I’m sorry … I’m listening now
I am a white woman who wants to engage in meaningful conversation on the challenges faced by Black Americans and what must happen next.
As I began to research the experiences of Black Americans, I discovered much I already know and much, much more that I didn’t know. The stories of everyday Black Americans are especially shocking.
Then I remembered a January 2017 incident when members of a white supremacist group plastered posters in several Texas State University buildings threatening, among others, Black faculty. At a department-wide meeting, talk turned to the posters. It was gut-wrenching. A Black professor, clearly upset, left the auditorium and I followed her. Through the tears, her anger and fear and pain were palpable. I embraced her and said over and over, “It’s not all of us.”
I now realize I should have said, “I’m sorry.” I’m sorry the legacy of hatred and discrimination persists. I’m sorry our institutions still treat you as “other” and unworthy. I’m sorry I haven’t heard you. I do now.
America began as an inspiring experiment. Our Founders expressed grand aspirations, that all men are created equal with rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
But America’s experiment began with a tragic flaw: the bondage of one race to another. We ripped millions of Africans from their homes, shipped them across the ocean and dehumanized them, making it acceptable to own, beat, rape and murder them.
Bryan Stevenson, director of the Equal Justice Initiative, said in a recent New Yorker interview, “The great evil of American slavery … was the fiction that black people … aren’t the equals of white people, and are less evolved, less human, less capable, less worthy, less deserving than white people. That ideology of white supremacy was necessary to justify enslavement, and it is the legacy of slavery that we haven’t acknowledged.”
This assertion of superiority has been ingrained since America’s founding. Our Constitution rendered a slave three-fifths of a person. The 1857 Dred Scott decision held that slaves are property. After the abolition of slavery, Blacks remained captives of the Black Codes and Jim Crow laws restricting their access to education, jobs, commerce, public services, and voting. They were arrested and re-enslaved under convict leases; they were terrorized and murdered by the Klan and angry White mobs. Despite laws overturning discriminatory practices, Blacks still faced often insurmountable obstacles in search of their promised life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.
Black Americans shouldered much of the burden of building this country while Whites owned and then controlled them for centuries. Blacks were not afforded the opportunities that Whites had to build and benefit from the institutions that help determine family, social, educational, business, and electoral success.
Thus, the obstacles persist. There are stark differences in poverty, voting access, pre- and post-trial incarceration, income, health care access, school funding, bank loans, and many other indicators. A “black ceiling” exists for head coaches, CEOs and elected officials. Even when we elected a Black president in 2008, many sought to delegitimize him by claiming he was not born here.
I believe we have not yet reckoned with the enduring harm of white supremacy. Age-old discrimination laid the groundwork for the formidable obstacles Blacks still face in almost all aspects of American life.
I’m working to listen with an open mind and compassionate heart to appreciate their anger, fear, and pain. I’m listening to what Blacks feel when they see monuments honoring those who fought to keep their ancestors enslaved; when driving a luxury car or being in the “wrong” neighborhood can lead to trouble; when they must give “the talk” to their children. It seems every Black American has a story that would never happen to me. I can’t get defensive. I need to respectfully listen and accept their truth.
We can never eradicate individual racism – though a very small minority, there will always be racists among us. The larger and more relevant concern is the inherent racism that roils under the surface of our society. We must address it and I believe the first steps are learning and listening.
We need to follow Black Americans as they guide us to action that will lead to a more perfect union.
We need to work with the Black community to enact laws and initiate programs that will move America closer to its founding aspirations.
It is time.