August 13, 2020
George Floyd’s murder in my hometown of Minneapolis once again shined the spotlight on the problems of race in our community. In the weeks that followed, calls for social justice have reverberated around the world. In my time at the Y, I have come to understand and recognize — on a far deeper level — my many privileges as a white man. But my self-reflection and education is constant, and I feel compelled to utilize this medium to interview equity leaders. These leaders have served as mentors, teammates and dear friends. Each has allowed me to see a different perspective on systemic racism through their lived experience. As I seek to understand, my hope is that these talks will help humanize the issues and, in some small way, help lead us toward efforts to make a better way for all.
My first guest is Chuck Collins, President and Chief Executive Officer of the YMCA of San Francisco. I have admired his boldness, his vision and his remarkable insights for years. He’s so talented, having practiced law; worked as the Deputy Secretary of the Business, Transportation and Housing Agency for the State of California; authored several books; served on countless boards; and is a former trustee at his alma mater, Williams College.
I trust you, too, will appreciate Chuck’s wisdom:
Glen: So much is going on in our country. But, where do we go from here?
Chuck: Where we’re going is to a point of destiny. The truth is what will ultimately endure because the truths are so fundamental that they are the building blocks of permanence. Lies and falsehoods ultimately lack permanence and they fall away. And where we are right now is really understanding this new path in search of the truth and that’s the truth about humanity and our ability to co-exist on this planet. This is what is at stake today. This is what’s in contest that we see all around us. America is at a point of destiny and how long and what will it take to bring us collectively to a new horizon.
In order to co-exist, there have to be some fundamentals. One, we have to look at sustainability. We must transform our communities into frameworks of coherence in which all people are thriving. The building blocks of a sustainable society are trust and safety, decent work, health, education and environmental quality. Yet, we know that there are vast disparities in how these resources are distributed which impact who can thrive and who aren’t and that means we’re not approaching the truth of what we need to sustainably and harmoniously live amongst each other.
We are at a point of proving whether the human species can live on this planet. And COVID, in fact, is the first time in a long time that we’ve been involved deeply in an existential, global crisis. There have been political and economic meltdowns in recent history. But when it comes to health, there seems to be a different registry on our ability to get through this global health pandemic. This condition is a warning and precursor to climate collapse.
The pandemic is also unveiling the relationships of various elements that exacerbate or accelerate our understanding of what is going on. One of the big intersections that people keep talking about is the twin pandemic of systemic racism and COVID.
We can see the twin pandemics everywhere there is injustice, everywhere there is economic, social, religious, class, caste and political marginalization. We are globally connected today, which allows us to see and understand the importance of this historical crossroads as never before.
The historical facts of white supremacy and living in a racist America is not some new revelation to Black people. This is a part of our unbroken understanding of history. This is not a new narrative that has been invented recently. We have generations upon generations of understanding and memory. The fundamental shifting of the American historical narrative is changing. America is awakening and challenging itself to be what it could be and what it can be when racism and white supremacy are unmasked and left behind.
These are histories that have been known and passed on in our Black families for centuries. We understand that. This is not a “woke moment” for Black people, a new awakening to the hierarchy of white supremacy. It’s easy to paint white supremacy around the emblems of the Ku Klux Klan. That’s how many people deny that they are living within racism. But it’s much more insidious than that because that is just an outward expression of something that is fundamentally flawed in the American narrative. White supremacy is completely ubiquitous in America: This country was built for white, male landowners, and it was built on the backs of African slaves and indentured servants. This is often called America’s original sin.
These are histories that are deeply embedded in being Black. What you’re seeing now is a broadening of that understanding, but only reveals the tip of the iceberg.
When you look at the taxonomy and language of white supremacy, that “all men are created equal, and they are endowed, by God…,” that’s pertaining to white men.
As a person of color, if you look at the United States Supreme Court at the turn of the twentieth century, people of Asian backgrounds were petitioning the court to achieve white status so they could own land and vote. The same with Southern Italians and Greeks because they were considered too dark to be white. These are historical accuracies so the notion of whiteness is so deeply embedded in the foundational elements that it’s scary to a lot of people because they just didn’t know. This longstanding miseducation is now revealing itself, up until and including, “Make America Great Again.” So these foundational lies — mishistories, miseducation — are now being uncovered. And we have to recognize that we have been living, for centuries, in a racist culture and a racist climate, a racist economy.
The thing is, it’s the weaponization of race that’s so toxic. And what’s interesting about white people is, they feel like race is being weaponized against them when they invented the whole taxonomy and the hierarchy of white supremacy. So this is what’s really ironic, and the fragility that comes with that is dangerous. People will only be vulnerable for a period before their vulnerability turns to hostility. This means that doors open and close.
And we’ve seen this before. The backlash, the notion of reverse discrimination against white men. It’s almost structurally impossible to talk about discrimination against white men because it’s a historic misnomer. So the discomfort that people are feeling is real. What white people can begin to understand is the weight on the shoulders of Black people for 400 years in this country has rendered us where we are, among the greatest contributors to the foundations of this country but for many, structurally outside of the prosperity we talked about earlier in this conversation.
Almost everything that is actually “Making America Great” is about how Black people are emerging from subjugation into the light. Asian people have ridden on this, women have ridden on this and Latinos have ridden on this. But here’s the truth: Without the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, there would have been no 21st Amendment. And without the Civil Rights Movement, there would not have been other human rights movements that have followed. Blacks, as a people, have had to forge a place in an America that has been hostile for 400 years. And out of this might be a new America.
So, the American moral authority is at a test, and I am optimistic. Because I believe if we get this right in our time of history, that America’s promise of what it could be would have gone through a new forging, a new steelmaking, but with the right alloys and the removal of race.
Every other people of color, other than native-born, indigenous people, came over here as a matter of choice. And it’s really interesting to see some of our other brothers and sisters of color, whom for a long time, wanting to be white, actually are acknowledging that they are standing on the shoulders of African slaves, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and all of those who fought for the promise of what America could really be all about.
I think it’s a very, very special point in history.
Glen: Wow! Chuck, I love the history lesson and the hope that you espouse. Bringing it home a bit, your constructive thinking for me, as a white leader in the Y, how can I best serve?
Chuck: It’s such a special place to be. I think what happens for people of color is, we have always had deep discussions about race and color. We call this the “Race Talk.”
It’s time for white people to have those discussions among other white people. Black people can’t fix what’s inside of white people. White people need to look in the mirror and to examine why this is and what they can do about it.
One of the things you can do is to be one of those persons of courage, to have the white-on-white talk, with nobody else in the room.
I have hope because not everybody is actively racist, though we live in a highly-charged, racist society. They may have whiteness, but they are not racist. These things are all differentiated, and you must be able to take them all apart.
Glen: I want to learn how best to speak to our issues of race, what words to use to most effectively get my points across. My position, for our Y, is to articulate and act in an anti-racism manner, through and through. How would you articulate that? What should that look and sound like?
Chuck: There are four things that I’ve been really examining with my daughter Julia Collins. One is vision. What do you envision for a society that is whole, beautiful, abundant and sustainable?
Glen: You can see through the witness of community that people intentionally wish to belong together.
Chuck: Yes, that we thrive together. That WE thrive, when we have a truly mutual and diverse society. We’re going to need this to figure out climate, and economic justice, education and health. And when you have a vision, you must disrupt certain things. There are things that we just must be against, in order to disrupt them.
Then we have to build. You can sit there on the mountain and gaze, or you can take the actions to build the new world. As YMCA people, we’re builders. What we are going to build? My dad was a complainer, but he was also a genius, a builder. There is an imperative for action. We can’t just have analysis paralysis. We must have a predisposition for the actions.
The Y must become a collaborator and you must take positions that require courage. You must help us to create a path forward in the YMCA as a movement. We must stand for something. We need to take public policy positions around children and families. We need to raise our collective and outspoken voices. As a movement, we have been timid for too long.
What is the foundational future for the children in our country and the world? How are we going to raise up a competitive generation of children of all backgrounds? We must regain our moral compass, chart and navigate a bold new path. If we decide to do this, the YMCA can become a leader in communities across the globe. I am optimistic. This is our time.
To learn more about Chuck Collins, visit his bio by clicking here.