White Amer­i­cans must shake rooted views of race to achieve change

Daily Southtown (Sunday) - - OPINION - David McGrath

I feel slightly trai­tor­ous, like a dou­ble agent re­lay­ing se­crets, in writ­ing about what some of my friends re­ally think about the Black Lives Mat­ter protests.

One, for ex­am­ple, re­cently emailed 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 both he and the group to which he mails them be­lieve any­thing is fair game for hu­mor. Dis­agree­ment with that be­lief con­sti­tutes a silly sur­ren­der to po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness.

I re­sponded that his car­toon im­plies Chau­vin’s slow, tor­tur­ous as­phyx­i­a­tion of Ge­orge Floyd was not re­ally that bad, and peo­ple do not re­ally have to worry about it. He sub­se­quently sent the same joke, but one in which a mixed race cou­ple was fea­tured in­stead.

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 plead­ing, in­stead, for an end to po­lice tak­ing in­no­cent lives. He replied 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 friends and rel­a­tives who were po­lice of­fi­cers to as­sure them he ap­pre­ci­ated what they did on the job and strongly dis­agreed with the ugly things be­ing writ­ten and said about law en­force­ment. The whole sys­tem should not be painted as dys­func­tional be­cause of a few bad ap­ples, he said.

He did not men­tion Ge­orge Floyd. Noth­ing about the 8-minute, cold-blooded bru­tal­ity of Chau­vin or about the fam­ily Floyd left be­hind.

All three men are kind, smart and dy­namic per­son­al­i­ties, long in­volved in re­li­gious and com­mu­nity char­i­ties. We’ve de­bated racial mat­ters for years.

Other white ac­quain­tances have ex­pressed the be­lief that young Black men would not be bru­tal­ized or killed by po­lice if they sim­ply stayed out of trou­ble the way they them­selves do. When Black men are stopped by po­lice on the drive home from work or from a party on a Satur­day night or af­ter shop­ping at the mall in the mid­dle of the af­ter­noon, they would be safe as long as they were po­lite and co­op­er­a­tive.

I had ex­pected that some would have done some read­ing and learned, 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 Univer­sity study that de­ter­mined Black peo­ple are up to 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 con­sider them­selves racists and they have no com­punc­tions about shar­ing their views.

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

Be­cause even though racism seems more stub­born and in­cur­able than a global virus, I have wit­nessed changes in some of my con­tem­po­raries in their 60s and 70s. Their life­long bi­ases have been chal­lenged by the more com­pas­sion­ate be­hav­ior and be­liefs of the younger gen­er­a­tion, some of whom are their own chil­dren to whom they more will­ingly lis­ten.

David McGrath is an emer­i­tus English pro­fes­sor at the Col­lege of DuPage and the au­thor of “South Siders,” a re­cently com­pleted col­lec­tions of col­umns on life in the Mid­west. mc­grathd@dupage.edu


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