Two weeks ago, I logged into my email to read a note written by the headmaster of my daughters’ school about the white supremacist terrorist who traveled to New York from Baltimore—one of the blackest cities on the East Coast—to find a black man to kill. The note said this terrorist had graduated from my daughters’ Quaker school in 2007. Maybe I should have been shocked, but I wasn’t. Enraged, yes. Shocked, no.
The graduate in question, James Harris Jackson, 28, has since been charged with murder as an act of terror in the first- and second-degree after the stabbing and killing of 66-year-old Timothy Caughman. He faces life in prison without a chance for parole.
Other graduates who had interacted with Jackson spoke to me anonymously, and described his family as a typical upper-middle-class family that lived in a gated community in Towson, a suburb of Baltimore City. The family had a peace sign on their door and an American flag on their front porch. Former classmates described him as polite but surly and remarked that there was something odd about him, although he “was the last person I would expect to do that.”
Jackson immediately reminded me of a terrorist named Dylann Roof, another 20-something disaffected white man, who had been spurned by a crush who preferred a black man and decided to take it out on black people. More specifically, churchgoers in their house of worship.
Jackson was assumed to be someone who was radicalized when he went into the Army, even though Jackson was reported to have told police that he had hated black men since he “was a child.” Showing little remorse, he told reporters he would have preferred to have killed a “young thug,” or a “successful older black man with blondes,” instead of the elderly Caughman.
Authorities say that Jackson and Roof targeted victims who were vulnerable. Jackson, prosecutors charge, surprised Caughman, plunging a sword into Caughman’s back as he collected recyclables late at night. Nine churchgoers were shot and killed as Roof shot 80 times inside the church after they invited him to worship with them.
If there’s anything that this past election and movies like Get Out have taught us, it is that the insidious nature of racism corrupts all. There are no “good” white liberals and “bad” white conservatives that go untouched.
“When we have conversations around cultural competency and equity, we never have conversations about white culture,” says Michael P. Scott, chief equity officer for Equity Matters. “The dominant culture is never examined. As Toni Morrison said, ‘If you have to have someone underneath you to feel tall, that’s a sickness and neurosis that needs to be examined.’”
The results of avoiding the dissection of white culture can lead to conversations around power and privilege that often don’t explore in depth how racism and privilege can lead to dehumanization. How people can come to love black culture but hate black people. How they can choose comfort over direct action. How they can insist on “peaceful” protesting, which translates to “do not destroy property,” rather than valuing the people who have become frustrated enough to take to the streets.
But black people aren’t the only ones dehumanized by racism—whites can be dehumanized, too.
“You can be blind to others’ pain, more fragile,” says Scott. “You’re going to kill black people? For what? You had a bad day? It wasn’t a bad day. It was an accumulation of a miseducated person who didn’t have the resilience and had fragility and some tipping point in his mental health that tipped him over. He’s been dehumanized, because no one would have taken the life of another human being they didn’t know.”
With Jackson and Roof, the main difference between the two was in how the media described them. Roof was characterized as a Confederate-flag-waving Southern redneck, while Jackson was characterized as an outsider to his liberal family (his father allegedly worked at some point as a diversity coordinator).
Television media described Jackson’s haircut and coat as stylish. He lived in Baltimore’s hipster neighborhood, Hampden, and before that, Mount Vernon, a neighborhood full of Brooklyn, N.Y.-style brownstones, cobblestoned streets, coffee shops and art schools.
“Racism and inequality are not the result of some backward redneck. It doesn’t even originate in the South,” says Jared Ball, author, radio host and associate professor of communications at Morgan State University. “The Civil War was about a Northern capitalist industrial class wanting claim over its raw material.”
Salon’s Chauncey DeVega, in a critique of the liberalism of Bernie Sanders, says, “Racism and white supremacy are not a function of what is in people’s hearts, what they tell you about their beliefs or intentions behind their words or deeds. In reality, racism and white supremacy are a function of outcomes and structures.”
Good intentions don’t matter, says Scott. You may want equality, but without examining the ways in which power is dispensed, and unless you actively work to create a more equitable structure, even organizations run by people of color can perpetuate an inequitable model.
“If you put every racist on the moon, the system would still perpetuate itself,” says Scott. “You can have a whole bunch of diversity in a racist structure, but it just shows up more colorful. You have included [people of color] in a tokenized way if they don’t have power.”
It’s those systems and structures that exist everywhere—from elite schools to media newsrooms to corporate boardrooms to the White House—that need to be examined. Not through buzzwords like “diversity” and “inclusion,” but through equity and justice.
In an article for Inside Higher Ed, reporter Dafina-Lazarus Stewart lays it out plain: “Diversity asks, ‘How many more of [pick any minoritized identity] group do we have this year than last?’ Equity responds, ‘What conditions have we created that maintain certain groups as the perpetual majority here?’”
Having a variety of cultures in the room doesn’t say anything about the experiences of people in the room. There may be incentives and economic benefits for the company to hire people of color, but the situation may not necessarily be beneficial to those people. Are their ideas heard? Are they the first ones fired? Promoted? Do they feel safe?
Scott, who hosts workshops titled, “Undoing Racism” with the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, says going beyond diversity is the only way for survival. It’s not just black people dying as a result of racism and the fallout of maintaining white supremacy, though we are among the most abundant and obvious victims, he says. White life expectancy is down, for the first time in decades, says Scott, which he relates to inequity.
“If you’re standing and jumping up and down on people’s heads so long, eventually you start to go into the ground,” says Scott. “We were canaries in the mine. Now the miners are dying.”