Philando Castile and I share birthdays in July. This year, I celebrated mine with friends and family. But Castile’s friends and family are mourning his death, killed by a police officer in the St. Paul, Minnesota, suburbs after he was pulled over for a broken taillight.
He would have been 33. I am decades older — older now, in fact, than my own father when he died.
And I am white.
My mother was from central Texas and my father from western New York, about 115 miles southwest of the small upstate town where I grew up. Their geographically disparate marriage was a product of the World War II disruptions that found men and women marrying people they met from far away instead of the boy or girl next door.
Part of my Texas grandfather’s family had come there from Alabama and I’m sure that if I dug deep enough into the genealogy, I would find Confederate veterans and very possibly slaveholders. My mother occasionally claimed that at least one family member had been in the KKK, but I have no idea whether it was true or simply said to shock her damn Yankee children.
Visiting relatives in Texas as a boy in the early 1960s, I remember seeing whites-only drinking fountains and restrooms in a local department store. I watched the civil rights struggle of the ‘60s on TV and in the papers: George Wallace standing in the door at the University of Alabama to keep two African-American students from enrolling; three young men disappearing during the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964; the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery; the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Jack and Bobby Kennedy.
Growing up in rural New York State, there was none of the overt public segregation I’d seen in Texas. Tolerance was taught at home, church and school. We even read Richard Wright’s Native Son and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man in English class. But for the kids in my hometown, “The Talk” you had with your parents was about the birds and bees, not about how to behave when stopped by a policeman.
And discrimination was there, all right. Racial stereotypes too often flourished and crude jokes were told. The very few black families were middle-class; many, if not most, of them were professionals at the veterans’ hospital there, successful and upwardly mobile. Even so, there were whispers of efforts to keep African-American families from moving into certain white neighborhoods, whispers loud enough that even a youngster like me could hear.
I moved to Washington, DC, to go to school a year and a half after riots had burned the city in the wake of the King assassination. The capital was majority African-American then, but still I lived in white neighborhoods and contact and communication were rarer than they should have been. I moved to New York and worked as publicist on the public affairs show Black Journal and handled press for such African-American filmmakers as Bill Miles. When I got into television production, I worked with many men and women of color. Friendships were formed.
None of it has been enough, for there are two things I know. First, as hard as I might try, I can never ever understand what it is like to be black in America, can never know what it’s like to be discriminated against or abused or pulled over and hassled, maybe even killed, just because of the color of my skin.
Writing in The Atlantic about last week’s murders of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling and five white Dallas police officers, Ta-Nehisi Coates notes:
“…Wanton discrimination is definitional to the black experience, and very often it is law enforcement which implements that discrimination with violence. A community consistently subjected to violent discrimination under the law will lose respect for it, and act beyond it. When such actions stretch to mass murder it is horrific. But it is also predictable.”
So I can condemn the murder of innocent black men and white police officers but have damn little, if any, right to pass judgment on or criticize those peaceably struggling to overcome centuries of racism, except to be supportive and try when I can or when I’m asked to do what I can to help.
Second, I know that no matter how liberal or progressive I profess to be, no matter how successfully, how diligently I seek to be enlightened and nuanced in my understanding of the world and those around me, I know that there still is a tiny, virulent nugget, a germ of prejudice that exists deep within me — the product of those stereotypes and awful jokes of childhood and adolescence, and that it must always be powerfully held at bay by reason, understanding and love.
That is why it is so frightening to see how in others that vein of hatred has been exposed and encouraged to grow strong again by the candidacy of Donald Trump and far too many of his supporters. Nicholas Confessore reports in The New York Times:
“In countless collisions of color and creed, Donald J. Trump’s name evokes an easily understood message of racial hostility… passions aroused and channeled by Mr. Trump take many forms, from earnest if muddled rebellion to deeper and more elaborate bigotry.
“… [O]n the flatlands of social media, the border between Mr. Trump and white supremacists easily blurs. He has retweeted supportive messages from racist or nationalist Twitter accounts to his 9 million followers… In fact, Mr. Trump’s Twitter presence is tightly interwoven with hordes of mostly anonymous accounts trafficking in racist and anti-Semitic attacks. When Little Bird, a social media data mining company, analyzed a week of Mr. Trump’s Twitter activity, it found that almost 30 percent of the accounts Mr. Trump retweeted in turn followed one or more of 50 popular self-identified white nationalist accounts.”
And now Trump makes the outrageous and completely unfounded claim that Black Lives Matter and other activists held a moment of silence for Micah Johnson, the murderer of the Dallas policemen. “The other night you had 11 cities potentially in a blow-up stage,” Trump lied to an Indiana rally on Wednesday. “Marches all over the United States — and tough marches. Anger. Hatred. Hatred! Started by a maniac! And some people ask for a moment of silence for him. For the killer!” Trump’s demagoguery, appeal to white fear and not-so-subtle incitement to violence at its worst.
The mind reels, the heart and soul cry out. Events of the last few days have brought to the forefront a mix of issues both profound and perplexing, from race in America and extremist politics to the nature of law and order, the militarization of the police and the gun violence that kills both police and innocent bystanders of every color and creed. What I do know is this: to quote former President George W. Bush, of all people, when he spoke at Tuesday’s interfaith service for the slain Dallas policemen, “Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions, and this has strained our bonds of understanding and common purpose.”
And I think I know a big reason why Black Lives Matter: because for far too long they have mattered too little or not at all. Amends must be made and attention must be paid. Now.