En­trenched at­ti­tudes of old white friends are not be­yond change — or so I want to be­lieve

Chicago Sun-Times - - OPINION - BY DAVID MCGRATH

Ifeel slightly trai­tor­ous writ­ing this. Like a dou­ble agent rat­ting on other white peo­ple, dis­clos­ing their re­ac­tion to the Black Lives Mat­ter protests.

The first is a friend who emailed to me a porno­graphic joke ref­er­enc­ing the killing of Ge­orge Floyd by a Min­neapo­lis police of­fi­cer, Derek Chau­vin, play­ing off Floyd’s cry of “I can’t breathe.”

The sender fre­quently shares in­ter­net jokes and car­toons, and the group to which he emails them — all in their late 60s like me — be­lieve any­thing is fair game for hu­mor, and that dis­agree­ment with that be­lief con­sti­tutes a silly sur­ren­der to po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness.

I sent him a re­ply warn­ing that his car­toon im­plies that Derek Chau­vin’s slow, tor­tur­ous as­phyx­i­a­tion of Ge­orge Floyd was not re­ally that bad, and that peo­ple do not re­ally have to worry about it. He sub­se­quently sent an­other sim­i­lar joke, this time with a mixe­drace cou­ple in the pho­to­graph.

A sec­ond friend ex­pressed con­cern about vi­o­lent protests tak­ing place close to home. Yet, he per­sisted in his dis­ap­proval of the peace­ful protests of Colin Kaeper­nick and oth­ers for kneel­ing when the na­tional an­them was played at foot­ball games.

I asked him if he read that the protests had changed the minds of oth­ers, in­clud­ing star quar­ter­back Drew Brees and NFL com­mis­sioner Roger Good­ell, who were fi­nally per­suaded that ath­letes were not dis­re­spect­ing the flag or our troops, but were plead­ing, in­stead, for an end to police tak­ing in­no­cent lives. He re­sponded that he sim­ply did not see it that way.

A third per­son con­fided that he felt a need to do some­thing when the protests were dom­i­nat­ing the news. So he emailed or texted his friends and rel­a­tives who were po­lice­men, to as­sure them that he was on their side. That he knew and ap­pre­ci­ated what they did on the job; and that he strongly dis­agreed with the ugly things be­ing writ­ten and said about law en­force­ment, in­clud­ing the calls for re­form: the whole sys­tem should not be painted as dys­func­tional be­cause of a few bad ap­ples.

He did not men­tion Ge­orge Floyd. Noth­ing about the eight-minute, cold-blooded bru­tal­ity of Chau­vin. No words of sym­pa­thy or com­fort for fam­ily left be­hind.

All three men are kind, smart, and dy­namic per­son­al­i­ties, long in­volved in Catholic and com­mu­nity char­i­ties, the March of Dimes, and lo­cal food pantries. We’ve de­bated for years about racial mat­ters.

Other white ac­quain­tances have ex­pressed the be­lief that young black men would not be killed by police if they sim­ply stayed out of trou­ble the way they them­selves do, main­tain­ing that when black men are stopped by police on the drive from work, or from a party on Satur­day night, or from a shop­ping mall in the mid­dle of the af­ter­noon, that they would be as safe as white peo­ple, as long as they’re po­lite and co­op­er­a­tive.

I had ex­pected that those with col­lege de­grees would have ap­plied the meth­ods of in­quiry they learned in school to re­cent events, to in­ves­ti­gate in depth and learn, for ex­am­ple, of a Stan­ford Univer­sity study that found Black driv­ers are 20% more likely to be stopped by police — a per­cent­age that plum­mets dra­mat­i­cally at night, when it’s harder to iden­tify a mo­torist’s race. Or a new Harvard study that de­ter­mined Black peo­ple are six times more likely to be killed by law en­force­ment.

Yet even ed­u­cated white peo­ple too of­ten re­vert to the eas­ier, racist mind­set they grew up with, the in­er­tia of which seems im­pos­si­ble to re­di­rect, let alone over­turn.

None, of course, con­sider them­selves racists, which is why few have com­punc­tions about send­ing me the car­toons or the emails, or shar­ing their views, even while know­ing I write for the news­pa­pers.

I con­tinue to hope, how­ever, that with a lit­tle imag­i­na­tion, and in­creased in­ter­est be­cause of the prom­i­nent news cov­er­age of the protests, that more might step out of their co­coons of en­trenched at­ti­tudes to see and feel what ex­ces­sive and un­nec­es­sary police vi­o­lence looks like to some­one on the re­ceiv­ing end.

Which is why I’m putting this down on pa­per, to help crack open those co­coons. Ex­pose every­thing to light.

Be­cause though racism seems more stub­born and in­cur­able than a global virus, I have wit­nessed changes among white peo­ple my age, whose life­long bi­ases have been chal­lenged and then re­lin­quished be­cause of the more com­pas­sion­ate be­hav­ior and be­liefs of the younger gen­er­a­tion, as rep­re­sented by their own chil­dren whom they love, and to whom, there­fore, they more will­ingly lis­ten. David McGrath is emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor of English at the Col­lege of DuPage and the author of a new col­lec­tions of es­says, “South Siders,” about life in Chicago and the Mid­west. He can be reached at mc­grathd@dupage.edu.


Protesters ap­plaud while lis­ten­ing to speak­ers dur­ing the One Mil­lion Man March rally in June at Da­ley Plaza.

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