Coincidence? I think not.
I received an email from a colleague’s administrative assistant looking for some information about an upcoming event. I noticed her unusual name right away and asked the assistant if she and I perhaps had crossed paths earlier in life. I’d known someone by that same name — both first and last — in college. She wrote back that she didn’t think so, but I had to be sure.
I remembered the person I’d known by that same name and I shared a birthday, so I mentioned that. My colleague’s assistant said she was indeed quite sure we hadn’t met before, and even sent a photo that proved to me she was right, but then mentioned her birthday. It was the same as mine, and the same as my college acquaintance. I had fun introducing over email two people with the same unusual name, who happen to share a birthday with each other and with me.
20 years ago, in a resident dean job where I was responsible for matching first-year students with roommates, I read a housing application from a student with alopecia. Because this condition caused the student to have no hair on her head, she wore a wig, so having a kind and thoughtful roommate was going to be important. I was working with more than 500 housing applications, but I immediately remembered reading that of another student who seemed… kind.
I found the application and saw that the two students had little in common, but I took a risk and assigned them to a double with an en-suite bathroom. On move-in day, the two showed up at my door with their parents, asking if I had known their connection. Of course, I had no idea what they were talking about. The student with alopecia’s father was an OB/Gyn who used to work in the city where the kind student’s family still lived. He hadn’t seen the kind student in 18 years, but he had delivered her.
I used to think I loved coincidences. I saw them as glimmers of how much is happening all around us that only God knows and understands. I say “used to” because — just like lots of other tacit understandings that these months of pandemic and anti-Black racism have laid bare — I am starting to see how dangerous it is to categorize a pattern as a coincidence. When we do so, we create the possibility that we’ll dismiss an unacceptable phenomenon as mere happenstance rather than doing something about it.
Eddie Glaude’s Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul (Penguin Random House, 2017) presents a compelling argument about how the gap between the value placed on Black versus White Americans accounts for the preponderance of the social ills experienced in our country. This value gap was codified into early American history, writes Glaude, and evidence the gap is wide and growing is overwhelming.
Glaude shines a light on how delusional a person must be to believe that African American people are more likely to live in poverty because, by some incredible coincidence, none of those who are poor works hard. Many suffer from chronic health conditions because they just happen to not take care of their bodies? African Americans are more likely to live in crime-riven neighborhoods because they just happen to largely lack initiative? When Glaude asks the question, How could all this be a coincidence? I know it isn’t and never was. I also feel a wave of insight wash over me, realizing I’d never thought about racism that way, and how easily — absent such insight — I might have framed subjugation as widespread bad luck.
African American people often live in poverty because the system is stacked against them; the idea that they are worth less than White people is built into our country’s economic model. They often suffer from chronic illness because they live in food deserts, with limited access to health care, and if they decide to go out jogging, they might get shot. They reside in crime-riven neighborhoods because they lack opportunities to leave and are treated like trespassers if they attempt to move to neighborhoods that are predominately White. Coincidences might exist, but not here.
Glaude’s book has caused me to see that my love for coincidences must remain in-check. I’ve long believed that hotter summers and bigger hurricanes were no coincidence, but rather the result of human-caused global warming. I have seen men elected or hired over women because the men just “seemed stronger, more like a leader,” and rolled my eyes so hard I gave myself a headache. I now must apply that same skepticism to racism, where the patterns are just as obvious and yet just as elusive.
Through recent anti-Black violence, coupled with Glaude’s book, I am seeing yet another way in which embrace of coincidence as an explanation shields sick systems from critique, let alone dismantlement. What inconvenient truths will do to hide, and how willing we can be to let them, never ceases to amaze me. Racism, the game is up. It took some longer than others to get there, but we see you.