Why I’m Here

by Steve Dorner, member since 2016

I grew up in a lily-white suburb of Chicago. Of the over one thousand students in my high school, three were African-American. Until two years ago, I had exactly one black friend, and not a particularly close one. Now, however, I find myself volunteering full-time with the NAACP San Diego Branch. I don’t know if you will find my story interesting, but I feel the need to tell it.

I was one of the software engineers who made up the vanguard of the Internet age. I spent my career among computers and networks, and they are very natural to me.

If you have ever met an engineer, you will know that as a group we tend to be arrogant. We tend to be convinced of our own superiority and ability to solve problems–all problems. This is why people like Elon Musk feel qualified to weigh in on social issues, and why people like Mark Zuckerberg make grandiose claims for their creations.

These are, or were, my people. I fit right in. Had you met me 25 years ago, I would gladly have explained to you what is wrong with everyone and everything, and gifted you (ah, noblesse oblige!) with my plan for fixing it all.

What I have learned in the subsequent 25 years is a profound epistemological pessimism. I have learned my own nearly boundless ignorance, as well as the fundamental limits of my own reasoning power. I believe so very little of what I believed then, and my beliefs are far less belligerently believed.

In the area of race relations, I would have told you 25 years ago that we have made tremendous progress, and it was time to put aside racial distinctions altogether. Discrimination and prejudice still existed, certainly, but the less energy devoted to them, the more quickly they would die away. Activism in the area of race relations only served to entrench the positions of the few diehard racists out there, while also serving as a power base for those speaking out about it. In short, the only people who “won” from activism were those who sought to divide and profit from that division.

My fall from arrogance was a long and messy process, that involved deep turmoil and my first experience of hardship. (Hardship, I hasten to add, that seems very minor to me now, though it was shattering at the time.) The experience of suffering myself helped me to see the suffering of others as more than a concept, and my attitudes began to change.

By the time of the 2008 elections, I was convinced that racism was still a powerful force in our society, and as a result I did not feel that Barack Obama was likely to win the Presidency. When he did win, I, like so many people, felt a stirring of hope; perhaps, just perhaps, America HAD turned a corner, and the reality I had asserted so ignorantly as a young man was now on the verge of becoming truth after all. Just perhaps, America would become post-racial. Ta-Nehisi Coates would write:

It is not so much that I logically reasoned out that Obama’s election would author a post-racist age. But it now seemed possible that white supremacy, the scourge of American history, might well be banished in my lifetime.

And then.

It was incredibly disheartening to see the backlash against President Obama. It was incredibly disheartening to see racism used to fuel an absolute obstructionism. We were clearly not headed toward a post-racial society.

And then.

During Obama’s Presidency, the smartphone revolution occurred, and with it came the cell phone videos of African-Americans being murdered by the police.

I had always discounted the claims that bias was behind police shootings of African-Americans, as did most white people I knew. After all, the police were professionals, charged with upholding the rule of law, and I assumed that’s what they did. I did not look into it closely, and put the complaints of the African-American community down to very understandable pain and grief, rather than actual justified grievance.

Now, I was confronted with evidence. I did not have to go looking for it; indeed, I could not avoid it. It was sickening and disgusting. I was sickened and disgusted to see police officers abusing their positions, acting to brutally enforce their will, and then planting evidence to justify their crimes.

I was also sickened and disgusted with myself, for having dismissed the legitimate grievances of the African-American community as so much overheated emotion, and not based in fact. I began, slowly, to pay specific attention to racial issues. To read and to learn.

And then.

Our country chose a person for President who is utterly unqualified in every way, except one, to lead our Country. A man who is stupid. A man who is not self-aware. A man who lacks all compassion and empathy. A man whose ignorance is massive. A man who lacks any relevant experience whatsoever. A bully, a sexual predator, and a narcissist of massive proportions. A man, however, with one qualification. Ta-Nehisi Coates again:

He must be called by his rightful honorific—America’s first white president.

His only qualification is that he is a white supremacist. That one qualification turned out to be enough.

I was staggered. The next day, I decided that I was done sitting on the sidelines. The next day, I decided that if racism was still so powerful as to sweep away all other considerations and put this dangerous (and, perhaps more germane than I would wish, embarrassing) person in the single most powerful position in the world, then I needed to get off the sidelines and into the fight.

Reeling as I was from both my utter failure to believe African-Americans about police violence, and the stark and ugly truths revealed about white people, I decided that my place in this fight was not in the front. My place was in service to people who have borne the brunt of oppression in this country since before it was a country: African-Americans. That very next day, I joined the NAACP, and over the next months, began to get involved in the work. I am very grateful to have been welcomed into the organization and to be doing what I hope is useful work. I am glad to be here, and here I intend to remain.

FOOTNOTE: Since I wrote this article, the 2018 elections have come and gone.  There have been some gains against the forces of white supremacy, but that most anti-democratic of institutions, the US Senate, fell deeper into the abyss.  I fear for the vulnerable, and am more determined than ever to do my part.