‘Do something’: Confessions of a reformed Rebel

October 12, 2020 12:01 am

Stores on Cary Street were boarded up amid ongoing protests in Richmond in June. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury

A Black Lives Matter flag flies proudly in my front yard.

I’ve become estranged from people I’ve known forever for insisting that monuments to Confederate figures come down and that peaceful protests over the slayings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and other unarmed Black people were not only justified but righteous and overdue.

I cheered from afar this summer as Mississippi retired the Confederate battle emblem from the flag of a state that was my home long ago and home to my alma mater, Ole Miss. The rebel flag once served as the university’s spirit symbol, exhorting its sports teams — still named Rebels — onward to victory, but I had since come to regard it as America’s swastika.

Yep, I felt pretty damn woke.

Then, a little over a week ago, a young person I love gave me a painful reality check on racism, challenging me to examine my deepest feelings and motivations, and to educate myself accordingly. 

It hurts to be called out like that. I thought the accusation unfounded. On the defensive, I mentally inventoried all my aforementioned woke accomplishments. 

After the heat of the moment had dissipated and denial loosened its grip, I did what I do when I make my best decisions — I listened to my wife. Rather than preach about my own piety, she said, ask questions and listen to the responses. Rather than hide behind my pride, practice a little empathy (she’s huge on empathy) and consider the other person’s experience and point of view.

That sort of critical self-review is essentially a failsafe practice of good journalism — asking yourself, “What if I’m wrong?” Over four decades, I did that countless times, always to my salvation, before a horrifying mistake seven years ago.

Clearly, I can be — and have been — wrong.

So I began doing something else journalists do: research and reporting. Was I actually racist? (Some researchers in the field say that if you have to ask the question, you are, and if you don’t ask the question, then you are.) What are the subtle manifestations of racism? And if I learn that I am a racist, what’s the remedy?

I found dozens of purported racism diagnostic tests online, and responded to the most straightforward and telling that I could find by Fordham University African American studies professor Mark Naison. Had I ever assumed that a Black person was naturally a better athlete than I? (Yes.) Am I surprised to meet a Black person whose writing or speech is exquisite? (No. Brilliance comes in all colors.) Had I ever felt anxious encountering a group of Black men walking toward me on a street? (Guilty.)

Those feelings are not uncommon, Naison says in the same interview, because every American has been suffused in the anti-Black attitudes and defamations that permeate our culture. Some more than others.

I was born into the Jim Crow South as the civil rights movement dawned — two months after Emmett Till was lynched in Money, Mississippi, and a little over a month before Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus to a White passenger. From my earliest awareness, the N-word was the default term among most Whites in our community for a Black person regardless of age or gender. Through my first six years of public school, my classmates were all White. When I enrolled in college and played football alongside the school’s first African American player, pockmarks from bullets still scarred the columns of Ole Miss’s iconic Lyceum building from deadly riots 11 years earlier when federal troops and U.S. marshals assured James Meredith’s enrollment as the first Black student. After college, my first journalism job was editing a weekly newspaper in the same Mississippi county where Till was killed 23 years before.

Much as I long to shed it, that baggage weighs heavily.

Alabama-born Wornie Reed stared virulent racism squarely in the eye as a young Black man. Now 82 and a leading scholar on issues of race and racism as director of the Race and Social Policy Center at Virginia Tech, he still considers himself an activist focused chiefly on ways that racism afflicts people of color through social and governmental systems. He also serves on the steering committee of the Montgomery County Dialogue on Race.

“We all have those kinds of things about perceptions of other people. It’s just that sometimes, some Whites may slip and say it whereas some non-Whites would tend not to,” he said.

Changing society one heart at a time would take centuries, Reed said. More urgent and effective, he and Naison agree, is dismantling the systemic racism that continues disadvantaging Black people through inequities in policing and criminal justice, educational opportunities, housing and home ownership, access to capital and health care to name a few. 

Put another way, racism is as racism does.

“I always argue that a more fruitful way to go about this is to deal with a specific racial issue and not a person’s orientation. In other words, you may say, ‘Did you know …’ or ‘What do you think about …,’” he said. He made the same point in a 2015 TEDx Talk. “But I think the emphasis should always be on the racist act, and you should choose one that is substantive and consequential.”

The country abounds with them now, and the trends are worsening, he said.

“I argue that we are worse off now than we were 50 years ago when Dr. King was killed, and I can provide the data to support my argument,” he said.

For instance, his data show that if Blacks died at the same rate in America as Whites, there would be 70,000 to 100,000 fewer Black deaths a year. The data show that Blacks comprise 20 percent of Virginia’s population and about the same proportion of people involved in illegal drugs, yet they represented 75 percent of those imprisoned for it in 2010. One out of every three African American males can count on entering the criminal justice system by age 30, he said.

So where do I fit in? How do I find and root out my own residual racism and, in the process, do some good?

“I propose that the discussion should go around these instead of saying that you need to look inside yourself and change,” Reed said. “No, don’t change. Just get a little upset about these concrete racial issues and do something.”

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]