“I would expect that within two or three years, the most brutal aspect of segregation in the south…will be eliminated. It will take several years longer in the north for us to wipe out the more subtle forms of discrimination…and de facto school segregation, and police brutality. I think, however, that within five or 10 years at the most, I’ll be able to take a vacation and go fishing.” -James Farmer, 1963, PBS The Open Mind: Race Relations in Crisis
To change policies or change hearts? That is the question we must confront in the fight for racial equality in this country. The above quote reflects Civil Rights Movement leader James Farmer’s hope for pending civil rights legislation during the ‘60s. Yet despite the passing of several pieces of civil rights legislation not long after Farmer’s comments, his 10-year prediction to the end of segregation and racial hostility is 50 years late and counting. The promise of Farmer evades us because, as he would admit 30 years after the above quote, he and his contemporaries were fighting segregation, not racism. Racism resides where society and policy have yet to tackle it directly, where it has always resided, and where it is most inflexible to change: the heart!
The idea that racism is a matter of the heart has been observed before. Yet many people consider it futile to engage the heart. For example, former First Lady Hillary Clinton expressed skepticism about the task of changing hearts in 2015 during an interaction with Black Lives Matter activists about her record of support for laws that led to disproportionate mass incarceration rates for Black Americans. The activists asked Clinton, “what in your heart has changed that’s gonna change the direction of this country?”
Clinton’s response: “I don’t believe you change hearts. I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate. You’re not going to change every heart. You’re not. … You can keep the movement going, which you have started, and through it, you may actually change some hearts. But if that’s all that happens, we’ll be back here in 10 years having the same conversation.”
In fact, we have been having this conversation for over 150 years since our country’s first Civil Rights Bill of 1866. For over a century, Civil Rights legislation, affirmative action, and other policy reforms have persistently faced racist opposition that threaten progress. Hearts determined to protect the privileges or “freedoms” that racial inequality affords them drive this opposition. Consequently, progress must start with engaging the racist hearts of individuals as well as the racist heart of America.
Engaging the heart of America means confronting this nation’s founding documents. Here lies the ultimate racial hypocrisy that undermines race relations in this country. The hypocrisy lies most noticeably in the explicit declaration that “all men are created equal,” with the undeclared stipulation that this only applies to whites. Consequently, any attempt to deviate from the racial hypocrisy of America’s heart has always been done through amendments and additional laws. As Malcolm X said in the same aforementioned PBS show: “Why should the Black man need some legislation to approve that he’s a human being, when you don’t need any legislation to approve that Whites are human beings?” Furthermore, how are Blacks to interpret a nation that at its heart is so racist that we need legislation to make it love, accept, and protect us?
The hearts of individuals are similarly wrapped up in this racial hypocrisy and articulated as love for America, which equates to the hypocritical logic that Blacks should honor a country that had to be forced to honor their humanity. This logic was on display when Colin Kaepernick knelt in silent protest against racism and police brutality during the playing of the national anthem. Many hearts interpreted Kaepernick’s silent protests for racial justice as anti-American and an affront to the meaning of America’s anthem.
Racial hypocrisy has recently been on display in the intense opposition to teaching about historical systemic racism in this country. This past year, Florida passed the “Stop WOKE” Act, which outlaws instruction that compels an individual of one race to feel guilt or responsibility for the past actions of those of their race. Laws like these further empower the hypocritical racist heart by making it racist—and illegal—to teach how this nation’s historical racism drives today’s racial inequality. Thus, to call attention to one’s white privilege is racist and to silently protest in opposition to this nation’s systemic racism is anti-American. This is the hypocritical logic embedded in the hearts of so many in this country.
How do we solve the problem of racist hearts fed by the heart of a historically racist nation? Unlike those I’ve referenced, I don’t have a 10-year plan. I do have an easy first step though: truth! “Whose truth?” you ask. The truth that lives in the historical and contemporary experiences of people of color, not just whites.
There are two approaches to bringing this truth to light. The first is to disrupt this nation’s hypocritical racist version of the truth, in both subtle and overt ways. Some subtle ways include acts already being done, such as the singing of the Black National Anthem before the National Anthem. The sheer existence of a Black National Anthem is a product of the white-exclusive nature of our nation’s original anthem. Other subtle forms include acknowledging our presence on occupied tribal lands, which is commonly done now in email signatures or mentioned before the start of ceremonies or events.
There are also overt and more demonstrable ways to disrupt hypocritical racist versions of the truth. For example, when announcing the singing of the national anthem at public events—such as NFL games—we could require verbal acknowledgment of the slave-owning origins of the anthem’s author. Additionally, many monuments of Confederate leaders remain scattered in prominent public spaces across the U.S. with their precarious hypocritical racist legacies silenced. Rather than remove them from public spaces, we could overtly disrupt these monuments and physically append the racist legacies the monuments currently ignore. For example, monuments of slave-owning or anti-Black presidents should include a visible caption acknowledging their legacy of racism or the number of slaves they owned.
The second approach is to completely overwrite or replace the tangible legacies of this country’s hypocritical racism. Malcolm X described this approach very plainly in one of his responses in the above-mentioned PBS show:
“You will never get real freedom and recognition between Black and white people in this country without destroying the country, without destroying the present political system, without destroying the present economic system, without re-writing the entire Constitution.”
Where our founding fathers and their founding documents were exclusionary, we can elect a new diverse set of symbolic “parents” to create more inclusive governing documents. The approach we take to confront our nation’s racial hypocrisy can vary, but confrontation is necessary on the path to sustainable racial equality.
Owning and confronting this country’s racism doesn’t assure that individuals will own the racism in their hearts, too. But it will remove the national hypocritical logic that guides many individual-level racial conflicts. Because in the end, I agree with Clinton: You can’t change everyone’s heart. Unlike Clinton, I don’t think the answer is only in “changing systems,” but in making “systems” honest. In a nation honest about its historical and pervasive racism, individuals couldn’t hide behind their love for America and love for a whitewashed history of America as excuses to deny racism’s existence. Though individual racist hearts are not guaranteed to change, it doesn’t mean we can’t engage and invite them to change. Changing policy without engaging hearts only ensures the continued creation of policies but not the promise of equality. In doing so, we remain blind to the heart of the matter: hearts matter.
Matthew Alemu is a scholar of race, culture, and Black men and special advisor to Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan. He is an incoming assistant professor of sociology and criminology at Northeastern University.