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Sun Apr 8, 2018, 06:27 PM

My own racism [View all]

This is largely a repost of an OP I published here on DU last June. But I've gone over it again, and tried to make it even more personal than the original version I wrote.

So, I'm 68, I'm white, and I am under no illusion that I have personally escaped the human scourge of racism,
even though I've actively combated racism for all of my adult life, for at least as far back as the days immediately following Martin Luther King Jr's assassination. I was 18 then, so I feel blessed to have actual memories, not just of Martin's death, but more importantly of his life – though I viewed his life contemporaneously through a narrow window of television news and newspapers to the extent that an only somewhat political teenager paid any attention to the world around him. Martin began to change me radically the moment I learned of his death. My world will never be the same because of what happened next.

As a white kid hitting draft age, who grew up in an almost exclusively white suburban school district, the Vietnam War was a more immediate presence in my reality than racism, which I deplored from an abstract distance. I knew that I hated racists, I didn't know the ways I was one. What most incisively taught me that lesson were nine months in my life that commenced on the week King died. It was a period when I lived almost completely void of racism against Blacks in America. But no doubt, even then, I remained more intrinsically racist against other minorities who I lacked the opportunity to as profoundly get to know, or to be absorbed into tight community with.

It started simply and inconspicuously enough. Right after King was assassinated I attended a rally organized at my University on Long Island by local black activist students – though none actually were students at my school. Mostly they were friends who knew each other from connections forged in some of the surrounding communities, those with large black neighborhoods. Anne Brown, who spoke that day, was the daughter of the leader of the local N.A.A.C.P chapter. At that point Mr. Brown was a fairly elderly man but his house, I soon learned, was one in which youth of all ages always felt welcomed by both him and his wife. Anne and her friends felt moved to do something positive in the face of the devastating death of MLK Jr. They felt some hope in the then emerging youth counter-culture, and had a vision of youth working together across race lines to build a better more egalitarian future. A couple of days earlier they decided to form a group – Youth Unity for Peace Organization, and this rally was their first action.

Anne was not a fiery orator, though there was clear passion in her voice. What touched me immediately was her deeply held sincerity, her unrepentant idealism, and the urgency of her appeal. She believed youth had the power to break free from ancient chains. She made me believe that too. I responded to Anne's public request for our involvement and approached her after the rally, asking how I could help. It turned out I could be invaluable to her core group of young activists. I owned a car and they didn't. And that's how it started for me, my absorption into an activist black circle of friends. A few were seniors in high school, some were a year or two ahead of me in college, essentially we all were peers. I spent a lot of time with the core of that group, late at night, sitting talking in my car for hours on end. We all did some good work together also; joined up with some other groups, acquired some seed private funding, started some great programs. I was the only white on the “steering committee”, and I helped talk my own University into the supporting our biggest project, which became The Afro-American Summer Experience. That's what was most meaningful in the outer world, but what was most meaningful to me was the time we spent together at parties, and sitting talking in my car.

For the first time in my life color became invisible, and since everyone else was black, that kind of meant I lost my complexion during those very intense (and loving) times. You see, the topics of our talks were frequently about race, but I was wasn't being talked to about it. These weren't intellectual exercises, I was simply among close friends while they grappled with the impact of racism on their personal lives, down to the effects that commercials aired on TV had on them, with actors and actresses who were almost always white, never looking like them. Down to the use of hair straighteners, when and why and what exactly that meant. It got so that being part of a group of blacks felt natural to me, but being surrounded by a group of just whites felt off, and oddly uncomfortable.

And while I was there with those friends, during those shared intimate moments, my inbred racism fell away. That time is the closest I've ever felt to not being prejudiced. And that is what it took to get me there, and still it was a temporary state. I needed that constant immediate reinforcement to bypass a prior life time of ambient prejudice, rooted in unaware ignorance.

My closest friend in that group, Ray, was a brilliant and extraordinarily deep man with a piercing take on racism and great love interlaced with boiling anger. I was his first real white friend. I still remember turning him on to Big Brother and the Holding Company, with Janis Joplin, and how she absolutely blew him away – scrambling all his expectations when he heard her sing. Seeing that reaction in him helped give me a little insight into what was happening with me. Ray and I often talked for hours alone. One night in the Fall, after The Afro American Summer Experience was over for that year, I was over at Anne's house, and Ray was late coming over. In fact, he barely made it there. He was attacked, but not by white racists or the police. He was called over to a car window by blacks who he knew, and something was exploded in his face. He was seriously, but not grievously hurt Still he had to be hospitalized. It was a warning to Ray from some militant associates of his who I never knew about. They clearly thought he had strayed too far from something, the specifics of which I never learned but the sense of which I immediately knew.

I was 19 then, and far less experienced about life than I now am, for the obvious reason. We all didn't stop being friends, but for me the innocence was broken. I felt that I might have been responsible for Ray getting hurt. I felt that I could become responsible for Ray getting killed. I can't remember the details anymore, I wish I could. I wish I had been a little older and better equipped to deal with the mixed feelings I experienced. I might have done something differently. I might have somehow remained close friends with that circle of people, but instead, with love, we soon drifted apart. I was changed, but I was living once again in a predominantly white social universe. Much of what I experienced stuck with me for all my life, like the bones of a dinosaur that last for eons that mere time can not erase. But the soft tissue knowledge of my experience, that's different. That was ever changing, reinforced and nurtured daily, and once cut off from the living source it slowly began to fade.

So this is what that period taught me: That all of us can learn, all of us can grow, all of us can walk in another's shoes when the circumstances ideally suit it if our hearts are open, even if our brains once were silently poisoned. But staying there is a different matter. Prejudice roots below the conscious level. Overt white supremacy on the other hand, now that's a choice willfully embraced. But one doesn't have to be a white supremacist to harbor the virus of prejudice, it breeds in the spaces that separate us from each other.

Many decades have passed and I no longer have a personal black community. I live in a white rural area. Of course I know and am friendly with some blacks, but I am not going to pretend that it is the same as having deep bonds and friendships. Something has been lost. I still now instinctively understand a movement like Black Lives Matter when something like that emerges in our shared society. But once, during that brief earlier time, I would have known it in my bones, I would have anticipated it viscerally. I would have emotionally immediately understood that it doesn't matter if 9 out of 10 cops are essentially decent people, not if that tenth one remains free to wear the uniform. I would also have been boiling mad at how my friends, yes, my people, were routinely being denied the right to vote. How that is somehow allowed to be, and to continue. I would have lived with that reality daily, and it wouldn't have taken repeated hard hitting blogs and protests to get me to constantly think about it. I do care greatly about all these things and more, but caring is not the same as being there. I'm not now, and it isn't the same

I know some “soft tissue” aspects of my racism grew back, because much of the separation I once lived exclusively in itself is back. I don't like it, and I fight it, but still I understand it. People have tribal realities. To some extent it can be countered, but rarely if at all completely eradicated; we are, in part, who we are surrounded by. We lose touch with those whom we do not regularly touch, and it takes constant effort to transcend that.

And I marvel at what Martin Luther King Jr. accomplished, living when he did in an America that was much whiter than it is today, populated by whites who systematically kept blacks out of sight and out of mind. Despite all of our society's systematic limitations, and human nature itself, his life and death profoundly changed me, incalculably for the better. And I still hold fast to much of that now. Men like him, and Barack Obama, blow me away, for their grace and resolute patience in continually stretching out their hands to the better angels of White America, even when they can barely be recognized below the grime of reflexive prejudice, even when they are deeply asleep on the job. But there are also times when I realize that the same exact grace bursts forth from strangers on the street who look past my white color to be welcoming and helpful to me, not knowing what hatreds I could have seething inside of me.

I've had that same experience with members of the American Indian Movement, men and women who all were acutely aware of what was taken from then by people who looked like me, and people like me who blindly continue to profit from the theft our ancestors perpetrated on them. Their personal warmth continued to glow even as they took up the endless fight that is their inheritance in America.

I had one other period when my life flirted with a near black experience. I was working with (not in) the Criminal Justice System in San Francisco in the 1980's. I had reasons then to work very closely with a man named Rotea Gilford. He died in 1998 at 70. Here is a link to his obit. It starts like this:

"Rotea Gilford, a close friend of Mayor Brown and former Mayor Dianne Feinstein who dreamed of breaking racial barriers, and then lived his dreams, has died of complications from diabetes."

Rotea briefly played in the National Football League when it was a decidedly whiter affair, and in 1964 he became the department's first black homicide inspector, and later San Francisco's first Black Deputy Mayor. Rotea was a fighter who always persevered and never broke down. But I will never forget a conversation we had one morning when he shared with me that sometimes when he looked in the mirror to shave in the morning he came close to tears, realizing that everyone who he would see that day, friend acquaintance or total stranger, would view him through the prism of his dark black skin. This was Rotea Gilford I was talking to, a fiercely strong black man, and this was how every day of his life still began.

You don't forget a conversation like that when you have one, but most of us white Americans never get that opportunity - at least we didn't in my generation. So I briefly sometimes get how hard it is for Whites to understand what it is like to be Black in America, on a perennial moment to moment basis - noone's guard can be constantly up. But I also know that there are many otherwise decent Whites who just don't get it, and likely never will, who will rarely recognize the racism in them without a massive effort to break through the shell they live their lives inside of. And some of them do try.

I believe Bernie Sanders for example is anti-racist with his entire conscious being, though he may still be blind to how racism functions at an almost cellular level, how it is a devastating force that often functions alongside of economic injustice without being genetically identical to it. When it comes to race, I am not a victim, I am one of the privileged and it is not for me to tell others how to relate to those who can not fully grasp oppression, nor see clearly all the ways in which it functions, let alone how they can sometimes be inadvertently, even unwillingly, complicit in it. But I do know that there is a profound difference between a man like Bernie Sanders, who was arrested defending civil rights as a youth, and a man like Donald Trump, who was learning how to break Federal anti-housing discrimination laws as a youth.

Anne Brown was right back when I was 18. Youth can break ancient chains of prejudice. But no one generation can break all of them it seems. I tried, not always with my best effort, but I tried. So did Bernie Sanders. Hopefully people like us will be remembered for being on the right side of history. Hopefully whites of a generation much younger than mine will get much further in this quest than we did. The arc of justice does bend long

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