Several times over the years I have attempted to write a blog about race. Each time it ends up dumped in the trash — a series of observations with no coherent point, espoused by a privileged old white guy. This year may be the same, but at least at this early point in the blog, my intention is to share it. I’m emboldened by some new observations and the desire to give some credit where credit is due.
Let’s start with a reunion of sorts. Three high school friends got together last fall, one of whom had drifted away on a course to a successful career in the movie business. By chance, he was part of the crew making a movie in Atlanta, where another friend lives. So, I flew down from Topeka for a reunion weekend and learned some things in the process.
As I am sworn to secrecy by a large, unsmiling, bearded and tattooed man, I can only say that I got to see Michael B. Jordan film a scene in a new movie based upon the book “Just Mercy.” As we had all read the book prior to the weekend, it led to some thoughtful discussions about America’s history of race “relations” by three old white guys. I am recommending you read the book.
Our movie-making friend is an art director, which means he designs the sets. Always a perfectionist, he is really good at his job. He spends months researching and preparing and we got to see photographic evidence of his work. Walls covered with pictures of some of the horrific effects of racism in the decades of our childhood. Pictures of smiling white men and women abusing African American neighbors. The worst wasn’t graphic at all, it was a picture of an Alabama sheriff who framed a black man for murder in the 80s yet remained in elected office until just last year.
A few years ago, I heard a professor say we are all racists to some degree. He mentioned the statement I have heard friends make “I don’t see color,” as evidence that we don’t understand race. I am discovering with old age comes memory loss. My theory is nostalgia and naïveté push the memory synapse out of the way without us noticing. That is what allows us to say things like, “When we were kids, we all hung out together and nobody cared about race.” Memory being replaced by nostalgia and naïveté.
Now I’m going to give some credit. Max and Mary Heim grew up in Bunker Hill, Kansas. A fine little community, but not an ethnic melting pot. My grandfather was an ignorant racist. My mother and father made damn sure we were not ignorant on the subject of race. In junior high, my mom gave me the “Autobiography of Malcom X” and insisted I read it. I was told I would do a book report in eighth grade social studies on “Black Like Me.” My dad, a school superintendent, took me to civil rights related hearings and legislative testimony. I was the only kid in high school who had T-shirts from historically black colleges, souvenirs from his efforts at recruiting teachers.
They were easily the most woke parents of the early 1970s and I wish I could say it inoculated me from any racist thoughts, or from acts of omission I wish I could do over. One of the benefits of awareness is it can call out nostalgia and naïveté. I’d recommend you read those books.
Another book has a more recent publication date — “The Hate You Give.” Read it and if you can, check the author’s work. I did and it was telling. No spoilers here but ask an African American friend about having the talk with their young sons. No, not THAT talk. The talk about how to act when you are pulled over by the police. The one about playing with toy guns in public. The one that has life and death consequences. Ask your African American or Latino friends about whether anyone cared about race when they were growing up.
A final word in what I hope holds together as more than just a set of observations. One might argue that slavery was over 150 years ago, or that the civil rights battle was won 50 years ago, or that by electing Barack Obama we signaled the beginning of post-racial America. Before you take a position on any of these statements, I’d suggest you watch the documentary “13th.”
My conclusion is the professor may have been right, but at the very least, we are all carrying some ignorance around our country’s struggles with racial issues. Even the most woke of us. And for the sake of our children and our country, we all need to acknowledge our ignorance and get to work learning about and from one another.