The real conversation on racism is much more difficult but necessary

The National Football League tried this week to address cries over racial justice with the demonstration of players, signs proclaiming Black Lives Matter, and the words “end racism” in the end zones. The response was not uniformly positive, including loud disapproval from some fans.

The controversy intensified after announcer Cris Collinsworth praised the demonstration, but went on, “Let us just get that out of the way and call a football game.” Some objected to his transition. Others such as former Bill Clinton adviser Paul Begala claimed that announcer Alan Michaels did not declare his own support. “Crickets,” as Begala suggested, was insufficient, leading some to push back on the pressure of forced statements.

The greater concern could be the impact of such corporate displays and whether they constitute real progress toward racial justice or are a tactic that will effectively diminish the issue. The Food and Drug Administration and consumer advocates have studied how the saturation using product warnings has caused consumers to ignore stated risks. It becomes a kind of background noise tuned out by commercials. Racial justice should not fall victim to the same claims. Companies have been fast to create public displays of their “wokeness” in campaigns. But will such messages really resonate with people when they become pervasive and uniform?

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Take Lululemon, a $3 billion corporation that is funding the campaign to “unveil historical erasure and resist capitalism.” A global company with a campaign against capitalism brings to mind Vladimir Lenin, who claimed, “When it comes time to hang the capitalists, they will vie with each other for the rope contract.” Lululemon must hope to sell not just the rope but the attire of the revolution. What better way to redefine society than in a fetching Lululemon “define jacket” that costs more than $100?

Such campaigns have become a kind of certification, where denouncing oneself is the new standard. I have been deluged by relatives and friends blasting out social media confessions of being racists. Several professors have read or signed statements declaring themselves racists.

The acting dean of Northwestern University Law School began a diversity event by declaring, “I am James Speta and I am a racist.” He was followed by Emily Mullin, executive director of major gifts, who said, “I am a racist and a gatekeeper of white supremacy. I will work to be better.” These kind recitations are now expected of anyone claiming to oppose racism. There is a sense for urgency among some faculty not to be the last to condemn themselves. As Begala has shown, “crickets” invite criticism.

I do not doubt the motives of Speta. I assume this was a heartfelt effort to support racial justice. Yet this social catharsis comes across with all such spontaneity of a recitation at a retraining camp. It is difficult to see how it assists the cause of racial justice for everyone to dutifully call themselves racists or tools of white supremacy. But an emerging view is that all white people are racist or at least presumptively racist. Angela Bell, an assistant professor at Lafayette College, said, “If you have to ask if you are a racist, you are, and if you are not asking if you are a racist, you are.”

If everyone is a racist, then this becomes a common rather than a singular distinction. It makes it easy for everyone to declare themselves recovering racists, then tackling real racism becomes more instead of less difficult to address. The protests have educated me with a number of issues. Racism remains our most transcendent and unresolved national matter. However, saying “I am a racist” may be popular now, but it is not true. That does not mean I do not want to address ways that my words may negatively impact other people, or to become better educated about their lives.

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The question is whether this movement is being advanced or undermined by these awkward recitations of condemnation or corporate identity. That is why many recoiled when Collinsworth said, “I feel like I have to start off by stating I stand behind these players 100 percent. What they are trying to do is bring positive change for this country that is frankly overdue. Let us just get that out of the way and call a football game.” Most fans believe the National Football League has not actually changed its views. It simply wants to get on with the game, like how Lululemon perhaps wants to get on selling expensive leggings as a business against capitalism.

It is clear why such campaigns and declarations work for some firms or individuals. Yet they can also give us a false sense of progress. Painting “end racism” in a stadium is gratifying, but it does not move the ball on racism because it is not part of a real discussion on race, and that core conversation happens less in society. Many advocates have pushed for these declarations as evidence that we finally are having a debate over race. However, it is only a recitation instead of a conversation.

What we need is what few are willing to tolerate, which is a real discussion on race. There are many who believe racism is a scourge but disagree with the goals of the Black Lives Matter movement. Others disagree that police killings of African Americans are under the systemic problem of racism, as opposed to a systemic problem with use of lethal force. When academics have published some studies on such issues, they have been denounced as racists or subjected to firing campaigns. Few minds will be changed in this heated environment, and that is sadly a loss for society.

Public confessions or corporate slogans will not change many minds. We can change minds on both sides by talking about different views of racism with the understanding that reasonable people may disagree over aspects of the problem. For most of us, there may not be different sides but rather different views of the causes and solutions, which is a much more difficult conversation to have than painting a slogan or leading a condemnation. If we lack this, then from gridirons to colleges to runways, such campaigns against racism will simply turn into a cost of doing business.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can find his updates online @JonathanTurley.