racism is a part of me – and i don’t want it to be

It was a beautiful sunny morning, just the perfect day to go for a run.  I headed to my usual park.  As I approached it, I saw a teenage black boy half a block ahead.  I thought, should I run in the street to avoid him?  No, I decided, I would be brave and show I’m not racist by running right past him. I got even with him, we looked at each other, and said hi – it was someone from my church! 

Jane Elliott, a third-grade teacher, spoke to a group of mostly white audience members.  She asked, 

“I want every white person in this room who would be happy to be treated as this society…treats our black citizens…please stand.”  Not surprisingly no one stood up.  She concluded, “That says very plainly that you know what’s happening, you know you don’t want it for you.” 

How sad to know I would not have stood up either.  

A psychologist who studied how racism develops in families commented that with the subtle messages our families can give, it can take thousands of positive interactions to erase the power of those messages.  After our white flight to the suburbs from Detroit my mom, upon returning from the grocery store, commented that the black woman at the cash register “was nice”.  One couldn’t escape the surprise in her voice.  I wonder:  have I said things to our kids that have contributed to continuing racism?

And that’s not the only place where racism is created.  

Recently my five siblings and I received our share of my mom’s estate after her passing.  A number of years prior to that likewise my wife and I received a share of my mother-in-law’s estate after her passing.  Both of their husbands served in World War II and were able to take advantage of the GI Bill, passed by Congress in 1944 to provide free college tuition and low interest home loans to returning vets.  Both sets of parents were able to purchase homes and as a result their children have been able to benefit because of the GI Bill. 

It turns out that the GI Bill benefitted white soldiers but not black ones.  One of the most common ways for households to accumulate wealth (not just income but the value of all assets, home ownership being the most common) is through wealth being passed down from one generation to the next.  A major result of the racial limitations of the GI Bill is that, according to the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances, “in 2022, for every $100 in wealth held by white households, Black households held only $15.”

As a white man, not only do I have to deal with the racist ideas that have seeped into my soul but also recognize that racism is much bigger than that.  Our society seems to be set up to make life more difficult for our black neighbors.

There is something about having grown up in Detroit until I was 12 (I like to say I grew up “in the city!” as if it’s a badge of honor) that trying to understand racism has been integral to me.  Some of that included a several days trip to important civil rights sites in the south.  My eyes were opened as we crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, and remembered Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965.  Or visited the 16th Street Baptist Church where a bomb killed 4 little black girls on September 15, 1963.  Or the site of the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in Memphis.  And the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum also in Memphis.

Much of my work in the last part of my career supported an organization working on civil rights issues.  I found being with people working daily on those issues kept the power of racism front and center.  Now that I’m retired, I don’t have the benefit of that.

Unfortunately, in our segregated city of Chicago I live in a mostly white neighborhood and have minimal contact with black people.  Without that it’s more difficult for me to be aware of their daily experiences.

So, what do I do?  As I brainstorm possibilities one thought that comes to mind is to get together periodically with some former co-workers.  I’m also aware of how often black people will say they get tired of trying to help white people deal with their own racial issues.  So secondly, I would find it helpful to be involved with other white people working on our racism.  Maybe the Journey Center of Michigan is a good place for me?

As I write this, I’m more aware of how much racism is a part of me, and how much I don’t want it to be.  I look forward to joining others on the journey to be anti-racists.

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