Readers' favorite: Sanctimony is not enough to defeat racism

The Star-Ledger selected this July 9 oped as a readers' favorite for 2020: If we don’t want these painful racism debates to linger for another generation, we must make extra effort now to increase awareness and learn about the stigmas facing others so that we can take an active part in helping to eliminate them.

Feeling good about condemning 3 students’ racist acts? Don’t.

In recent weeks, three top universities decided to rescind offers made to graduates of Morristown-Beard, an elite North Jersey private school. Two of the students used the “N-word” in a Snapchat video, while a third made a Tik-Tok video that made appeared to mock slavery.

With an obvious eye on their wrecked futures, the students were quick to offer platitudes about how “one word does not define me.” But few of us would buy this fake contrition. We hasten to condemn and even ostracize them because we don’t like the unpleasant thought that they belong to our communities. We don’t want to be associated with outwardly racist attitudes because we’re not bad people, after all.

But what we in the mostly white suburbs have failed to realize is that rebuking the use of the N-word sets the bar for righteous behavior on the topic of racism way too low. We have missed the core social problem of systemic racial injustice by a mile. Now we have a moral obligation to do more.

In part, we cannot be blamed for lacking the exposure to acknowledge of unique obstacles facing members of the Black community. We may mix with people of all colors as part of daily life, but the racial composition of most suburban towns does not reflect it. Case in point: growing up in Passaic and Bergen counties in the 80s and 90s the only Black students in my elementary school were the children of then-New York Yankees second baseman Willie Randolph. Hardly a formula to fathom the Black American experience.

Perhaps, Baby Boomers should know better, having lived through the race riots of the 1960s and come of age during the Civil Rights Era. But it seems that these pivotal moments merely tempered the overtly racist attitudes that dominated their upbringing, still leaving a major deficit of real understanding and racial healing. Likewise, Gen Xers like me grew up indoctrinated with a creed of equality in theory but in practice ultimately deviated little from the racial status quo of previous generations. (If the prior sentence ruffles your feathers, chances are you are giving yourself too much credit.)

As such, whenever the topic of systemic racial injustice crops up, most of us simply don’t want to hear it. We pout because someone dared push us out of our comfort zone. We attempt to shut down the discussion by pointing out that we condemned those Morristown-Beard kids. Or, we deflect with arrogant non-sequiturs, e.g. “All lives matter” and retreat to irrelevant academic arguments, e.g. “hating white people is also racist.” (True in theory, but not at all manifested in systemic injustice that blemishes the egalitarian society that ours must strive to remain.)

Worse yet is to become defensive of the platitudes of equality with which we identify, and wrap the American flag around our sanctimonious cocoon. Recall the patriotic scorn shown to NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who famously took a knee during the national anthem to protest the systemic targeting by police of Black Americans? While he later lost the plot when likening Independence Day to a celebration of white supremacy, a suitable rebuke for the silliness of defending the mighty United States of America from a single football player brings to mind the film “The Guardian.” In it, a Coast Guard cadet played by Aston Kutcher takes a beating in a bar fight supposedly standing up for the institution. His mentor, played by Kevin Costner, reprimands him, saying “The Coast Guard has been around for 200 years. I doubt a couple of knuckleheads like yourself are going to defend it.”

Most of us probably wish we could go back to the halcyon days when the race debate centered on the pitiful outrage directed at Nike for not suspending Kaepernick’s sponsorship. But today’s stakes are orders of magnitude higher and serious introspection is overdue for those of us raised in the cozy isolation of racially unmixed middle-class suburbs. The comfort we obtain by telling ourselves “but I’m not racist” is no longer sufficient. We cannot absolve ourselves of responsibility to confront the topic of systemic racial injustice because we never actively harmed a Black person or used the N-word.

What society do we wish to bequeath to our children? It’s not a question of policy, but of collective mentality. If we don’t want these painful debates to linger for another generation, we must make an extra effort now to increase awareness and learn about the stigmas facing others so we can take an active part in helping to eliminate them.

Violent protests attract media attention and distract us from these moral obligations. It may seem natural to focus on rioting and looting because those acts are indeed repugnant. But to do so is to miss the point that police chiefs who have knelt beside and marched alongside protesters have thankfully understood, summarized by a close relative of mine married to a Black woman: “if you think you’re not part of the problem, then you need to be part of the solution.”