Tag Archives: White Silence Is Violence

Changing racial justice starts inside you, white America

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

— From “The Fellowship of the Ring,” J.R.R. Tolkien

The same day Medgar Evers was murdered in Jackson, Mississippi, author Eudora Welty wrote a prescient short story from the perspective of the killer. Welty’s insight into the mind of the white supremacist, who waited near the Black civil rights activist’s home before shooting him in the back, was not the product of supernatural powers.

“I thought to myself, ‘I’ve lived here all my life. I know the kind of mind that did this,’ ” Welty said in a 1972 interview. Sadly, “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” remains as insightful as when it was written in 1963.

Two weeks ago, I wrote of the need to discuss racism in America. And, predictably, I received a handful of letters spewing hackneyed racist tropes.

However, I received far more letters asking for resources to better understand America’s history of slavery and its legacy in institutionalized, systemic racism.

As I wrote before, getting to know people who are different in any way — including color, religion, nationality, sexual orientation or ability — is one of the best ways to dissipate the sense of otherness and recognize the humanity of all people.

But it is not the job of Black folks to teach white folks to become “woke” and understand what Black Americans have lived with all their lives, generation after generation for 401 years.

To my earnest readers, I sent a list of articles, movies, interviews, books and podcasts to better understand what, as white Americans, we often don’t see because it is not a part of our experience.

Of course, as soon as I pressed “send,” I immediately thought of things I’d forgotten to include. The truth is finding fact-based, quality sources on how and why racism in America remains an enduring contradiction to our Constitution, and the fallacy that we live in a meritocracy, is not hard.

Here is a small set of recommendations:

Shortly after it was published in 1996, I read Leon Dash’s book “Rosa Lee: A Generational Tale of Poverty and Survival in Urban America.” Derived from his Pulitzer Prize-winning, eight-part series for the Washington Post, Dash spent three years interviewing Rosa Lee Cunningham and her family.

Dash’s extensive research on D.C.’s urban underclass, including chapters on the history and sociology of African American sharecroppers in the South after the Civil War and the later Great Migration to the North, was my first exposure to the depth of the chasm under the whitewashed education I received.

Zora Neale Hurston, American author, anthropologist and filmmaker. Lived 1891-1960.

I had read novels, including “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison and “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston, both of which paint compelling and tragic pictures of 20th century life for Black Americans. But until “Rosa Lee” I’d not read nonfiction accounts informed by academic research.

I’ve since tried to fill the void in my education on a number of topics. And yet, as my grandma often told me, the more I know, the more I realize I don’t know.

The 2016 documentary, “The 13th,” directed by Ava DuVernay, recounts how time and again when one system of racial suppression is eliminated in America, another quickly takes its place. Several notable scholars and journalists are interviewed in the film, which I recommend everyone watch, no matter how much or how little you know about this history.

For narrative film, there is no director with more clarion ability to represent many aspects of Black lives and history than Spike Lee. “Do the Right Thing” is particularly topical right now, three decades after it was released, for the Black anger it accurately depicts like no movie before.

For a thorough recounting of the myriad ways our government policies have intentionally disadvantaged Black Americans, read MacArthur Fellow Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article, “The Case for Reparations.”

The podcast “Code Switch” and its newsletter provide black perspectives on current affairs. So does journalist Roxane Gay. And the discussions with mostly Black guests on “The Daily Show” with Trevor Noah, who is biracial, provide insights not found elsewhere.

For those willing to read books, consider “The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabel Wilkerson, “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo, “Letter to My Son” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson, “The Sun Does Shine” by Anthony Ray Hinton, “Notes of a Native Son” by James Baldwin and Martin Luther King Jr.’s essential work, “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.”

This month, I had the honor to meet the mother of the young black man who recently, while waiting at a bus stop, was harassed by an older white man with a shotgun. She told me some of her white friends said, “I can’t believe that happened to James, we know him!”

That disbelief is the product of white privilege.

White mothers, no matter how rich or poor, do not fear when their sons leave the house: What if he’s pulled over by the police? Or hunted down by white supremacists in a pickup? Or harassed at a bus stop by a man with a shotgun?

Over the centuries, we have changed laws regarding race without changing our country’s bone-deep racial caste system. For that, we need to change hearts and minds. It starts with you.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on July 5, 2020.

Let’s talk about racism in America

Public art protest installation by Jules Christensen listing the last 100 victims killed by police in America.

Can I fully understand the African-American experience? No, because as a white woman, I have not lived the African-American experience. Does that mean I should not speak about the African-American experience? No. For as Dr. King said, “In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

Each semester, my University of Akron students study a unit on institutional racism in America. Last year, I used both the comprehensive articles in the New York Times’s 1619 Project and the documentary “College Behind Bars.”

America’s first enslaved Africans arrived on the shores of Virginia in 1619. And our racist history, which began even earlier with the treatment of indigenous people, did not end with the Emancipation Proclamation. Our systems of education, health care, housing, banking and more are all intentionally designed to discriminate against people of color.

And our judicial system, from the violent policing in current headlines, to biased prosecutors with too much power, to unequal sentencing are all a direct carryover of our slave-economy past.

More than half my students are black, and I don’t need to tell them institutional racism is alive and well in America. They experience it every day of their lives.

But like the children of immigrants, who often understand their parents’ native language but cannot speak it fluently, my black students benefit from a close examination of America’s racist history and the response of black communities.

For my white students, studying the history of institutional racism and its connection to slavery opens their eyes to a fundamental portion of American history that they were never adequately taught, if at all.

While the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution abolished slavery in 1865, it contained a caveat quickly found useful by many Southern, and some Northern, states wishing to ensure white supremacy:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Almost immediately Black Codes replaced the previous slave codes, which had regulated the lives of enslaved and freed black Americans until emancipation. Black Codes were laws that applied only to black citizens.

Vagrancy, in the Black Codes, meant a number of things from unemployment to loitering and could land a black person in jail. Black prisoners were then rented out as laborers, often to their former masters.

When later Constitutional amendments outlawed Black Codes, they were replaced by Jim Crow laws under which, among other things, 3,462 black Americans (that we know of) were lynched between 1882 and 1968.

I once read Martin Luther King Jr. Day mostly belongs to black Americans, because it was Dr. King’s Civil Rights Movement that ended white Americans’ widespread terrorism of black people. And not just in the South, for at its peak in the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan had more members in Indiana than any other state.

One hundred years after the Thirteenth Amendment became law, the passage of Civil Rights legislation, actualized by centuries of advocacy by people of all colors, brought the Declaration of Independence closer than ever to its promise:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

But in short order, a previous system of suppression was once again replaced by a new one: mass incarceration. Due to policies targeting black Americans, evocative of the Black Codes, the number of people in our prisons has grown from 200,000 in 1970 to 2.2 million today.

And yet, many whites do not believe white privilege exists.

For five years of my childhood, I lived in a rural community in Ohio that was overwhelmingly pro-union and Democrat. Today, the classmates who’ve remained in Miami County, which is 96 percent white, are overwhelming Trump Republicans.

Good people who love their families and community, they believe COVID-19 is a Democratic hoax and that Black Lives Matter is not only unnecessary, but also responsible for the looting at protests — which they believe to be far worse than any factual reporting indicates.

As frustrating as it can be, particularly since they refuse to read anything that might contradict their positions, I continue to interact with these people, whom I’ve known for 45 years.

Civil discourse has transformative power for all involved, and a key part of that is listening. Perhaps there’s never been enough listening and civil interaction in the world, but today it seems rarer than ever.

And it’s not just white conservatives who deny racism exists. A 2007 study revealed that 75 percent of white parents never, or rarely, talk about race with their children, thinking that not doing so will make their children “color-blind.” Research indicates nothing could be further from the truth.

In their article, “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race,” authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman state that “children see racial differences as much as they see the difference between pink and blue — but we tell kids that ‘pink’ is for girls and ‘blue’ is for boys. ‘White’ and ‘black’ are mysteries we leave them to figure out on their own.”

When discussing the differences among white, black and brown people — which are zero in terms of potential — it’s essential to tell children how our systems continue to benefit white people, especially white men, over all others.

In responding to research questionnaires, a majority of white, male college undergraduates state that bigotry is no longer a problem in the United States. That wildly incorrect perception is derived from the fact that white males very rarely experience discrimination.

My first three sons graduated from Firestone, one of the best high schools in the region. Firestone provides not only excellent academics, but its School of the Arts also is so robust that many students from rich suburban districts apply for open enrollment.

My boys regularly state that what they value most, however, is that Firestone serves a diverse student population. Groups of people are only perceived as “other” until you spend time with them. This is true whether the difference is race, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or ability (both physical and intellectual).

For as far as we’ve come toward creating an equal society in America, we still have much work to do to. Two hundred and thirty-three years after it was written, the words of our Constitution unfortunately remain aspirational and not actual.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on June 14, 2020.