The House of Blues looks a little like a haunted house — cavernous, ornate, walls painted free-form and adorned with myriad music mementos. Above the entrance, ghostly sculpted reliefs of gods of the blues stare eerily down like a gallery from Hotel California.
But this Tuesday night was not devoted to music. It was dedicated to MSNBC’s Chris Hayes and his podcast, “Why is This Happening?” in the music hall, the Chicago stop on his fall tour (L.A. and Austin, Texas preceded, with one more to come). High above the stage, shrine-like, an array of statues of religious figures and images from world religions, including the Blessed Virgin, the Star of David and illuminated Arabic script, flanked three phrases stacked one upon another — “Unity in Diversity,” “Who Do You Love?” and “All Are One” — about as far from a Trump rally as you’re likely to get.
The place was packed by the time Chris Hayes ambled out to warm up the crowd.
“It’s 12 degrees. Let’s go downtown and talk about structural racism,” Hayes said. “I love this.” In fact he loves Chicago, where he spent seven years or so working for The Reader before moving into broadcasting. He recalled the difference between riding the Green Line and the Blue Line, the latter deep in the expressway canyon, which doesn’t allow a rider to see the differences. The Green Line rides high, so the changes in living conditions are stark.
He talked about the history of racism and how far we’ve come, or think we’ve come. “History doesn’t get people off the hook,” he observes. “Some were calling it what it was back then,” he said, so we need to call it what it is today.
With that he introduced his guests, Nikole Hannah-Jones, who started the New York Times’ “1619” project and wrote the opening essay looking back on the 400-year legacy of slavery, and Ibram X. Kendi, an American University professor who has written a much-discussed book, How To Be an Anti-Racist.
That set off a triangle of rapid-fire, back-and-forth brilliance by three extremely articulate human beings, which lasted more than an hour and was completely engrossing.
Kendi said it’s about fairness and love. Racism isn’t fair and you have to have enough love for people to want to do something about it.
Hannah-Jones said we focus on white nationalism, but what has really changed? “This pre-dates Trump,” she said, recalling a sign at the Women’s March in January of 2017 that read, “If Hillary were elected, we’d be at brunch now.” That’s telling. At least Trump brought what was already there out into the open.
Hayes asked, “Is this a democracy for all its citizens or is it a white man’s nation?”
“It’s not either/or. It’s both/and,” Kendi replied. Things have gotten better and worse. After Obama was elected, the “post-racial society theory” arose. OK, we elected a black man, so everything’s good now.
“The post-racial theory,” Kendi said, “is one of the most sophisticated racist ideas ever.” It let white Americans off the hook. If we’re in a post-racial society and a racial group is still suffering, there must be something wrong with the racial group.
Instead of looking at “250 years of racial architecture” and its impact on this country, Hannah-Jones pointed out, too many white Americans started saying to black Americans, “Our ancestors came here and made it. Why can’t you?”
“Progress,” said Hayes, “deluded us into overlooking how much [racism] is still there.”
“So you don’t have to engage,” Kendi added.
“Lord knows everyone marched with Dr. King,” Hannah-Jones quipped, “but what side are you on right now?”
Defensive outbursts (“I am not a racist!”) are an attempt to stake out neutral turf. Not my problem, not my accountability. But as Kendi has written, you can’t be a passive “non-racist;” you can only be racist or anti-racist, and for many, if not most people, it’s both, and he includes himself, examining his own unconscious biases in great detail in his writing.
“Moral neutrality colludes with evil,” was the line of the night.
“This nation is built on white supremacy,” Hannah-Jones noted. “We are awash in black stereotypes from birth on. How do we purge ourselves of that? It’s in our very DNA.”
Besides, “white supremacy doesn’t benefit white people,” Kendi said. Opposition to gun regulation, for instance, means more guns, which leads to more white suicides.
If poor white Americans think a social program will benefit black Americans, they usually oppose it, but they deprive themselves of the benefits of that program. Yet even poor whites enjoy the privilege of attending middle-class schools, which are better than all-black schools. Poor whites still live in neighborhoods with more resources.
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Racist ideas are appealing, Kendi said. “I have more, therefore I am more. It’s like processed meat. Racist ideas taste really good. We have to strive to create a non-processed meat.”
Hayes asked, “Is race in America like gravity or is it like the weather? Can it change?”
“Can we have policy in this country that is not centered on race?” Kendi replied. “Yes, but it would be a different America. You can’t tinker your way to anti-racism. You need radical structural change. Yes, you lose whiteness, but you actually gain.”
Too many still believe it’s either white supremacy or minority supremacy, he observed, “but the vast majority would benefit from a different kind of country.”
Hannah-Jones wasn’t so optimistic. She sides with gravity.
“There is no fluidity in a caste system,” she said. “It’s based on anti-blackness.” Most other minority groups as they assimilate, are considered “white.”
“Black is singular.”
So maybe we’re stuck. Then again, a large crowd, more than half white, turned out on a 12-degree Tuesday night to listen in rapt attention to a lengthy discussion on structural racism. I didn’t see anyone leave early. I doubt that would have happened before Michael Brown was killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri five years ago, which represented a turning point in this country’s racial awareness. At least it did for me.
Race still feels like gravity because we have such a long way to go.
Then again, maybe we’re discovering a more benign form of climate change.
Another step on our national, and personal, journey — from moral neutrality to active anti-racism.