July 31, 2020
I was watching the funeral of civil rights icon John Lewis, thinking about how far we’ve moved forward and how far we’ve fallen back. You’ve expressed anger that I support the Black Lives Matter movement and that I have been showing up at the protests in downtown Portland. To someone your age, I would hope the images of anti-racist protestors being teargassed and beaten by police would remind you of similar images 55 years ago when John Lewis and civil rights protestors routinely suffered a similar fate. But you’re a white man and white men like us can pretend the racism that existed then has somehow magically disappeared.
You and mom brought me into a world that was in the last, most violent, days of Jim Crow. Born four months before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the month I was born Byron De La Beckwith was found not guilty of the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers because of hung jury while black men were still being hung from trees. Three months later, Martin Luther King, Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. I was born while America was trying to shake off the yoke of the white supremacist order, but our little white family was removed from the growing pains in our suburban home while black people marched, carrying signs that read, “I am a man.”
I often wonder what you, a 22-year-old white man, thought of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1964. Historians will tell you that a large percentage of white people considered him a “communist agitator.” Many fell in love with him after he was assassinated by a white supremacist in 1968. White people love a black icon when he’s dead. I certainly never heard his name in our house growing up or any need to show empathy for the victims of white supremacy. In 1972, we moved to Stone Mountain, Georgia, the birthplace of the modern Ku Klux Klan. I never heard anything about the terrorism and trauma they inflicted on our black neighbors. I just heard about how if black families move into the neighborhood, home values will go down. I heard that a lot.
I did learn some valuable life lessons from you in those days. As a Boy Scout, from a long line of Eagle Scouts, you gave me a mantra that has oriented me throughout my entire life – Leave the campsite better than you found it. That’s exactly what I’m doing and why I’m willing to put by body on the line to clean up this camp. So let me tell you how badly this camp is messed up.
I was born into a position of privilege which means a whole lot of people were disadvantaged. In February 1964, there were not yet systemic wins for the civil rights movement, the modern feminist movement, the gay rights movement, the disability rights movement, the Native American rights movement, or the migrant labor rights movement. Those wins were coming. But I was born into a world where the authority of white men like us was still unchallenged. I know, to you, it must seem like that world is long gone, but I can tell you it’s alive and well and Jim Crow has never ceased to exist.
The statistics would make your head spin, so let me just say that in 2020, in every single institution in America, black people still get screwed. From the criminal justice system, to hiring, to health care, to housing, institutional racism is alive and unleashed. And before you fall back on the “but Affirmative Action!” trope, let me tell you that I worked in an Affirmative Action office at my university. Affirmative Action in no way mandates the hiring of unqualified minorities and the primary beneficiaries of Affirmative Action have been white women and veterans. Believe me, Dad, I’ve heard every fake excuse in the world about how black people have it so much better than white people, yet I have yet to hear a single white person say they would gladly switch places with a black person in America.
So here’s why I support the Black Lives Matter movement. Because black lives don’t matter at the moment. African-Americans have been devalued and dehumanized for 600 years and it didn’t magically end because a law was passed in 1964. There is a mountain of evidence that teachers, cops, medical doctors, judges, and many others still treat people of color worse than people like you and I. You can argue the evidence, but you should try just talking to ANY black person about their DAILY experience with racism. And by talking, I mean shutting up and listening. Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism , asked a black man what it would be like to have a white person just sit and listen, without responding, to the true expression of what it means to be black in America. He answered, “It would be revolutionary.” I’m listening. You should, too. If you truly believed that “all lives matter,” you would, of course, agree with the belief that black lives matter, just like someone who believes that all trees matter agrees with someone who says, “Maple trees matter.”
You’ve told me that Portland is being burned down by “Antifa.” That statement is hilarious to anyone who actually lives in Portland. Of the thousands of people protesting, a handful have damaged a small area of the city. I have friends who are anti-fascist activists and I have friends who work in the Federal Courthouse downtown, and all have similar values. I would love to introduce you to my friends at the U.S. Attorney’s Office who work in the building that’s been surrounded by protestors every night. They support the Black Lives Matter movement, as do the scores of veterans, moms, doctors, lawyers, and black youth who have demanded justice in the streets of Portland for over two months. I know the internet and Sean Hannity want to tell you who the Black Lives Matter movement “really is,” but I can answer that. It’s all of us that are tired of centuries of the racist humanization of black people and want to find a way to change it. If you actually believe that all lives matter, you can be a part of the Black Lives Matter movement, too. You could be a powerful voice to help clean up this damn campsite.
But the main reason I support Black Lives Matter is because of the black kids in my neighborhood. They are my brown daughter’s best friends. They have already been disadvantaged by racism, including having parents arrested for things I should have been arrested for but my white skin got me off the hook. They live in a world where white is “normal,” including white heroes, white politicians, and white standards of beauty. Ask these little black girls which doll is the “pretty doll,” the white doll or the black doll and watch them pick the white doll every time. It has to end now. I will do everything in my power to prevent my daughter from growing up in a world where white is automatically viewed as better. There’s a term for that; white supremacy.
John Lewis was arrested over 45 times, trying bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice. That fight continues. I am honored to show up for that cause in a way that I wish more white people of your generation had done. Do you think the millions of African-Americans who are crying for black lives to matter are lying? Are grandstanding? Or want something for nothing? All three of those opinions would make you just another defender of white supremacy. Me, I’m doing what I can, even if is just quietly listening to black voices, to create an America that lives up to its value that all are created equal. And I have to do this work, in part, because you chose not to. I have to clean up our campsite. I hope you’ll get to see how wonderful it will be.