I was born in Richmond, Virginia, the city that served as the Capital of the Confederacy from 1861 until 1865; where, today, the regal statues of Confederate war heroes Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson stand along the aptly named Monument Avenue. My family moved away when I was 7, but my parents spoke fondly of Richmond and vowed to return. I beat them to it, returning for college in 1978.
Both of my parents were born and raised below the Mason-Dixon Line — my father in Roanoke, Va., my mother in Ashland, Ky. I have lived all of my life in the South, except for my high school years in Detroit, Mi.
My dad was a Southern Baptist minister and my mom was a teacher. One of the earliest church songs I learned was “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” You know, “… all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.” I admired Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan who stopped to help a wounded man, even though he was from a despised ethnoreligious group. If my parents were still alive, I daresay they would both proudly identify as “not racist.”
The stage had been set for me to be a respectable non-racist. I strived to be colorblind and look past skin color. I had a heart for all people, and I wished nothing but the best for everyone. I recall driving through lower-income black neighborhoods, feeling so sad, wondering why “these people” hadn’t been able to pull themselves up. After all, slavery ended in 1865, more than a century ago.
Or did it?
‘YOU SHALL KNOW THE TRUTH’
In 2016, I unwittingly began a re-education. I watched 13th, a documentary by Ava DuVernay, named for the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime. 13th demonstrates how much of the U.S. system of incarceration was crafted as a form of racialized control. It forced blacks into involuntary servitude to work in mines, factories, etc., as convicts (often based on feeble charges in a color-conscious justice system) or as repayment of dubious debts.
Since my Southern Baptist parents were strong in their faith, they never discouraged questioning. They lived by the words of Jesus, including John 8:31: “You shall know the truth; and the truth shall set you free.” So I challenged myself to dig deeper, to ensure that my beliefs were rooted in fact. I prepared myself for the possibility of slaying some sacred cows.
CHALLENGING THE SACRED COWS?
Apparently, my Southern schoolkid education of the 1960s and ’70s was a tad whitewashed (pun intended). As I dug, I realized that many common practices, into the 21st century, were skewed against black Americans. Besides obvious issues such as legal segregation and lynching, other subtler practices have worked against blacks (and, in some cases, also against poor whites): sharecropping, land seizures, poll taxes, redlining, predatory home contracts, restrictive covenants, educational and health-care policies, and “urban renewal.” I realized that many racially unjust programs had the government’s stamp of approval, including policies that kept blacks from achieving home ownership, a basic form of American wealth-building.
I came to recognize that many American leaders have acted intentionally to maintain white advantage; and that some people, well-meaning but unknowing, have followed their lead.
As I gained more historical context, I gained a new empathy for people who live in black skin. It’s true, many whites view blacks differently and treat them differently: suspicious security guards; private citizens like George Zimmerman, Gregory and Travis McMichael, Amy Cooper; and, ultimately, law enforcement officers like Derek Chauvin. I saw that injustices that should have been eradicated in the 155 years since the Civil War have instead been perpetuated. What I have learned is the tip of the iceberg. What I present here merely scratches the surface.
Aside from proud white supremacists, many white people don’t consider themselves racist and don’t understand the extent of the problems. They haven’t had the opportunity to understand the context of contemporary Black Lives Matter issues. By opening their minds to the undercurrents of American history in the last century, they can gain a more realistic outlook on the conflicts.
MY HOMETOWN’S SACRED COWS
In Richmond, the greater racial issues intersect with historic icons. Confederate statues as well as highways and schools named after Civil War heroes have been contentious as of late. Movements to remove the monuments and rename highways and schools have popped up like thunderstorms on a hot summer afternoon — or, as a compromise, to add “context” in the form of informational markers. But heritage-loving whites fight to keep them, and the statues, highways, and most school names have remained.
The discussions highlighted the provenance of the statues. Whites who erected them after Reconstruction may have felt warmth for Civil War soldiers, but their motives went beyond familial pride. At a time when the federal government was stamping out their preferred way of life — using slave labor and asserting white dominance — these towering works of art were bold reminders of who was in control, with Jim Crow laws to reinforce the assertion.
After George Floyd’s murder and the resulting protests, Gov. Ralph Northam announced the removal of the state-owned Robert E. Lee statue (though lawsuits were immediately filed to keep Lee’s likeness where it is), and Mayor Levar Stoney called for removal of the rest. Protestors have added their own “context” in the form of graffiti to the statues and pulled down three: Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy; a Confederate general; and Christopher Columbus, in solidarity with indigenous people.
STORM CLOUDS LET LOOSE
For many, the outsized impact of the pandemic on people of color coupled with the killing of George Floyd have illuminated the racial injustice endemic in our society. For others, the resulting protests are overblown. They don’t understand the fuss, are quick to condemn violent protests and eager to praise the police, and refuse to feel guilty for flaws in today’s system.
As someone who has dared to be uncomfortable, I’d like to share a few insights:
- Respecting law enforcement doesn’t mean giving police a blank pass. On the flip side, condemning flaws in the justice system doesn’t imply disrespect for all police. I didn’t love my children any less when I disciplined them, and I still hold police officers who serve the cause of justice in high esteem.
- The presence of looters and violent protestors doesn’t negate the concerns of the peaceful protestors. Letting violence drown out the deeper concerns merely serves as an excuse to ignore those concerns.
- Removing statues does not erase history. I wouldn’t frame steamy love letters from my exes to hang where my spouse can see them. My missives can be stored in a box under the bed, and monuments in museums and history books.
- Living people are more important than dead people; nurturing takes precedence over pride in heritage. Consider the impact on blacks — especially children — of monuments and flags celebrating those who fought to keep African-Americans in bondage.
- Civil disobedience is sometimes necessary. Defacing or forcefully removing monuments violates public property, but Jesus overturned the moneychangers’ tables in the temple and Harriet Tubman violated slaveowners’ “property rights.”
- When I realize I can’t fully empathize with blacks, I temper judgment with listening. How would hundreds of years of cruelty and unjust treatment have affected my family? I don’t condone property destruction, but I recognize that decades of peaceful protests (including kneeling at NFL games) have barely moved the needle. How hopeless that must feel!
- Knowing the truth about the treatment of blacks in America sets us free to move forward. By continuing to whitewash reality — and by thinking ourselves not racist when we’re supporting a racist system — we’re protracting the struggle and withholding compassion.
- If I don’t call out injustices and I let them continue unchecked, then I am, at best, letting the problems continue. If I want to deny collective guilt for the past, then I need to open my eyes to contemporary social injustice and support positive change.
To those who identify as not racist but can’t understand all the fuss: Are you open to searching for the truth, or are you satisfied with feeding your sacred cows? It’s not a comfortable journey, but the discomfort pales in comparison with the lifetime experiences of people of color.