I am white and I am a racist.
It’s not on an academic level. On that level, I would challenge any white person I know to be more aware and outraged by both the history of racial injustice in our nation and its current manifestations.
It’s on a gut level. It is as profound as if I were George Wallace standing in the doorway at the University of Alabama.
I don’t know if any of my white friends feel any of the feelings that I do. As much as race is a third rail of American politics, openly admitting to gut level racism, if it is there, is not a something I’ve ever heard discussed among them. I hesitate, greatly, to admit it on this wonderful day of Barack Obama’s wonderful speech. I am not sure if discussing what is ugly is on the path towards accomplishing what can be beautiful.
I did not grow up in a family where racial epitaphs were heard, not ever. I did not grow up in a family where my father’s career was stymied by affirmative action. I accompanied my parents when they went to marches for fair housing and to support civil rights. My parents named my brother Paul Robert, in honor of Paul Robeson.
As a man, I have worked for many social, progressive and political causes, some strongly linked to racial injustice – death penalty abolition, repeal of the “3 strikes law” and criminal justice for juveniles.
And yet, examples of my racism are many. When the cable stations champion the cause of a white girl murdered in a “safe neighborhood” and ignore the fate of an African American girl who has died on the same day in the Inglewood, I am furious. But there is a disconnect. I find it easier to sympathize with the family of the white girl. I feel even that the white family feels the loss more. Again, that is only one of many examples. All of them even more disturbing than the oft-admitted fear of black teenagers walking behind one on a darkened street.
I have lots to offer to get me off the hook. There is the most clichéd of defenses: I feel complete comfort and connection with my own African American friends. Networks do only cover the white girl’s murder. It’s easier to relate to what is most easily apparent. For every example of my prejudices, there is probably a rationale.
But, I must take the responsibility and I am appalled by my bigotry, even more than I am appalled when a friend refuses to understand the inequities of the criminal justice system or the code words of divineness spoken by our presidential candidates.
I ask myself, if I were a student at Little Rock High School, would I have spit on the nine black students or offered a hand in friendship. I am sure I would have been among the latter. But, in many ways it’s easier to rise up against the most obvious of oppression with action, than to rise up against inner racism by self-examination.
I can imagine my African American friends reading this and dismissing me from their lives. But if Barack Obama is willing to put his candidacy on the line to say that the issue of race cannot be ignored, “not this time,” than admitting amongst my white friends to our ugliness is not too much to ask. If admitting it in a way that ultimately dispels the feelings rather than binding them to us and making them our private haven against evolving, than it will be a good thing. If, with some candor, self-awareness and apology, we can admit it to the African Americans in our lives and move forward with more hope than if we did not, it might be a very good thing.