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An Op Ed on White Racism

July 12, 2020

Here’s an op ed I wrote for our local newspaper on White Racism that will appear in Sunday’s Newspaper:

George Floyd’s killing jarred me. In the aftermath, I spent hours reading books and articles, participated in two online forums exploring race in our culture, filled some gaps in my knowledge of US history, and examining my own attitudes toward race by looking at my upbringing, Ultimately, I came to the unsettling conclusion that the benefits I received because I am White gave me an unearned and unfair advantage over people of color at every turn. I also concluded that the history I learned in school omitted some important and crucial details.

Growing up, I attended schools in different parts of the country. After moving three times during my early years of schooling, I attended Robert E. Lee Elementary School in Tulsa, Oklahoma for grades 4 through 6. Located on a tree-lined street in an older part of the city, the Lee School offered daily Art, Music, PE, and science in a lab designed for our age group. The school had a well-stocked library and an auditorium large enough to accommodate the entire student body. In 5th grade at the Lee School I was taught Oklahoma history. We learned about the Native Americans who “settled the state” after following the Trail of Tears; about the Land Rush of 1889 that opened the state to White settlers eager to start their own farms or open their own businesses; and, about Oklahoma’s economy based on cattle ranching and oil. We didn’t learn about how a White mob desroyed Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street” and murdered over 200 Black residents 36 years earlier in 1921 in a section of town roughly 30 blocks away from our school. Nor did we learn how the Native Americans who “migrated” to Oklahoma lost almost all of their reservation land over the next Century to the White settlers in the Land Rush or the oil companies whenever their territory was located above an oil field. We did, however, learn about the heroism of our school’s namesake, Confederate war hero General Robert E. Lee, each year in a school assembly.

I spent all of my junior and senior high school years in West Chester, Pennsylvania, during the height of the Civil Rights era. A small college town outside of Wilmington, Delaware, West Chester’s schools and public swimming areas did not fully integrate until the mid-1950s. The Blacks in West Chester almost all lived in the same neighborhood and almost all worked in what we now euphemistically call “essential jobs”. Roughly 10% of the 600 students who graduated with me in 1965 were Black yet only one of them was enrolled in the college preparatory classes I took. There were three Black teachers that I recall seeing in the school during my six years of junior high and high school. When it came to history, we covered the traditional topics: explorers, the Revolutionary War, the work of the Founding Fathers, and a long sequence of names and dates. We DID learn that the Civil War resulted in the freeing of the slaves in the South, but the two times I took American History we skipped Reconstruction and went right to World War I.

As I examined my upbringing in Tulsa and West Chester in the 1950s and early 1960s, I see that I clearly benefitted from being White. Had I been Black in Tulsa I would not have attended Lee School, whose attendance zone was drawn so that it served only White neighborhoods. Had I been Black in Tulsa I would not have been able to play ball with my friends in the leafy city parks reserved for Whites, or been able to earn money delivering newspapers in my all-White neighborhood. Had I been Black in West Chester, Pennsylvania it is unlikely that homeowners in my all White suburban subdivision would answer the door when I was fundraising for school clubs, little leagues, or Boy Scouts. I doubt even more that they would have become lawnmowing customers throughout my high school years, customers whose support helped me to earn enough money to pay for my freshman year in college. Finally, based on what I observed, had I been Black in West Chester it is unlikely that I would have been assigned to the college prep classes I took.

As I’ve reflected on what I was taught—or not taught– it is clear to me that we need to do a better job teaching about race. Children need to be made aware that the racism that exists today is systemicl. Racism is built into our system by our Constitution that allowed slavery to continue; by early state laws that denied any free Black men the opportunity to vote; by Jim Crow laws passed after the Civil War; by court decisions in the late 1800s that supported laws creating “separate but equal” public services and schools; by bankers and realtors across the country who red-lined specific neighborhoods and towns for Blacks to buy homes in; by the GI Bill which made it extraordinarily difficult for Blacks to obtain mortgages or attend college, particularly in the South. Children need to be made aware that racism is not limited to bad deeds done by malicious individuals. Racism is baked into our system, a system that repeatedly and relentlessly reinforces a message: Black Lives DON’T Matter.

The 8 minute 46 second video of George Floyd’s murder, seen around the world, made the point that Black Lives DON’T Matter in a way that words in this essay cannot. As a result, the rationale for the “Black Lives Matter” movement has never been clearer. If our country hopes to reverse the stain of systemic racism we have in place, the coming months are critically important. In her book White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo suggests that only those of us who are White can change the system in place because we, alone, benefit from it as it exists now and we exert the most control over it. She suggest that if we “White people understand racism as a system into which we were born and socialized”, we can begin to identify the ways we unwittingly reinforce the system and the ways we might be able to change it. I fear that should this teachable moment pass, should we White people fail to “begin to identify the ways we unwittingly reinforce the system and the ways we might be able to change it”, George Floyd will be another name added to a long list of Blacks who died at the hands of the system and will be forgotten until the next time our racist system kills an innocent Black person.

 

 

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