During this time of national reflection on racial issues, the terms white privilege, white supremacy, and white power have been bandied about plentifully. A different term has been offered up by eminent Los Angeles civil rights attorney, Connie Rice, in assessing the potential outcomes from current protests: white comfort. 

I asked Rice where this latest effort to confront racial inequality would take the country. Rice, who served on President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, told me she believes the end result of the reform efforts will be determined by at what level of transformation from the status quo the white community feels comfortable. 

The civil rights attorney sees four periods in history when the dispute over black freedoms was leading national debate, each coming to a conclusion when majority whites felt at ease with the resolution. 

During the time of the American Revolution and the writing of the United States Constitution, Rice said the comfort level was written into the country’s basic law. Blacks must remain slaves but count as three-fifths of a person for political purposes. 

At the time of the Civil War and the Reconstruction that followed, Rice said the debate unfolded after slaves were freed, made citizens and male blacks were granted the vote. All these positive steps were undercut by the emergence of the Black Codes and Jim Crow laws. Black Codes were constricting laws designed to limit the freedom of African Americans to ensure they would remain a cheap labor force, while Jim Crow laws were installed to create separation between blacks and whites. Rice argued these restrictions comforted the general population. 

After passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Acts of the 1960s, Rice says black gains were retracted through vote suppression, mass incarcerations, and a Southern strategy in politics, along with lack of funding to gain the upward mobility rungs on the ladder of progress through better schools and public health. 

But white comfort was satisfied that racial progress was advancing because the nation elected its first black president. 

Now, the civil rights advocate wants to see if the current racial soul-searching will reach positive results; if the white comfort level has risen to a place in which programs and attitudes have changed to make strides toward genuine racial reconciliation. 

Rice believes the formula to avert future police-triggered riots was actually written long ago by the McCone Commission. 

Created by Governor Pat Brown after the Watts Riots of 1965, the commission headed by former CIA Director John McCone identified hostile policing and the entrenched poverty it called ‘the spiral of despair’ as the root causes of the 1965 Watts Riots and warned that unless both were fixed, riots and other demonstrations against policing would continue. To end the spiral of despair, McCone recommended installing the basic services, institutions and amenities that all communities require to function. Rice says, instead of that investment, “for over fifty years poor communities of color received defunding, mass incarceration and downward mobility.”

Rice says that these basic investments in education, healthcare and jobs are a start to viable communities but will not be enough to end entrapment in the black underclass. “We also must face and end structural and systemic racial barriers, destructive and racist policies like mass incarceration and the Neo Confederate politics of the Southern Strategy,” she said.  

She believes these steps will not take big tax increases to achieve but will take immense political will to do a big redirection. 

For Rice, who has been in the civil rights struggle for decades, this time is perhaps the last good chance for real racial reckoning and reconciliation. But it comes down to, in Rice’s estimation, whether the white America marching to make black lives matter, is now comfortable enough to do the hard work of truth, reconciliation and what Martin Luther King Jr. called the “radical restructuring” of American systems to achieve true racial equality.