This question haunts me.
First, a snippet of history — I came of age in the 1950s and 1960s on a small farm in northern Indiana. We were lower, middle-class. I like to say, “We were not poor, but we never had any money.” Our weather-worn farmhouse was five rooms and a path — no indoor plumbing.
For Whites, Blacks were “Negros” until the mid-60s. In my high school senior year, my class put on a minstrel show with six white classmates in blackface. As a known “voice” in my class I was part of the “revue” and sang a solo. I never gave it much thought. I knew about minstrels from Al Jolson fame. There were five Blacks in my high school graduation class; acquaintances, but not friends.
Still, my parents, while not advocates of racial equality that I can recall, did nothing to cause me to fear or look down on Negros. They, especially my father, were anti-Catholic.
At the age of 20, I was fortunate to tour a year with a multi-national, multi-racial organization of young people. We treated each other as equals. I now considered myself a citizen of the world.
I served with many Black soldiers while in the Army in the late 60s, but I was only closely billeted with one while in a barracks in Frankfurt, Germany. He mustered out much earlier than I.
Since I was reared in rural area, when I moved to southern California, I wished to quickly acclimate to an urban environment. I enrolled in an experimental semester (“Urban Semester”) while in college, which required a deep dive (for a White person). Some “dives” were to gay bars, an AME church, and walking around a public shopping area with a Black woman, a fellow classmate, holding hands — no glares, but lots of stares. This was in the early 1970s. I did a paper on the Urban Coalition, a blend of Black and White civic leaders, formed in the aftermath of the Watts Riots in 1965. I also did a paper on Operation Bootstrap whose primary focus was Shindana Toys. They manufactured and marketed Black dolls so Black children could play with a doll that looked like them. They funneled their profits back into Watts. I spent many a day driving around south-central Los Angeles and Watts — a billboard favorite, “A day without sunshine is like a day without sweet potato pie.”
Then, marriage, career and family took over. In my thirty-year business career, I worked with Black men and women, though mostly men. A few became friends, but have since faded — friendships I did not nurture as home purchases took my family to nearly exclusive White neighborhoods.
In looking back at a humble beginning on the farm, I still had “White Privilege.” There was not a single door closed to me if I wanted to go through it or at least tried to go through it. I was only limited by my education, skill development, and emotional IQ. By all standards, I did well. But, I would say— to use the baseball metaphor—I was minimally born on first base.
In looking back on the fifty years since the 60s, and traveling with that group, I cannot think of anything I actively did to advance the cause of equality or thwart systemic racism.
That is the rub, isn’t it? If, at best, I could only claim to be non-racist, in sitting on the sidelines, how could I be anything but an enabler of things as they are? And, if that is true, how could I be any other than a White racist? I aided and abetted stratifying the White-dominated economic system.
For this, I apologize to my Black brothers and sisters.
Today, my passivity has been rocked. It wasn’t just George Floyd; it was the accumulation of years of vicious videos. Yes, push back on me to ask why it took this long? Guilty.
It was not only watching the George Floyd video, it was attendance at a Juneteenth memorial in nearby Santa Ana. I wanted to march in the aftermath of Floyd’s murder, but my age kept me quarantined. I felt the smaller Juneteenth event safer, so I double-masked and kept my distance. While only 200–300 assembled, it was a very diverse crowd, including a dozen or so of us White old-timers. There were the expected passionate speeches, but the seminal event was 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silence. Do you have any idea how long that is? Time it sometime. It was profound.
So now I want to take out my soapbox and say this.
Racists’ dog whistles:
· All Lives Matter.
· There is not a racist bone in my body.
· I am the least racist person you could ever meet.
· I don’t see color.
· Some of my best friends are Black.
· So much progress has been made.
· There is no systemic racism.
· Slavery happened so long ago.
· How can we be asked to be responsible for something we did not do?
· Jim Crow laws were never outside the South.
· Welfare queens.
· You’re different, not like those other Black people.
· You’re so articulate.
· You’re really not Black.
· What about Black on Black crime?
· What about all those killings in Chicago?
As to no systemic racism—Consider:
· Vastly underfunded Black schools in dense urban areas.
· Higher dropout rates for Blacks.
· Lower college enrollment and graduation rates for Blacks.
· Higher incarceration rates for Blacks.
· More punitive sentencing for Blacks versus Whites for similar crimes, especially for cocaine and marijuana usage.
· Higher COVID-19 infection and death rates for Blacks.
· Higher rates of uninsured for Blacks, especially in states rejecting Medicaid funds available from the Affordable Care Act.
· Redlining of Black zones by banks.
· Harder to obtain mortgages for Blacks.
· Gentrification in previously predominant Black areas.
· Predatory payday lending disproportionally affecting the poor and Blacks.
· Targeting Blacks with minor traffic offenses.
· Police killings of Blacks.
· Lower percentages and lower sums of COVID-19 loans (Paycheck Protection Program) to Black enterprises.
· Environmental injustice: Unhealthy air in dense urban areas disproportionately afflicting the poor and Blacks.
Offenses committed by Blacks:
· Driving while Black.
· Jogging while Black.
· Walking while Black.
· Washing your car in your driveway while Black.
· Going to the neighborhood store while Black.
· Wearing a hoodie while Black.
· Marching while Black.
· Sitting on a church lawn while Black.
· Breathing while Black — George Floyd.
To be born Black in America today (unless you are one of the lucky ones and your parents have beaten the odds and are wealthy, whether from professional sports, music and the arts), is to be born with one arm and one leg tied behind your back. Now, you are in the batter’s box — and told to compete on the economic field. If you do not get a hit and make it to first base, it is your fault.
Straight up — if all lives had mattered, there would not be a need for Black Lives Matter.
What does it mean for me to come out of the closet?
· Today, I have a dozen Black friends, many close, and the rest, getting closer. I have called each at least once since the George Floyd incident to only talk about race. I am listening. I am committed to these talks several times a year. This list will grow.
· I am reading a lot more (I just received from Amazon: “Stamped From The Beginning” by Ibram X. Kendi) and watching more video conversations about race. Facebook friends are putting up a lot of material. Daily, I get an email from Medium.com (where you might be reading this) from mostly Black women writing for ZORA. The documentaries “13th” and “I Am Not Your Negro” are on my watch list.
· I hosted several Zoom sessions on race with fellow Baby Boomers I have known since the late 60s (remember the traveling group). Mostly we listened to four Black Baby Boomer friends who traveled with us speak their truth. We are following that up with next steps on how we can become actively anti-racist.
· I am contributing to Black Lives Matter, not because I agree with every statement or action. I don’t agree 100% of the time with every political leader I support.
· I will march. For now I am targeting August 28th, the anniversary of MLK’s “I have a dream” speech.
· I regularly email elected officials. I will add race issues to that email habit. The first one was to support making Juneteenth a national holiday.
· I am researching to learn more about the thousands and thousands of atrocities my country committed since the nearly 260 years of enslavement. My most recent learning — Mississippi Appendectomies from 1920 to 1980. I demand a new history class.
I recently watched a 30-year-old video (YouTube) with Rodger Wilkins, a civil rights leader, history professor and journalist. Some snapshots: “Ownership of the country is a great enforcer — Police are occupying armies — Most White people are not competent enough to judge me as a Black person — Racism is based on ignorance — Early on, Blacks had faith in the decency of White people — no longer.”
The United States has still not dealt with race. I do not have a timeline for when this will happen — certainly not in my lifetime. We can out-vote racism, legislate against racism, out-organize racists, out-march racists, and shrink them so small that the net effect will be what ultra-conservative Grover Norquist wants to do with the United States government — shrink them down to a size where we can drain them down a bathtub.
Professor Eddie Glaude, Chairman of African Studies at Princeton, just published, “Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own.” He said recently, on the Lawrence O’Donnell Show on MSNBC, and I am paraphrasing, “I am struggling with; we will not change, and we must change.”
We must change. To this end I pledge myself in my remaining years.