I am white…let me put that out there. Let me also put out there that I denounce the evil that was slavery, that I denounce judging people by the color of their skin, and that I denounce any philosophy that seeks to denigrate a segment of society solely on their race. Acts 17:26a says God “hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth…” Our blood is the same. We are the same…all of us–black, white, brown, red, yellow–internally bound by the material our Creator used to make us.
I am grieved by the state of race relations in this nation. I wish I could wave a magic wand and fix it. I am hoping this article is cathartic for me…and I hope it makes sense to others. I am sure my sentiments are shared by many. I am sure many others may disagree. That’s fine…at least it’s a dialogue.
Growing up in Maine, I wasn’t exposed to many black people, or people of any other color. Maine is (was) not known for its diversity of races. It still isn’t. I think there were maybe five black people in my high school of nearly 2000. My one year at the University of Maine-Farmington (UMF) wasn’t any more diverse than my high school.
At UMF I had some “black” friends. I don’t recall at the time that their skin color was something I took notice of, and it certainly didn’t leave a negative impression. I guess I just thought of them as people and treated them as such, as my father had raised me. They weren’t “token” black friends and they didn’t treat me any different because I was white. I say all of this to lay a foundation: I wasn’t the son of a racist, raised to be a racist, or grew up in an area known for racial strife. That racism existed was something I viewed with some perplexity.
My first opportunity to “relate” to people of other races came when I was 20, in Coast Guard basic training in Cape May, New Jersey. Military service was my first real opportunity to form any kind of bond with Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, or any number of other ethnic or racial groups. Heck, being from a French-Canadian Roman Catholic community, I think it was the first time I was exposed to someone who wasn’t a Catholic! Up to then, I had no experience relating to minorities. I had no basis to form an impression–positive or negative–let alone become a “racist.”
What I knew of “race relations” came from stories I had heard growing up, nearly all from my father. Dad was a Marine (1962-1966), and by that I mean “M.A.R.I.N.E.” I grew up hearing all kinds of stories about the Corps and Dad’s fellow Marines: stories from Parris Island, Camp LeJeune, Guantanamo Bay, The Cuban Missile Crisis, infantry field exercises, the rifle range, forced marches, and of friends he lost in Vietnam. I still remember Dad in front of the T.V. in the early 70’s, supper on his T.V. tray, watching the news about ‘Nam, because he still had friends there. Marines were color-blind, Dad always said, and I remember my military experience being the same.
One particular story Dad told me has stuck with me to this day. It was of a fellow Marine, a black man, who he served with, but I forget now where. As Dad tells the story, this black Marine had just heard that the Civil Rights of Act of 1964 had passed. Dad was not an emotional or sentimental man, which is probably why this story has stuck with me, but he was emotional when he told it.
In his telling of the story, Dad respected this fellow Marine, from Alabama if I remember right, because of his strength, commitment to duty, and commitment to his fellow Marines…the kind of guy you wanted in the foxhole with you. His color was of no consequence. He was, as Dad described him with no tone of disrespect, “Deep South Black” (whatever that meant), with a smile that lit up the room and a deep, hearty, and infectious laugh. I picture Michael Clarke Duncan whenever I think of this story.
As Dad related the story, when this man, whose name I was never told, heard that the Act had passed, he fell to his knees and cried. This was not just any crying, I remember Dad explaining. His shoulders heaved, his cheeks soaked with tears, and he sobbed uncontrollably for a time. Dad’s eyes filled with tears as he told it.
What could have caused this man, a man worthy of my father’s respect (which was difficult to earn from my father), the epitome of strength and courage, to break down like this? Though I never saw in person what my father was talking about, the image of this strong, muscular, “Deep South” black man, crying like that left a lasting impression on me and I never forgot it. I didn’t understand at the time–but I understand now–that for this man the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had declared what should have been self-evident to all: his rightful place in society–allowing him to assume his God-given station–as a man, not as a “race.” Having been denied that, the emotional weight of the relief he felt had broken him.
Flash forward to 2018. This past August I went to Gettysburg to tour the battlefields. The incident in Charlottesville had just happened and Confederate monuments were all people were talking about. As I toured the battlefields with my wife, battlefields that were soaked with the blood of Americans of all races and creeds, Blue and Gray, I noticed one thing that disturbed me. In three days touring those fields and visiting those monuments–Union and Confederate–I didn’t encounter ONE black person. That’s not to suggest they don’t visit, I just didn’t see any when I was there.
As I mused on this, it struck me like a punch in the stomach. It doesn’t really matter what you think of race relations in America today, or what you think of the slaves in bondage of yesterday. At one point in history, thousands of mostly white men stepped forward, left their homes and families, and picked up a rifle to end the scourge of slavery and free the “Negro.” Many men died, leaving their wives widows and their children orphans. Are they not worthy of some honor? A thank you, perhaps, from the descendants of the slaves they died to free? As a white man I ask, regardless of whatever work remains to strengthen the relationship between black and white, why is there no “Thank you” for those men?
Slavery was real. Racial oppression is real. Racism is real. I don’t know a white person who disputes that. But I look at the America my parents grew up in: segregated lunch counters, separate water fountains and bathrooms, separate schools, segregated sports leagues, and segregated military services–to name just some–and I look at how much has changed, I would argue for the better. Those things are gone, things my white parents–and other whites from their generation and generations before–labored alongside blacks to change. I also ask, “Where is their ‘Thank you?'”
I am not convinced the racial divide is a great as some would insist. I believe there is gratitude. I believe there is understanding and acceptance. But I also believe that there are sinister forces who would rather see us divided than united. Personally I believe, as Robert Kennedy said the night Martin Luther King was killed:
“We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times. We’ve had difficult times in the past, but we –and we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it’s not the end of disorder. But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land.”
I want to go back to my opening paragraph. I had a recent conversation about race relations. I expressed to this individual the sentiments I expressed in the beginning of this article. I was told I could believe all of those things, treat all men with the same respect without regard to their color, and advocate for those principles because “it was the right thing to do,” and still be racist. The insinuation was that I can be a racist and not know it.
My question is a serious one: if what I think in my heart, know in my head, and act in my life is not racist, how is it that I–or anyone else–can still be accused of being racist? I find that a very difficult place to start a dialogue.
We need to do better than that as a starting point. It is true we cannot change the past. But we should learn their lessons for a better future.