Editor’s Note: Betsy Hodges is a former mayor of Minneapolis and fellow at the Harvard Institute of Politics. The views expressed here are hers. View more opinion on CNN.
Twenty-seven years ago, on the night of April 29, 1992, my life changed forever.
Before that night, I was working the late shift at a home for people with major mental illness. That’s where I was when I turned on the TV to watch Dennis Miller’s show. Yeah, that Dennis Miller. Yeah, he had a liberal talk show back then. I liked it.
The rest of the night changed my life for good, propelling me into political life.
Miller’s’ face was visibly ashen, even on the cheap screen, and he didn’t tell jokes. He was shocked. Los Angeles was in violent civil uprisings after a jury had acquitted Sgt. Stacey Koon and officers Theodore Briseno, Laurence Powell and Timothy Wind of using excessive force against Rodney King.
My own face went ashen, in turn. Along with much of America, I had seen the video of those officers beating King. As a white woman, it had not occurred to me then that anyone would conclude that the beating was OK.
I immediately switched channels to CNN and watched their coverage of the uprisings all night, weeping.
The video of officers beating King was among the first of its kind to go national. Its violence was shocking to a lot of white people. For the first time, we saw on our TV screens what people of color had known and been telling us for decades and we had had the privilege not to believe: that police officers could beat and harass and damage people of color with impunity.
In the events of that late April, I saw that white people had not only been the police officers but also most of the jury. I saw that white people had made a decision, again, that dehumanized black people. I saw that this decision implicated all white people, that racism was a white people problem. It was about us, and it was up to us to do our part to end it.
That night I made a decision that has shaped everything I have done since: I dedicated myself to learning more about racism and learning how to take action against it. I listened to and learned from people of color what true support looks like (hint: they do not need white people to save them). What I have learned in the intervening years has also helped me make better sense of what happened on April 29, 1992. It has also helped me understand the 2016 election and what we white people are facing in 2020.
After that night, I chose to pursue sociology instead of psychology. I began to participate in local politics rather than study it. I chose to run for city council and eventually mayor. Those choices continue to propel my work as a writer, speaker, adviser and consultant.
One of the things I learned really hit home as I governed in Minneapolis as council member and mayor and it hits home now as we stare down the barrel of the Trump presidency: Race is an ever-changing category that those in power have adapted to their own ends over time, as needed to protect government and economic systems.
Supreme Court cases in the last century made it clear that in America, what we mean when we use the word “race” has always been a moving target. Being “white” has had the highest rewards and yet the most precarious boundaries – people of Irish and Italian descent were included in whiteness only 150 years ago. Before that, they were denied jobs and housing because of their “race.”
That’s what America’s predominant approach to race does – it allocates resources and makes us think it is personal rather than systematic. Especially on the far side of the civil rights movement, white people often think racism is about individual people acting out of racial bias – so if they don’t feel racial bias, they feel absolved of any responsibility for racism. That belief neatly occludes a history of governance and policy-making designed to get better outcomes for whites. See, for example, redlining and its legacy or school segregation and funding and its legacy.
Those of us who are white are taught not to acknowledge race and how it works in our systems.
Scholar Robin DiAngelo, who coined the term “white fragility,” has laid out the case that white people are in denial of whiteness itself – and the privileges that go along with it. DiAngelo characterizes this as a failure of racial literacy, a failure to properly understand how race functions in American society.
As long as we are peering through the lens of whiteness our future will look like our present – which looks frighteningly like our past. That has grave implications for those of us who would like to see a new President in January, 2021.
The media, political operatives, and political analysts have focused ongoing attention and discussion on a narrow band of white 2016 voters in the Midwest/Rust Belt who are credited with giving Trump the electoral college victory.
It’s not wrong to focus on working-class white voters and their economic problems; their problems are shared by lots of Americans. The problem is that, as a result, the attention also prioritizes their chosen solutions to the problems, solutions that included support for Donald Trump’s policies targeting of immigrants of color, magnifying racial resentment, and reasserting whiteness as the natural and preferred default “good” in American life.
What if instead of treating a small group of white voters as the most important, we focused on the people who did not vote at all in 2016? Voters who were underrepresented in the 2016 election have been voting in higher numbers in every subsequent election, often making the difference in special elections and the midterms. What if we focused on the voters whose voices have been animating progressive politics for decades? Women of color, especially black women. Young people. Doug Jones knows they matter, for example. The newly blue Orange County knows.
What if, instead of deciding to acquiesce to the underlying racism of some white voters because some say it’s the only way to win, Democrats appealed to the hope and community-based policies of younger voters and voters of color? What if white journalists, editors, and commentators acquired new ways to examine the electorate and our country?
We would come to understand that racial equity is not charity – and that to aspire to be “color blind” is an insult to the history of people of color and indigenous people in this country. The invitation and responsibility facing white people now is to see our own whiteness, to release the false sense of security it gives us and reconnect with our underlying humanity.
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What I have learned in the last 27 years, a gift of the decision I made that night in 1992, is that if we decenter whiteness and recenter true connection and community, our entire country will be stronger and better for everyone – including white people. We have a chance to do just that as we decide who to support for president in 2020.