Entrenched attitudes of old white friends are not beyond change — or so I want to believe
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Protesters applaud while listening to speakers during the One Million Man March rally in June at Daley Plaza.