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Weekend Read: Why is racism still America’s biggest problem?

It rained on marchers from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965, and it rained on them again last weekend as they commemorated the day when police beat civil rights marchers so badly that the date became known the nation over as Bloody Sunday.

Fifty-four years have passed since that historic march for voting rights, but as speakers lamented last Sunday, we are still fighting for the right to vote today.

However, asRep. John Lewis told a crowd at the Civil Rights Memorial Center in Montgomery as part of last weekend’s Bloody Sunday anniversary, “We come with the spirit and the belief that we can change things. We have the power. We have the ability. We can do it.” 

Doing the hard work of achieving the ideals of the civil rights movement is the message of white academic and diversity trainer Robin DiAngelo’s recent book “White Fragility.” It has spent seven months near the top ofTheNew York Times bestseller list despite a challenging message to white people, its intended audience: When — not if — you perpetuate racism, don’t get defensive

“In my experience, day in and day out, most white people are absolutely not receptive to finding out their impact on other people,” DiAngelo told Nosheen Iqbal forThe Guardian. She recounted the way that “They insist, ‘Well, it’s not me’, or say ‘I’m doing my best, what do you want from me?’”

One problem, DiAngelo says, is that white progressives often define racism as something obvious and violent — like when police beat civil rights marchers in Selma in 1965 — when the reality is that it is much more insidious.

“We have to stop thinking about racism simply as someone who says the N-word,” she told Iqbal. “This book is centered in the white western colonial context, and in that context white people hold institutional power.”

But over the course of 20 years of doing trainings around race and diversity, DiAngelo has discovered that white progressives who say they want to be allies to people of color are often nonetheless uncomfortable examining the impact of their own behavior.

DiAngelo defines this as white fragility — the inability of white people to tolerate racial stress.

“I want to build the stamina to handle the discomfort so we don’t retreat in the face of it, because retreating holds the status quo in place, and the status quo is the reproduction of racism,”DiAngelo explained.

Without that stamina, white people who discover ways they may have accidentally perpetuated racial inequality and injustice too often “weaponi[ze their] hurt feelings” by getting indignant and defensive, in turn creating a climate that makes their anxiety more important than the concerns of the people of color around them.

As DiAngelo asks, “If nobody is racist, why is racism still America’s biggest problem? What are white people afraid they will lose by listening?”

It can be difficult to know how to do that in the moment. Our guide on how to respond to everyday bigotry can help. So can our guide on10 ways to fight hate, one of which is to educate yourself through cross-racial conversations, like the kind DiAngelo has been promoting for decades.

After all, within the white, western colonial context, DiAngelo points out: “Racism is a white problem. It was constructed and created by white people and the ultimate responsibility lies with white people. For too long we’ve looked at it as if it were someone else’s problem.” 

On this anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery, when voter suppression is still rampantpolice abuses are still violent, and civil rights are far from guaranteed, it could not be more clear.

The Editors.

P.S. Here are some other pieces we think are valuable this week: 

SPLC’s Weekend Readings are a weekly summary of the most important news reporting and commentary from around the country on civil rights, economic and racial inequality, and hate and extremism. Sign up to receive Weekend Readings every Saturday morning.

Photo by Flip Schulke/Getty Images