In the 1970s, a little book written by Thomas Harris M.D. titled, "I'm Okay – You're OK," sat atop the bestseller lists for 70 weeks. Harris’s concept of Transactional Analysis implied there were ways we can delineate and learn from three “ego-states” to guide and improve our interpersonal communication. In other words, overcoming “negative life positions” unlocks the freedom to change ourselves in positive ways.
If Harris had published "I'm Okay – You're OK" this year, instead of sitting atop the bestseller lists he’d be lucky to receive enough of an advance to buy an N95 mask. These days, people are clamoring to read the equivalent of "I'm Okay – You're WHITE." They are consumed by newspaper and magazine articles about how America was created to perpetuate the supremacy of Caucasians. Before COVID-19 and the horrifying murder of George Floyd…despite our flaws, we were still the one place on Earth to which freedom-loving men, women and children wanted to emigrate.
NEWS ITEM: New York Times to capitalize Black but not white or brown.
This caught my eye as my family and I were spending part of our 4th of July streaming Hamilton on Disney+ and being spellbound by the show which stunned Broadway. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s production casts African-American performers in roles such as George Washington, Aaron Burr, and Thomas Jefferson but otherwise just lets the American history—and the music—wash over audiences. Without an overt focus on race, or politics, or “agenda.”
However, it also reminded me of an evening in late 2016 when then-Vice President-elect Mike Pence was booed as he and his family attended Hamilton at the Richard Rodgers Theater in New York City. And as he was exiting, Brandon Victor Dixon—who played Aaron Burr—lectured Pence from the stage: "We, sir, are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights," Dixon said. "We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us."
Pence—ever the gentleman—stood in the aisle and listened intently to Dixon’s every word. Rather than react to the rude dressing-down he had just been given by that actor, the incoming vice president instead turned to his daughter and said softly: “That’s what freedom sounds like.”
But now fast-forward to July 2020.
Unity, grace and respect have given way to mob rule and hysterical rebranding of American monuments (CNN correspondent Leyla Santiago flatly stated that President Trump was appearing at Mount Rushmore which she described as “a monument of two slave owners and on land wrestled away from Native Americans.” Not to be outdone, an NBC contributor called the South Dakota landmark “a monument to white colonizers carved by a KKK sympathizer").
I seriously doubt if many Americans of any ethnicity embrace this ridiculous power-of-suggestion from the media deeming 4th of July a “racist holiday” and suddenly determining Mt. Rushmore is an abomination…oddly, not the song they were singing when Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders staged photo-ops there and “stood in awe” of the “greatness of these historical figures.”
And now the New York Times—the print version of former Alabama Governor George C. Wallace—is literally segregating America by races with its agenda-driven stylebook. Black is capitalized, but white and brown are not. In the tortured justification printed in the Times, editors twisted themselves into pretzels like performers in Cirque du Soleil, including this passage which truly belongs in a time capsule for future—hopefully more intelligent—generations to study: “Brown has generally been used to describe a wide range of cultures… As a result, its meaning can be unclear to readers; white doesn’t represent a shared culture and history in the way Black does, and also has long been capitalized by hate groups.” Ow! This actually makes my head hurt.
In 2020, the current bestseller is nothing like "I'm Okay – You're OK." It is a volume called "White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People to Talk About Racism." The New York Times has had "White Fragility" on its Best Seller list for the past 14 weeks…despite the fact that it capitalizes the word white—twice—in its title. (Hopefully, the woke editors at the Times can impress upon author Robin DiAngelo—a sociologist who is herself White—the need to rectify this when the paperback comes out.) "White Fragility," like any book on race, will draw enthusiastic praise as well as a healthy number of detractors. If you like wallowing in terms like DiAngelo’s “good/bad binary” of compassionate non-racists battling sinister white supremacists, you’ll no doubt find lots to take away from DiAngelo’s volume and maybe even end up feeling you’re the exception to her America-is-racist hypothesis.
On the other hand, if you’re predisposed to take your advice directly from a black scholar, I recommend "White Guilt" by Shelby Steele. In it, he observes that my generation the Baby Boomers stumbled onto “possibly the greatest source of political, social and cultural power in the late 20th century: white guilt. This was the power—even the command—to invent America all over again in the interest of redeeming it. It was the power to transform every important institution and every area of society that had ever been touched by social injustice. And this included everything from the military to education, from the corporate world to the law. From voting rights to housing, from the practice of religion to the preservation of the environment.”
Steele clarified his overview in a 2006 interview with NPR, saying: “One of the most remarkable things in all of human history is the degree of moral evolutions that white Americans have made from the mid-60s to this day. No group of people in history have morally evolved away from a social evil that quickly and to that degree in this sort of short span of time. And very often, in our calculations in thinking about race, we don't give whites credit for that.” Steele added: “We keep wanting to sort of keep them on the hook as racist. But the fact is that whites see racism as a disgrace and something that they would do almost anything not to be identified with. “
You won’t hear that in any cobbled together college campus “Conversation on Race” and you certainly won’t see it on MSNBC from regular contributors like Professor Michael Eric Dyson (who wrote the foreword to Robin DiAngelo’s "White Fragility"). But Shelby Steele’s words ring with something even more powerful: the truth.