How do we make real progress on racism? What does it take to face our own biases? How might we actually understand the perspectives and experiences of people whose sex, gender or ethnicity is different from our own?
“We need to see people other than ourselves in order to empathize. If we don’t live around others, we do ourselves and our society damage—because our ability to relate becomes impaired,” says Charles Blow, a New York Times columnist and author. “It’s easy to demonize or simply dismiss people you don’t know or see.... It’s nearly impossible to commiserate with the unseen and unknown.”
Similar thoughts have been running through the minds of many since the height of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement amid the backdrop of the global COVID Pandemic. The Black Employee Network formed in 2020 at Springer Nature (Scientific American’s parent company) in answer to colleagues’ calls for a forum for such discussions. With a global committee of seven, the network has begun addressing some of the thoughts and feelings of Black employees and allies. And it has started a conversation on diversity, equity and inclusion within scientific publishing and beyond.
In December 2020 the Springer Nature Black Employee Network and Scientific American kicked off this conversation with Blow as guest speaker. He talked about crucial issues, including police brutality during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, dealing with microaggressions, or subtly and often unconsciously prejudiced speech and behavior, and diversifying workplaces.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting Black, Hispanic and Indigenous communities. But members of minority groups might mistrust vaccinations because of historical racism in health care. What are your thoughts on how these feelings will impact marginalized people in terms of eradicating the novel coronavirus?
There needs to be a well-funded, concerted campaign that’s going to have to build trust within the Black community about COVID vaccines. For centuries, there are many examples in every generation about something catastrophic that happened to Black people that was facilitated by the government and instituted by the health care system. Some people look at that and think, “I don't trust any of it.” And it prevents them from going to the hospital.
There is a disproportionate number of Black women who die in childbirth when they shouldn’t be dying. Why? The doctors don’t believe you when you tell them there is a problem. We need a campaign around the vaccine. But thinking more broadly, we have to deal with some of these structures. People are not making it up when they say they don’t trust this system and they don’t trust their doctors. If their doctor, like some studies show, refuses to prescribe pain medication to the same degree—because they don’t believe that Black people feel pain in the same way—that’s part of the issue. Pediatricians don’t prescribe Black children the same level of pain medication as they do white kids because, subconsciously, they are not registering their pain in the same way.
Now, ironically, this is why white people disproportionately have the opioid problem. Distrust is not fabricated; it is based on horrible experiences that Black people had, and continue to have, in the medical field.
Regarding the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor: Do you think the pandemic has been a catalyst for added attention and calls for action despite such situations happening before?
The pivotal word in your question is “catalyst.” Was it a catalyst or was it an excuse? Was the killing of George Floyd, and the protests that erupted after, a hall pass? People have been cooped up because of the pandemic, and suddenly they could congregate and be with other human beings. As soon as things started to reopen in the fall, public support of Black Lives Matter began to go back down among white people in particular. Maybe once enough time has passed, we will understand what happened this summer. But the question remains: How real was it?
Pew [Research Center] did its polling of the people participating in the protests, and the vast majority of them were white. Where were they when other people were being killed? It’s not just about learning some new things. In order to change the system of oppression, you’re going to have to get uncomfortable. If the presence of Black culture and Hispanic culture makes you uncomfortable, that’s what you need to feel because until you are willing to live your life in a space, in a community, in an environment that embraces every culture equally, you still have the problem. There’s no set of books you’re going to be able to read to undo that if you still want to live in a majority white neighborhood, so you can keep the majority white school. There’s no amount of putting Black Lives Matter placards in your neighborhood if you have more BLM signs than you have Black people. That’s not going to make it right.
In a segment on the CBS News program Sunday Morning, you said that you were 18 years old when a cop first pulled a gun on you. How do you think that kind of experience affects young men and women and their interactions with the police as they grow into older adults? How has it affected you?
It’s incredibly traumatic. The people who are supposed to protect you are the ones who are threatening your life. It really undermines your ability to have faith in the system. Who do Black people call [when they] have been the victim of this? When there’s a problem, you are hesitant to call the police. I’m hesitant. We’ve seen people get killed because somebody calls the police to do a welfare check on someone who has a mental illness. Then the person ends up dead. So now that makes me far less likely to call the police to do a welfare check on somebody.
My brother recently passed away from an illness in his organs, but it was also affecting him mentally. And he was in his home, and my mother called the police, and I freaked out. All I can think is, “He’s not going to be rational. And it’s so easy to kill him, because he’s suffering a medical illness that is leading to a mental problem.” [This issue] undermines our ability to trust the system. It also, on a more practical level, inhibits a lot of Black people from joining the police force. It’s hard to recruit me if you’ve been locking [me up], if you’ve been throwing me down and frisking me. It’s hard to recruit me if you pull guns on me. If I consider you the gang, it’s going to be hard for you to recruit me.
What are your thoughts on Black men and women who enter the police force to make a difference and change its impression on Black children?
First, I hope that’s not why they have to do it. I’m from the South, and I grew up in a small, majority-Black town. We had one police officer; he was Black. Then he was replaced with a guy who was my cousin by marriage; he was Black. So I just never grew up with fear of police officers. I grew up thinking he had a great job, and he was protecting us—and that’s how people should feel. I assume that’s how white people feel about the police because I never felt like I was in danger. I never felt like they were going out of their way to pick on me. This was your neighbor. They weren’t trying to bother you. They weren’t trying to make money for the city by giving you a fine.
I appreciate law enforcement done right—which is that it’s empathetic, that it is character-driven. It is moral. It is not a profit-making entity. It is not brutal without repercussion. It is not racially skewed in its targeting. And that can exist. But in big cities, [law enforcement has] become an entity unto itself. Even when a city’s police force is more diverse or even majority-Black, often the union is white. The power structure is white. There is corruption in that system. So that doesn’t mean that you don’t need structures that make sure the laws get obeyed, because we all need a civil society. But what we have created is a law-enforcement structure that is itself uncivil.
What role does the media play in the perception of Black people?
In general, research shows that we are more likely to be portrayed in the media in the criminal sense. We’re less likely to have redemptive narratives. For example, when you’re a victim of something, and the media says, “He was a choirboy” or “He was a valedictorian” or “He was captain of the football team”—those redemptive, humanizing qualities are less likely to be ascribed to Black people when either they are the victim or the perpetrator in a news story.
Victimization is generally reserved for white people, particularly white women. There was a phenomenon we in the news business used to talk about: missing white woman syndrome. The prettier the person was—in white people’s definition of beauty—and the younger they were, the bigger the story was. A missing white woman is a huge story.
Black women also go missing every day. Black children go missing every day. When’s the last time you heard a story, on the level of JonBenet Ramsey, of a Black girl missing? That is probably a holdover from the beginning of the country. White femininity has always been used as an activator of white power structures. It was used to lynch. It was used to burn down whole communities. Some people don’t realize that the Tulsa massacre, which they called race riots, happened because a white woman said that a young Black man in the elevator had done something to her. So the media plays a huge role in this kind of idolizing of white victimhood and brandishing of Black criminality.
How do you think the protests have affected the workplace in terms of interactions among Black colleagues, other people of color and white colleagues?
It’s hard to really gauge that because we have all been working from home for months. I do believe that there were a lot of conversations had. But if you look across the spectrum, there was a knee-jerk reaction. All of a sudden, everybody has the diversity initiative. All of a sudden, everybody’s assigning books to read. Black people get shows; books race up the best-seller list. People who do talks like this, like me, get a zillion requests, all of that activity. But having lived in this Black body for 50 years, I’ve seen these knee-jerk reactions before. And I know that the knee eventually falls back into place. So I’m always looking to figure out how much of this is a true commitment to diversity and a sustained sense of equality and how much of it is to ward off the possibility of disruption.
Sometimes what people describe as a period of unity is actually a period of silence. When people are quiet about their discomfort and their oppression and their pain, people call that racial ease, racial unity. But as soon as you start to vocalize that you are not happy with your oppression, they call that racial unrest. They call that racial issues, racial friction. And what they’re really trying to address is your objection, not the system that is making you object.
Always remember that racism is not really about attitudes, although attitude is a part of racism. The primary instrument of racism is power. It is the power to have advantages over you in workplaces, in social environments and every other place. It is the power to have an economic advantage over you. When you see people trying to disenfranchise voters, that’s all about power. When you see people locking up certain citizens, that’s about the power to not have you in their space.
In “Constructing a Conversation on Race,” published in the New York Times in 2014, you wrote, “A true racial dialogue is not intra-racial but interracial.... Data must be presented. Experiences must be explored. Histories and systems must be laid bare. Biases, fears, stereotype and mistrust must be examined.” What important steps should companies take to ensure the conversation continues and effectively allows voices to be heard?
The conversation is about white supremacy and how it has always operated in America—and how it operates in corporate America, how it operates in medical fields, how it operates in the criminal justice system, how it operates in education. I am not on equal footing; my ancestor was not on equal footing. We came to this conversation from different perspectives.
I am always struck by how, whenever I’m having a discussion or giving a speech about racism and inequality and white supremacy, the majority of the people that I’m speaking to are Black. I’m speaking to the wrong crowd. Why is this room not filled with white people? Because, in general, it is considered to be our problem. What kind of sense does that make? We need to sit around and talk about our oppression? No, the people with the power need to be sitting around talking about it. What are you going to do?
And people act like Black people have some kind of magical insight into this. No, we don’t. There’s no racial information on our birth certificate that tells us how to navigate racism in America. We don’t get an extra set of school books in school that teach us how to learn history about racism and how to deal with it. We have to learn it on our own over a whole lifetime. You need to do the same thing! If you’re not putting in the work and trying to figure out how to deal with this and how to get rid of it, you’re not serious. I’ve done the work my whole life trying to figure out well, you expect me to give you five bullet points to change the world? It doesn’t work that way.