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To Whom Do We Extend Grace?: RaceAhead

Ellen McGirt

I learned that Fred Rogers had died while I was riding on the 2 train.

I don’t remember where I was going on February 27, 2003, only that I was heading downtown. Someone got on the train at 72nd street and said out loud, to no one in particular, “Oh my God! Mr. Rogers died!”

After a collective gasp, everyone immediately began to talk to each other about him and their memories of his beloved children’s show. Somewhere before Times Square, a quiet chorus of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” had started. As I remember it, everyone sang or nodded along. When the doors opened at 42nd street, new passengers looked startled to hear singing, until someone barked in that New York way, “what’s going on?” It happened in the same order at every station until I got off at Chambers Street – the demand for information, the gasp, the talking, then, the singing along.

There is something special about a moment that people get to experience all at once.

I think about that subway ride often, especially lately. It’s such a tender memory precisely because the news of his passing caused us to take off our subways masks long enough to see each other. I think he would have loved that. (He might also enjoy that the documentary about his life became such a hit.)

But it was also a chance to process an event with real people in real time. That doesn’t happen very often.

These days, our news tends to come from an always-on machine in our hands, which lacks the basic rules of judicious engagement that New York subway riders intuitively follow. It’s just a firehose in your head. By the time we get to work or school, we’re sitting in a flood of information, some real, some not, so much of it upsetting.

In my firehose today is a massive fight as strangers debate whether or not a white kid who did a terrible thing deserves a second shot at Harvard, while others battle over a new plan to round up already traumatized brown children in a massive deportation effort. At the heart of these fights, and so many others, is a foundational question of our modern age: To whom do we extend grace?

It’s probably why I woke up today with that subway ride on my mind.

Turns out, Mr. Rogers had anticipated that things might get difficult in a post-9/11 world. He’d recorded a final message to his now-adult fans a few months before he died, a love letter to the people he’d helped raise.

“I’m just so proud of you who have grown up with us,” he began. “And I know how tough it is some days, to look with hope and confidence on the months and years ahead. But I would like to tell you what I often told you when you were much younger.

I like you just the way you are.

And what’s more, I’m so grateful to you, for helping the children in your life to know that you’ll do everything you can to keep them safe. And to help them express their feelings in ways that will bring healing in many different neighborhoods.

It’s such a good feeling to know that we’re lifelong friends.”

 

RaceAhead has been enjoying a spate of new readers and subscribers of late, for which we are very grateful. As a result, I’ve decided to occasionally re-run an updated version of some of our foundational columns, to give everyone a sense of the work and each other. This one, sadly, never seems to get old.

  • On Point

    SCOTUS to Virginia: No more gerrymandering In a majority decision written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the Supreme Court said that Virginia will have to live with redrawn versions of previously racially gerrymandered districts. The case had been brought only by Virginia’s GOP-controlled House; if the entire state has joined the suit, the Court might have considered it. “In short, Virginia would rather stop than fight on,” Ginsburg wrote. “One House of its bicameral legislature cannot alone continue the litigation against the will of its partners in the legislative process.” In a previous decision, the Court found that 11 of the state’s districts had been drawn along racial lines. Click through for more SCOTUS news; they also kicked the infamous same-sex v. religious freedom Oregon cake-shop case back down to a lower court. NPR

    The U.S. civil justice system is broken, writes Amazon’s top lawyer “In three out of four state civil court cases today, one or both parties are without legal representation, tipping the scales of justice toward those who can afford an attorney,” writes David Zapolsky, General Counsel and Senior Vice President for Amazon. Businesses have a “responsibility to the communities they serve,” Zapolsky emphasizes, and they need to find innovative ways to address the gaps in the current system. At Amazon, they’re working with nonprofit Mary’s Place to create a homeless shelter in one of their Seattle offices with a pro bono clinic, and that’s just “one piece of a patchwork of solutions.” Another is advocating for legislation that will secure more legal aid resources. Ultimately, cooperation between the public and private sectors will be necessary, he argues, to secure access to legal help for all. Fortune

    Ruth Bader Ginsburg honored with ‘real-life hero’ win at MTV Awards The Supreme Court justice won the award for best real-life hero at last night’s MTV Movie & TV Awards, further cementing Ginsburg’s pop culture icon status. She was nominated for the CNN Films documentary on her life, “RBG.” Ginsburg, who did not attend the ceremony, also did receive another nomination—best fight for her battle against inequality. But the award ultimately went to Captain Marvel, and not the Notorious RBG. Tough, but fair. CNN

    The problema with Miss Universe Puerto Rico The pageant is a very big deal, both on the island and throughout the Puerto Rican diaspora. Last week, candidates from 28 municipalities gathered at the Centro de Bellas Artes in San Juan to compete for the title of Miss Universe Puerto Rico (MUPR), and the right to represent the island in the 2019 Miss Universe pageant. Puerto Rican Twitter was shocked to learn that Madison Anderson Berríos, representing Toa Baja, had been crowned. Here’s the thing: She’s from Arizona, grew up in Florida, and barely speaks Spanish. While her mother is Puerto Rican, her father is not; worse, he’s a bondholder who brings investors to the island. Now, people are crying conspiración. Cue the hashtag: #NoMeRepresenta. Latino Rebels

  • On Background

    An NPR investigation identifies an attacker in an unsolved murder from the Jim Crow era In 1965, Boston-based minister James Reeb was attacked and killed while walking down the street in Selma, Alabama. His death helped draw attention to Jim Crow atrocities and focused national attention on the efforts that would become the Voting Rights Act. Three men were charged at the time, then acquitted. But NPR, working with two local reporters, found a long-lost witness who identified a fourth attacker, who later confirmed his participation. The witness, Frances Bowman, watched the attack. “I’m not proud of being up in the courtroom telling a lie,” she said. “[Because] I did tell a lie; I said I didn’t know and I did know.”   NPR

    On the anniversary of the deadly shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston I’m re-sharing this beautiful essay by Jamil Smith, written in the painful aftermath of Dylan Roof’s terrible attack. He talks about how he sought out his own pastor to see how he was faring. “It was an instinct rooted in my particular practice of Christianity; I need to pray, to worship, to seek guidance,” he wrote. But he reminds us of the history of the AME Church, and how necessary the black church has always been in a racist country. “A hated people need safe spaces, but often find they are scarce,” he writes. “That is racism’s purpose, its raison d’etre, and it has done its job well. The black church hasn’t been safe since there has been a black church.” The New Republic

    Asian Americans on being “likable” at work Last year, Harvard was forced to make public court documents that seemed to show bias against Asian American applicants; specifically, that they consistently scored lower on subjective assessments like “likability” and being “widely respected.” These subjective declarations are an ongoing nightmare for non-majority culture people in the workplace, but for Asian Americans, it’s fraught in very specific ways. Pavrithra Mohan and Anisa Purbasari Horton provide essential context in this important read, then asked 17 Asian-American business leaders, many of whom preferred not to use their real names, how they deal with race at work. “I’ve worked really hard to be likable,” says Jason Shen, CEO of Headlight. “Being an athlete in college, I have found that to be very important.” Fast Company

    Tamara El-Waylly helps produce raceAhead and assisted in the preparation of today’s summaries.

  • Quote

    Of the 100 highest-grossing movies in 2017, less than a quarter of the critics were white women, less than ten percent were underrepresented men, and only 2.5 percent were women of color. Am I saying I hate white dudes? No, I’m not. I don’t want to hear what a white man has to say about ‘A Wrinkle in Time.’ I want to hear what a woman of color, a biracial woman has to say about the film. I want to hear what teenagers think about the film. If you make a movie that is a love letter to women of color, there is a chance that a woman of color does not have access to review and critique your film. Do not say the talent is not there, because it is. —Brie Larson