The death of George Floyd was tragic on many levels. It was not because this was the most gruesome death ever of a black man that the conversation, movement and protests started. It was because it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Because of that event I have been reading a book called White Fragility. It is an intriguing and provocative book that discusses racism very openly. Yesterday morning on NPR I heard a criticism of that book by Columbia professor John McWhorter who says that the book talks down to black people. McWhorter is a professor of English and comparative literature and teaches linguistics, American studies, philosophy, and music history. Is he an expert on racism? He is a black man who just happened to be raised in a somewhat privileged home. That’s expert enough for me.
This is pretty complicated. When my family and I lived in South Africa from 1999 until 2003, we had many friends of color. But we also saw a lot of very open racism.
A couple of weeks ago I spoke with ex-Denver Bronco running back Reggie Rivers, who had earlier written an article describing what it’s like to be Reggie Rivers, a black man in America. Reggie is very insightful, and I loved that he spent time discussing racism with me.
When Barack Obama made a statement about Trayvon Martin and race in America it warmed my heart. Obama said how “when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago”. He went on to say that there are very few African American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That there are very few African Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously until she had a chance to get off. The words of Rivers and Obama can make you feel more compassion and empathy for how it feels to be a person of color.
I heard another story on NPR recently about how everyone who can prove that they are descended from slaves (and self-identify as being black) should be given $100,000 a year for ten years for restitution. Like I said, it’s complicated.
Let me boil it down. Many years ago, a lot of white people did a lot of blacks a very grotesque disservice. Slavery has been long banished, but its effects still linger. To put it bluntly (and to over-generalize), many blacks live a separate but very unequal life, with their inner-city dwelling, second-rate schools and second-rate teachers. It’s a very deep hole to try to recover from. The very least we can do is to try to figure programs to help reverse this. When we lived on Lakewood (Colorado) there was some low-income housing out in our suburb. Isn’t this perhaps one way of undoing what history has done? We consider ourselves to be a melting pot. It sure doesn’t feel that way to me.