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In Defense of Distance
How learning to separate myself from the madness kept me sane these past three years
(Author’s note: It’s 3AM. This afternoon I’m guest lecturing a course called “The Science of Human Connection” at Bard College. Students were assigned a chapter from my book, Letters to My White Male Friends, entitled “The Culture of Disbelief”. If you’ve read the book, you likely already know this but if you haven’t, the chapter sits within a section of the book where I explore the ways I have observed the warping effects of racism on white America and how disbelief gets in the way of our collective ability to see one another as beings equally deserving of care, consideration and constitutional protections. These are the remarks I plan to give.)
My father taught me how to create distance between myself and the world. How to regard what’s happening around me as merely that and nothing more. How to go about living one’s own life, being on one’s own cosmic journey. He called himself a citizen of the world, a spiritual being having a physical existence. Emerson and Thoreau were his jam. He was a Trekky before there was such a thing. I was 8 or 9 when he introduced me to 2001:Space Odyssey. The first time I heard Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon—“And then one day you find ten years have got behind you / No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun”—was while reading Marvel’s original Secret Wars series in the backseat of his station wagon.
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Looking back, I can’t even picture my dad reading a newspaper or watching the news. He managed, so it seemed to me, to move through his life aware but not consumed or, as Stevie Wonder sang, “in it but not of it”. After the divorce, when I was 12 or 13, my father even bought a five acre ranch in rural section of Maryland, about half-hour from from the D.C. line, another 15 minutes to downtown proper, depending on traffic. The previous owner had been a horse breeder so the mammoth fields behind the modest house and tucked under a bluff beneath the horse stable were each semi-fenced off from one another. Back then, I never considered it a ranch. The house was more like a country shack and my dad, though he entertained the idea of one day getting a horse, filled the stable with old clunkers, fixing doomed jalopies a habit he inherited from his father who owned a body shop in Richmond, Virginia.
Before I had my license, he’d let me cut the grass on his John Deere for practice. In the summer I’d be on that thing for a couple of hours before the heat defeated me. Then I’d head for the hammock in the lone shady section of the yard and doze until dinner. By the time I woke up at sunset, the fields would all be trimmed and neat. Dad would be down the hill about 50 yards or so cranking away on one of his many rehab jobs. I’d gather myself and walk down to join him. Sometimes the Sanyo radio was tuned to WHUR. Others it was quiet. Somehow I knew not to rush my dad on these afternoons. Knew how to just be with him and let that be enough.
My dad only owned the ranch for a few years. I want to say five or six but time being what it is, it could have been closer to 10. All I know for sure is that he sold it while I was a sophomore in college and moved to California. And like that, he was gone.
I always knew what land meant to my father. When I was young and my parents were still together, we once drove to West Virginia and pulled over on the side of one of those roads I imagine my ancestors looked out upon and wondered where on earth they were and how to get back home. Thick, leafy trees stood as tall as the sky and stretched out in all directions as far as the eye could see. My mom and dad got out of the car and my sisters and I followed him. “There it is,” he said, pointing to the tiny flags marking the boundary lines of our property. At least that’s how I remember it. Point is he was a country boy at heart. He wore cowboy boots and straw hats my entire childhood. Big buckled belts and starched jeans with a long crease down the middle. Shirt tucked in tight. The ranch gave him a piece of the land. He used it for peace of mind. He couldn’t keep the world out entirely, but he could create space for himself. Space to be with his children on his terms. Space to just be. Distance. I couldn't appreciate back then what that ranch meant or would come to mean for me.
Since returning to DC almost three years ago, I’ve driven past the old place a few times. Only the first time was intentional. Alana was with me. Ella as well. The house was gone, replaced, as one might expect, by something far more pleasing to the eyes but likely less durable. As far as I can tell, the land has been chopped up and parceled out. Seeing it up close after more than 25 years away, it occurred to me that, for all intents and purposes, the ranch or Briggs Chaney as we simply called it, was my first retreat. If I wanted to spend time with my father, and I did, I had to enter his world. And once I was out there, I wasn’t returning to DC for a couple of days. It had never really dawned on me that being out there, away from the city and my friends and everything happening at a time before cell phones, the internet and social media, had seeped into me, in many ways shaped me. Weekends at my dad’s shabby craftsman on a dusty road called Briggs Chaney allowed me to tune out the noisy world that I was living in at an age when, perhaps, it mattered most. Equally important, it taught me that the world wasn’t going anywhere. It was ok to step back and regroup.
Over the past couple of years, I have found these step backs increasingly essential. When I was writing Letters in the fall of 2020, America seemed poised for a profound shift in consciousness. For the first time in my lifetime, I felt all of the talk about a racial reckoning would finally yield tangible results. An earlier wave of Black Lives Matter protests had fizzled in 2016 after the movement lost credibility and momentum as a result of violent shootings in Dallas and Baton Rouge. But the 2020 movement, it seemed dramatically different and to have staying power and tactical direction that its predecessor lacked. The day the 2020 election results were finally announced, Alana, Ella and I joined the caravan heading to Black Lives Matter Plaza. It was thrilling to be part of what felt like such a triumphant time. There was, at least in my world, a mix of giddy exuberance coupled with relief. You even heard elders who had seen the waves and cycles of change openly wonder if this country was finally ready to move forward. It was in that spirit and against this backdrop that I wrote what I hoped would be regarded as an offering rather an indictment. I thought, perhaps, it could contribute to the healing dialogues that we needed to have with one another about our past, present and future.
The blowback started even before the book met the world. I watched it come into view like an old steam vessel approaching from a distant horizon. January 6 was its official coming out party. Though we wouldn’t know it right away, the hooligans who stormed the United States Capitol destabilized the national momentum for racial healing and justice in two distinct ways. First, by monopolizing the news for several months, they effectively switched our collective conversation away from racial violence to national security. Second, their brazen action and the specter of more to come scared moderates and liberals into believing that the only to avoid a civil war was by appeasing white extremists, which would ultimately mean abandoning racial justice.
By the spring of 2021, angry white parents who had been fed a steady diet of disinformation about COVID-19 and critical race theory descended upon school board meetings en masse. Voter suppression bills piled up in states across the country. Gerrymandering operatives drew increasingly bizarre maps to maintain white majorities and break up the voting power of minoritized communities.
I turned to the late writings of Dr. King to make sense of the disintegration I was starting to see. “There is not even a common language when the term “equality” is used,” he wrote in in his final book, 1967’s Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? “Negroes and whites have a fundamentally different definition.” The former, King wrote, proceed “from a premise that equality means what it says,” while the latter consider equality a “loose expression for improvement.”
Still, for a brief period between January and June, it seemed that the center might yet hold. One of Biden’s first orders of business was signing an executive order to advance racial equity. Then the administration pushed through a $4 billion debt relief package for Black farmers who federally backed banks had systematically discriminated against, robbing them of land and the opportunities of their counterparts. The American Medical Association rolled out plans to redress past harms done to Black people in the medical professional. Others like the American Psychological Association followed suit. In April, a Minnesota jury found Derek Chauvin guilty on three counts of murder in connection with the slaying of George Floyd. If you squinted and tilted your head at just the right angle, the spring of 2021 felt like a season of resolve. Collectively, we seemed even more intent against backsliding, and appeared to be holding each other up and accountable. In mid June, on the heels of sweeping bipartisan support, Juneteenth became an official national holiday. In my little world, the audiences who attended my virtual book talks that summer were diverse and frequently numbered in the hundreds. Wherever I spoke, I encountered curious, kind, courageous people who seemed genuinely interested in fixing this country’s broken systems.
But then came the fall 2021 election cycle. In Virginia, Republican upstart Glen Youngkin, who ran on an anti-mask/anti-CRT platform, defeated his liberal Democrat opponent, former Governor Terry McAuliffe. Elsewhere, voters chose moderates over progressives in what was widely viewed as a referendum on the Left’s hard push for social change. And in Minneapolis, where George Floyd had been murdered just a year earlier, voters rebuffed an effort to defund the police.
Once the 2021 election dust settled, educators in 10 states were suddenly teaching under threat of termination if they presented lessons that framed the U.S. as inherently racist as well as any discussions about conscious and unconscious bias, privilege, discrimination, and oppression. Some 20 additional states were considering similar measures.
In the final analysis, the inflammatory rhetoric surrounding critical race theory successfully dog-whistled cultural marxism among the right but it also wedged division among progressives. On one hand it tapped into white grievance and dishonor—this perpetual and too-often unsubstantiated sense that white people and their heritage and culture are the real American identity and that any efforts to reconstitute our story in a shared set of truths must be resisted at all costs for the sake of the nation. On the other, it placed progressives who were otherwise aligned at odds with one another in a battle over whether to hold the line or give ground to keep the coalition intact.
Overnight, the media’s message pivoted from ‘How do we right the injustices of our past and present?’ to ‘Have we gone too far left too quickly?” It didn’t help matters that two weeks later Kyle Rittenhouse walked out of court a free man.
In the fog of post-election whiplash, I found my way back to King’s final book, and again he delivered a poignant reminder. Some 18 months after Selma and the Voting Rights Act, he wrote in that final book “the white backlash had become an emotional electoral issue in California, Maryland, and elsewhere. In several Southern states men long regarded as political clowns had become governors or only narrowly missed election, their “magic” achieved with a witches brew of bigotry, half-truths and whole lies.”
That winter, I started sounding the alarm in my book talks. I had always known the backlash would come and that it would first seek to decouple the moderates then the liberals from the coalition of the willing. The message I shared with organizations I spoke with was simple: movements for racial justice might be on the right side of history, but they no longer have the wind at their back. The tide had turned and racial justice glow had worn off. “We all saw behind the veil,” I said at the end of these talks. “We saw what we had wrought and we vowed to change. Now we are being coaxed back into complacency. There is no other way to say it. Some of us haven’t forgotten and those voices are trying desperately to keep us on task, but this is a hard challenge, a values challenge, and without explicit interventions, sustained commitment, and real compassion for one another we already know where this road leads.”
By the beginning of 2022, the pushback against racial equity and justice had gone mainstream. Opinion articles and scholarly research denigrating wokeism and so-called cancel culture while questioning the effectiveness of DEI became the norm. The same publications that had burnished their social justice credentials in 2020 were now back to playing the both-sideism game. Despite all of the books and lectures on the goals of racial equity, some, I found, could truly only conceive of it as a form of racism and themselves, the victims of an unAmerican brainwashing conspiracy to rob them of their rightful place in the society. Watchdogs tracking the millions that corporate America pledged to racial justice wondered where the money had gone. Speculation emerged that it had all been PR stunt designed to weather the uprising. I think it was more banal.
When Starbucks tried to peg executive compensation to diversity, a group of disgruntled shareholders filed a law suit. When Pfizer attempted to establish a minority fellowship program to address racial disparities, a disgruntled white applicant who felt unfairly excluded filed a lawsuit. Despite abundant evidence that Black students carry more debt due to wealth disparities rooted in racist employment, housing and wealth building policies, targeted efforts to ensure Black students benefited from loan forgiveness died on the vine.Oh, and remember those Black farmers who the federal government tried to do right by, a group of white farmers filed a lawsuit before the payments could get out the door. A judged enjoined the Department of Agriculture from moving forward and nearly two years passed before the farmers settled for less than half the amount that they were promised. Needless to say, I could go on with examples. The point is that in 2022 nearly every effort to make America a more racial equitable society seemed to stall for the same reason: suddenly, racism was a problem for white people.
For my part, at least two speaking engagements that I know of—one with a prominent university—were outright canceled out of fear of what I might say or how my presence might be interpreted. Other opportunities mysteriously dematerialized. An article about the systemic racism in the justice system that I was commissioned to write for a national newspaper was cancelled after I submitted a rigorously researched and reported draft pointing to how the paper had itself engaged in biased criminal justice coverage through the years. By the late spring of 2022, the message to me became quite clear. Thank you for your concern, but we have reckoned enough.
As much as I thought I understood the cycles of progression and regression that checker the American race story, it was still disorienting to live through it in real time, to, in some minor sense, be implicated in it. When you are living through such an experience, and it’s not over by the way, you can’t help but wonder what’s going on. If you’re crazy. If what you think is happening is actually happening. There’s also an unreal quality to watching people repeat the same racist behaviors while parroting the same race-blind rhetoric you once read about in a textbook or witnessed on a grainy video. Perhaps that’s why so many craven politicians want to control what children learn. If you can remove a piece of history from the official record then, in a sense, it never happened. Therefore there’s no reference point for it when it repeats itself. No way to make sense of it as part of a broader pattern and strategy of oppression and marginalization. Nothing to deny.
Before landing on “The Culture of Disbelief” I kicked around the idea of “The Culture of Denial”. This was before the term “election deniers” entered our lexicon, before so much more that has shown me the depths of the self-deception so many Americans choose. Looking back, and with the benefit of the data I’ve collected these past couple of years, I’m clear that I made the right choice. Denial is merely a facet of the broader cultural pattern. It’s an aspect. Disbelief encompasses the broader set of practices, rituals, norms, feedback loops—ways of operating in relation to reality—that sustain a set of arrangements that serves one group’s interest irrespective of whether they result in harm to others. Disbelief, like disinformation, is more than just an innocent error in reasoning rooted on bad information. It is a set of willful, coordinated and institutionally backed actions designed to discredit or overlook information that clearly conflicts with the worldview that one group has adopted because doing so is spiritually convenient and materially advantageous, and to accept the alternative would demand a deeper interrogation of one’s basic humanity.
To ward off any such self interrogation and preserve the sanctity of whiteness, a term like “equity” has to be discredited and stripped of any validity. It has to be conflated with bogeymen like communism and thus the undoing of American values. Why? Because the notion of using the same institutional levers that created benefits for whites to create benefits for minoritized groups makes too much rational and ethical sense. It’s too obviously the solution. To prevent the possibility of “too much justice” that William Brennan once wryly wondered in regard to his fellow Supremes’ fears, we get self-serving platitudes like “two wrongs don’t make a right”. In fact, that’s just binary thinking posing a dime story morality. Say it with me: just because one group is being helped doesn’t mean another being harmed. At bottom, while “equity” is grounded in and defined across several recognized fields of serious study and practice, the “fairness” that so many fret over and file law suits to protect is a fluid term of art that means whatever the aggrieved wants it to mean. What’s really nauseating, though, is that the same people who are quick to claim their equal protection rights are being violated the moment a few Black people might get a few dollars, an internship or a break on a loan are the same ones who are quick to claim they don’t see race.
The richness of it all is enough to make one sick.
As a kid, I assumed that the distance my dad put between himself and the world was a reflection of his character. I assumed that his natural disposition was that of the loner. Now that I am the age that he was when I was mowing his lawn(s), I wonder about that perception. Wonder if there was more to it. If all that banging and clanking on cars he could never seem to get to run right was about something else entirely. Maybe it was never about fixing the cars at all.
What I know is that writing, talking and teaching about systemic inequities for the past three years has been every bit as exhausting as it sounds. The work is never done. The struggle for legitimacy and credibility is ceaseless. At any moment another infuriating offense or tragic injustice demands emotional and intellectual energy that I would frankly rather spend teaching my daughter to read or my son to spell. My saving grace has been the step backs and tune outs that my dad surreptitiously introduced me to. Choosing not to throw myself headlong into social media skirmishes. Resisting the impulse to unleash hellfire every time I witness us walk back our promises. Not giving all of my vital energy away to struggles that preceded me and will be here when I’m gone.
This isn’t me throwing up my hands. Not in the least. Life has been too generous to me. I have the wherewithal to see the disbelief for what it is—fear masked as hubris— and not fall into utter despair. This is me saying that sometimes it’s enough to see the world go by and understand it. To be able to take it apart and make sense of it. Not get so lost inside of its vicissitudes because the news tells me I should. Not allow it to consume all thoughts at all times. The reality, and this is something I believe with everything, there are more of us who want an inclusive, equitable future than not. It’s an open secret. A matter of time. I’m willing to admit that my optimism got the better of me these past couple of years. I’m not ashamed or embarrassed for being a believer. At my age, I’m damn proud of that. I thought maybe we—the grand we—were further than we actually are, and I wasn’t wrong so much as premature. So we press on, accepting that the work may never be done, hoping that one day my descendants are my wildest dreams, knowing that we win every day that we struggle. Which is why we don’t have to struggle every day or in every battle.
This was around the time I was arrested after a student protest and was generally adrift. For a long time, I secretly thought he headed west because of me, to get away from me. Even long after our relationship flourished into an intellectual and spiritual bond in my 20s, when my oldest sister gave me his journal upon his death, I was afraid to read its contents. Only after a couple of years did I open it, trace the dates on the top right corner back to the period in question, and allow myself inside my dad’s truest thoughts. I was prepared for everything except what I actually encountered: a middle aged man moving through life, documenting tidbits of experiences and conversations and reflections here and there.
As we’ve witnessed, even race-blind forgiveness is intolerable to certain people.