it may have left upon their lives.

One resident of this wealthy Manhattan suburb, Bari Reiner, 72, denounced the contest as offensive. “It’s an open town,” Reiner told the Associated Press. “There are no barricades here. Nobody says if you’re black or whatever, you can’t move here.”

That this white enclave permits a “black or whatever person” to reside there disproves nothing about white privilege, of course. Denying white privilege while misunderstanding the concept, well, that song has blared throughout American history. This land is ripe with Bari Reiners.

This ordeal led me to ponder a question relevant to our race conversation, to the extent such a conversation takes place: Why do the white folk who deny white privilege think that way? The answer, I believe, is that American culture conditions white folk to not fully grasp how society privileges them. They are surrounded by the pieces of the puzzle. But they have been miseducated on how to complete the image that portrays their racial group in an unflattering light.

Many white people rebut the notion that white privilege augments their lives. That’s because they consume the world in a specific manner, through what sociologist Joe Feagin calls the “white racial frame.” Think of a frame as the process by which people take in new information, sift through the data, sort the important from the unimportant and decide how to feel about it all.

Feagin argues that American culture has taught whites to believe they represent the intellectual and cultural vanguard, to conclude that racial inequalities cannot be traced to their past or present behavior and to view their dominant status — their privilege — as natural and yet invisible.

An example of how white people view their privilege as natural and invisible appears in Arlie Russell Hochschild’s book Strangers in Their Own Land. She interviews working-class and middle-class white people in Louisiana and learns they’re disenchanted with their government and no longer recognize their country. They feel as if black folk, other minorities, immigrants and refugees have cut ahead of them in line, meaning the government caters to others before them. The line-cutting angers them, although they never question why they should occupy the first position. That implicit assumption — I should be tended to before all others — encapsulates how they view white privilege as natural and invisible.

The white folk who most view the world through the white racial frame will interpret events to defend racial injustice and a whites-on-top racial hierarchy. The wealth of evidence demonstrating police officers often brutalize black people, for instance, establishes that black people deserve the blame. The white racial frame deludes white folk into believing the system is operating as it should when it advantages them and disadvantages people of color.

Believing the system, when the system favors them, warrants vociferous defense, has become a cultural-family heirloom, much like grandma’s pearl necklace or grandpa’s gold pocket watch. Thus, when many white people hear requests to scour their lives for signs of white privilege, they are being asked to execute a mental routine they have been trained to perform poorly. White privilege is unconsciously considered both normative and normal — meaning, the system should privilege them and the daily privileges they receive never register as special.

Instead of knowledge and acceptance of white privilege, many white people display ignorance: What is this privilege of which you speak? I do not detect a hint of it. Perhaps you are being lifted by a race-based privilege because surely it is not I.

Such ignorance becomes a tool of racial domination. By denying the unfairness, white folk never have to confront it.

Charles Mills, in his book The Racial Contract, argues that this ignorance produces “the ironic outcome that whites will in general be unable to understand the world they themselves have made.” This country was built on privileging whites over nonwhites. But this truth has been lost because many white people have programmed their antennas to disregard that signal.

White folk who do detect white privilege have learned to neither reflexively disregard evidence of their privilege nor twist it into proof against its existence. Only a minority of the population, sadly, has reprogrammed itself in this way.

Some contend that working-class white folk should not be expected to perceive their privilege. The well-to-do, so the argument goes, obviously reap these benefits and therefore criticizing the wealthy who fail to reckon with their privilege is proper. White people living paycheck to paycheck, however, should be excused for their denials. Detecting it proves too hard for them, considering that we talk about white privilege in ways that would confound anyone in their circumstance.

J.D. Vance, the author of Hillbilly Elegy, a memoir of an economically struggling and largely white small town in Ohio, articulated a version of this thesis in a podcast with Vox’s Ezra Klein.

Vance invoked the hypothetical son of an unemployed West Virginia coal miner who resides in an all-white economic wasteland. This son, confined to a pocket of poverty, tastes no hint of his supposed privilege. Thus, Vance told Klein, “If you’re asking [him] to check his privilege … you’re asking just too much from basic human cognition. That kid cannot look at his life and say about a group of people that he doesn’t understand, that he doesn’t even interact with a lot day to day, that their lives are much worse than his, and I think that’s one of the things that the modern discourse around racial privilege and racial disadvantage misses.”

In a National Review piece, Vance bolstered the claim that the white working-class inhabit a world that increasingly obscures white privilege from their field of vision: “the privileges that matter — that is, the ones they see — are vanishing because of destitution: the privilege to pay for college without bankruptcy, the privilege to work a decent job, the privilege to put food on the table without the aid of food stamps, the privilege not to learn of yet another classmate’s premature death.”

But Vance’s argument is wanting. For one, American culture, not impoverishment, has taught white folk to misunderstand white privilege. Individual white people shoulder no responsibility for creating white privilege, but denying its presence prolongs its life span. And that does warrant criticism. Granting the white working-class this moral reprieve absolves them from culpability.

To understand that white privilege is real only requires believing people of color when we tell our stories, and belief is not contingent upon socioeconomic status. The white working class hears these stories. But many choose to disregard them and castigate minorities for blaming the white man for all problems.

Now some might respond that the white working class has its own story, one imbued with struggle. Their story rings true — people born into economic turmoil, regardless of race, face tough times indeed. But the two stories don’t conflict.

Pre-Civil War, when poverty captured lots of white folk in its vast net, white privilege was nonetheless a strong force — not because white skin protected against descent into poverty but rather because it ensured white folk would never endure a range of negative experiences inflicted upon only people of color. Then, it was slavery and now it’s something else.

That coal miner’s son will never sit down on his bed, parents standing over him, faces stamped with worry, as they explain how to survive a police encounter. That coal miner’s son, once he decides to leave his parents’ home, will harbor no fears of being denied an apartment because of his race. If he decides to participate in politics, he will never worry about a state legislature trying to stop people who look like him from voting. Right now, as the evidence of the white supremacist leanings of presidential advisers comes pouring out of their respective closets, that coal miner’s son can watch events unfold without personal fear of his own government.

The issue is not that some white people lack a proper vantage point to see their privilege, but that from their vantage point they have chosen to avert their gaze.

Vance, in his National Review piece, invoked the phrase “check your privilege,” and although the coal miner’s son has likely never been told that, the phrase has fallen from a lot of lips recently, particularly on college campuses. I must confess I believe it to be an unfruitful conversation starter. “Check your privilege,” after all, is a command and robust dialogue rarely commences with demanding that the audience complete a task.

But I doubt most black people summon the “check your privilege” mantra to convince listeners. Civil rights activist and poet James Weldon Johnson once wrote “the colored people of this country know and understand the white people better than the white people know and understand them.” Black folk, for self-preservation, have become self-taught Caucasian anthropologists. Tressie McMillan Cottom, a sociology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, endorsed this point when writing that black folk have learned “to anticipate white people’s emotions and fears and grievances because their issues are singularly our problem.” Because we, to use Cottom’s phrase, “know our whites,” we know full well they won’t check their privileges simply because we tell them to.

“Privilege checkers” likely pursue a more emotionally thrilling mission — basking in the sweet catharsis of telling white people just how we feel about them.

Consequently, Vance is right — the white privilege conversation features glaring imperfections. And that might push a person to conclude that some portion of the problem is that we talk about privilege in the wrong way.

In the future, wise thinkers might devise more persuasive arguments to convince white people about their privilege. But many will still choose ignorance over knowledge until they resolve to see the world as it is, not how they imagine it to be.