Time to Reframe the Old Narratives About Race in America
Toxic ideas about people of color can be hard to shake, but looking at those ideas from a different perspective reveals positive truths.
Time to Reframe the Old Narratives About Race in America
By Trabian Shorters / theroot.com

What would you do if you found out that you were carrying chemical explosives on you at all times without even realizing it? In a way, you are.

When Dylann Roof’s disdain exploded and allegedly resulted in the deaths of nine people in Charleston, S.C., earlier this month, he reportedly said things like, blacks had to be stopped, they’re taking over and they deserved what he was doing because he had to protect his own. Mad killers say stuff like that.

But when you think about it, so do politicians, philanthropists, media commentators and people you know—no matter your race. Here’s what I mean.

When we talk about race or class in the United States, four toxic ideas are often planted in our minds, like something out of the movie Inception. Once implanted, these beliefs attach to our fears and frustrations, causing us to filter out evidence to the contrary. Coming from someone like Roof, these ideas are crazy talk, but haven’t you heard more “reliable sources” saying things like the following?

1. The problems that black men represent must be neutralized. Do you filter out information about black men as assets? Making people the face of a problem is the definition of stigmatizing them. So why are black children shown as the face of poverty when two-thirds of America’s poor children aren’t black? Why are black men the face of crime when 60 percent of America’s inmates aren’t black?

If you say it’s because they have higher rates of these things, then shouldn’t black men be the face of patriotism? Black men join the military (pdf) and defend America with their lives at higher rates than all others. Or the face of entrepreneurship, since the rate of growth in the number of blacks starting businesses is twice the national average? Or the face of philanthropy, since blacks give 25 percent more of their income to charity than the national average? We lead the nation in these measures of patriotism, enterprise and generosity, but is that what you say about us? Black men are assets to community, commerce and country.

2. Blacks and the poor (and immigrants) want privileges they haven’t earned. Some politicians base whole campaigns on messages like this. That’s not even counting former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s infamous 47 percent speech to donors in 2012; or presidential-wannabe Donald Trump planting those seeds today. The formula is simple: Life is frustrating, so find some group to blame for it. Divide. Conquer. But in a country that will soon have no racial majority, it’s clear that valuing all members of the human family is the most prosperous way forward.

3. They deserve what happens to them. This message is often used on people suspected of a crime. Its purpose is to disconnect us from our human empathy. Sandra Bland didn’t deserve to die in police custody, any more than Sharonda Coleman-Singleton deserved to die in her church pew. Most of the media photos of these women depict them as normal people, unlike the initial photos of Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown, which sparked the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown truth-telling campaign against media last year. News media are less willing to suggest that “they deserve what happened to them,” thanks to young people teaching us that we should reject narratives that denigrate and prejudice one group against another.

4. Any gain for one group is a loss for another, so protect yourself against “them.” Nonsense. That zero-sum thinking could be true only if the amount of entrepreneurs, assets and goodwill in the country were finite. But it’s not. That’s why I’m personally in favor of policies that support asset development, entrepreneurs and community building. Everyone of all backgrounds wants educated children, safety, a growing economy and friendly neighbors. If we stopped carrying around the kinds of ideas that madmen assemble into hate crimes, then we could work together in asset-oriented ways to build more caring and prosperous communities.

I outlined four dated narratives above, but I also named four asset frames that are right for our time:

1. Value all members of the human family.

2. Recognize black men as assets to communities, commerce and country.

3. Reject narratives that denigrate people.

4. Work together in asset-oriented ways to build more caring and prosperous communities.

This modern set of American values directly opposes the outdated failure-inducing framing that legacy media, tired politicians and static philanthropies use habitually. I’ve noticed that people who are still wed to these old frames keep losing readers/viewers, elections and community engagement because the American people are ready for a new story. Yet these old systems are unwilling to tell it.

So we will tell it ourselves: #BlackMenLove.


Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of articles that were shared in partnership with BMe Community’s #BlackMenLove to remind readers of who, what and how deeply black men love during this final weekend of Black Family Month. BMe is a growing network of all races and genders committed to building better communities across the U.S. Share it and read more at BMe Community, or reach out by email. Read the first story here, the second one here and the third one here.

Trabian Shorters is founder and CEO of BMe, a growing network of all races and genders committed to building better communities across the U.S. based on more authentic stories of black men, their cities and America’s future. Shorters has a long history as a social innovator and entrepreneur, including founding a successful technology network backed by Microsoft and AOL in the late ’90s and serving from 2007 to 2013 as a vice president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. 

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Time to Reframe the Old Narratives About Race in America