Wednesday, June 28, 2017

A White Southerner Takes another Look at Racism

[This essay was originally published June 23, 2015 online at shortly after the massacre at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. I am re-posting it here as a reminder to myself and all of us that we still have some work to do.]

We’ve been reeling lately from blatant issues of racism in our country that illustrate how much work there is yet to do in matters of racial equality. We thought we were making some headway, at least that’s what we kept telling ourselves, yet we continue to be hit with evidence to the contrary. This year is was Freddie Gray in Baltimore dying in police custody from a spinal cord injury. Last year it was Eric Garner dying in New York City after a choke hold by the arresting policemen. There was also the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; before that it was Trayvon Martin in Florida. All the while, we have seen numerous laws passed throughout the country that made it harder for African-Americans to vote.

Our racial bias is evident, and it’s not just in the South. Just this summer, The New York Times released its summer reading list with nothing but white authors – and The New York Times is supposed to know better. Moreover, we have a prison system nationwide that is systematically removing black men from society, and most of us take no notice at all.

Now we are faced with another mass shooting, this time in an historic African American Church in Charleston, South Carolina, that highlights the blindness and the hatred that still exists in our nation. How have we gone this long with blinders on, refusing to deal with prejudice and hate?

The hopeful moment that fell apart 

I’ll never forget the electricity, the excitement and the amazement that I felt when Barack Obama was inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States. I had to work that day, so I set the DVR to record. At work, people gathered in the break room to watch Mr. Obama take the oath of office. The sea of people, as far as the camera could take into its field, spread down the National Mall and spilled into the streets. One of my college buddies was there, sending pictures via Facebook as the event unfolded. What an accomplishment! This country had elected an African-American president, and I was witnessing it in my lifetime after having seen the struggle for civil rights during my childhood. Perhaps we have made a breakthrough, I thought.

What I was not prepared for, however, was the almost immediate outpouring of hatred seen in social media comments and in the Tea Party’s media events. Bear in mind that the day President Obama was elected, our nation’s most popular hate site,, received so much traffic that it shut down. I realized that the racism that I had witnessed in the South growing up never really went away; it just lay dormant until people became threatened by the notion of an African-American President. I really should have seen it before, but my white working class eyes kept missing the clues.

One such clue surfaced recently when some friends and I went out for Sunday brunch at a popular restaurant in town. The place was busy – we had to wait for a while before a table was available – but the service was good and the food well prepared.  By the time we sat down, we noticed that all of the people serving in the restaurant that day were African-American. As one friend put it, “the people who are doing the serving, the cooking and the cleaning,  are the same ones who cooked and cleaned in 1850 – something is wrong with that.”

What is wrong with that is that we look at how far we have come since the civil rights movement of the 1960s while we fail to see how much has remained the same. We tell ourselves we are making progress and doing fine, while entire segments of society continue to face injustice and oppression.

Persistent cultural racism

It is true that our country has made great strides for equality. On the day of President Obama’s first inauguration, I was thrilled to see how far our nation had come. Dismay soon followed with a deluge of verbal attacks on the president making thinly-veiled references to his race, and the unspoken (and frequently denied) racism in the call to “take our country back.”

When I have pointed out the element of inherent racism in the system to some of my friends on the far right, the response has usually been quick denial. Someone at one point asked if I placed myself among the racists in the privileged class. After giving it some thought this was my response:

Speaking as a white man and having grown up in the segregated South, I have to say that what was ingrained in us culturally is very difficult to shake. We learned not to use the “N” word and thought that meant we were no longer racist. In truth, there are a thousand other ways we show disrespect without always realizing it.

I am challenged to examine those cultural things that I take for granted but which may be painful or disrespectful to someone else. So yes, I would say that because I was born white, I have to try harder to understand the plight of the black, the Hispanic, and the immigrant in our society. I must examine the attitudes I have, the jokes I think are funny, and the phrases I use that may try to put one person down just to make me feel more secure. (from my blog post, "Who Me? Racist?")

In addition to examining our personal attitudes, we must face up to our systemic social inequities. We can no longer pat ourselves on the back for allowing blacks into our schools when the combination of white-flight and social elitism has left us with schools that are every bit as segregated as they were in the 1950s, and entire neighborhoods living with economic devastation and little hope for advancement. We can no longer tell ourselves how wonderful we are as a society to grant equal opportunity, when those opportunities often seem to be mere isolated tokens compared to the larger needs that exist. 

It is time to listen

I am no mover or shaker; I can claim no gifts at social organizing. One thing I can do is to listen. That is what I recommend to all of my white cohorts, privileged and working-class alike. We must start listening to those who are oppressed and excluded from society. We must hear the black community when it speaks of police brutality, unfair voting regulations, exclusionary institutions and bias in the judicial system. 

We must also be willing to listen to all of those who have a stake in our society but limited representation – the LGBT community, immigrants, etc. White men such as myself don’t know what it’s like to live in an America in which the game is rigged in someone else’s favor. If we don’t listen, we run the risk of thinking our problems are solved just because we’re in good shape.

I may not like everything I hear, but I need to be listening. I do know that on a personal level when we truly listen to someone else’s story, it can change our whole orientation and attitude. We have had a very long spiral of racial unease that has now hit us all with pain, heartache and tragedy. It is time that we listen, on a national level, to someone else’s story.


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