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Sunday, August 25, 2013
A few years ago, a black friend told me a story about working the polls with an older white woman from one of Roanoke’s more well-to-do neighborhoods. They chatted politely for a while, and then the subject of race came up. My friend said the woman told her how happy she was that the civil rights movement was over and done with, that black people have the same rights and opportunities as whites, and that we can all move beyond that ugly period in our history.
My friend was dumbfounded. She had moved to Roanoke as a child to live with relatives in the 1960s, when the county she lived in closed the public schools rather than integrate them. Being separated from her parents had a life-long impact on her, and although she now holds down a professional position, has a nice home and the kind of life her parents and grandparents could only have dreamed of, she does not see the world through the same rose-colored glasses.
When I asked how she felt about the outcome of the Trayvon Martin case, she shrugged and said, “I expected it.” When I expressed relief that there hadn’t been much violence over the verdict, she said: “What’s the point?” But behind the seeming nonchalance, I detected anger and the frustration that goes with feeling helpless to do anything about something that felt so wrong
There are plenty of white people in this country who think the civil rights struggle is over and it doesn’t concern us, and perhaps we can be forgiven for that because it doesn’t affect every aspect of our lives. But as civil rights activist Barry Rosenberg said in a recent interview in Smithsonian Magazine about Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech during the March on Washington 50 years ago this week, “[i]t was not a speech for African-Americans alone; it was a speech for America, for all of us. If you were an oppressor, you’re not free.”
But who are the oppressors? In those days, it was pretty clear — the police who gassed and clubbed peaceful demonstrators, the officials who ordered fire hoses turned on innocent men, women and children, the politicians who kept people from the polls, the ordinary citizens who screamed at little girls who just wanted to go to school.
Today, there are millions of people in this country who weren’t even born during the civil rights movement; whose ancestors immigrated here after the abolition of slavery. Some even suggest that white people are the ones who are being discriminated against now, and our Supreme Court recently decided it was time to water down the Voting Rights Act.
But if things have changed that much, why is there such a disconnect between the way white Americans and black Americans view our country? Although we may have changed our laws and our customs, many of us haven’t changed our minds and hearts. And by not changing our minds and hearts, we become our own oppressors.
If you fear or despise an entire group of people without regard to the individuals who make up the group, you are not free. If you clutch your purse or lock your doors when young black men approach, you are not free. If you deny yourself the use of restaurants, swimming pools and other public facilities because black people use them, too, you are not free. If you stubbornly cling to the belief that our president embodies everything you fear about race, non-Americans and religion — despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary — you are not free. If you believe the simple act of openly discussing the subject of race makes you a bigot, then you are not free. And if you are otherwise well-meaning but make the mistake of assuming that because something doesn’t affect you, it doesn’t affect anyone else, you are not free.
The truth is, each of us — black or white — has a personal story to tell about the racism that is such a part of the fabric of our society — even those who would call people hurtful names and attach labels to them, rather than have an actual discussion.
No matter how much we might wish it were not so, the conversation is not over until there is nothing left to say. And we are not nearly there yet.
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