Three days after George Floyd’s unjustified murder in Minneapolis, I read a frustrated plea from a fellow teacher at Western High School in Baltimore City where I teach tenth grade English. The email’s subject line, “Trigger warning,” captured the pain and frustration of my colleague who wrote: “As we are inundated with the unavoidable and caustic issues of race right now, I can’t stop crying for my sons and grandsons…[T]he silence is DEAFENING!” I read her words, which referred to the silence within the school community, from the safety and comfort of the book-strewn den in my Washington, D.C. suburban home, and reflected on why I had felt more comfortable in that silence than frustrated by it.
I had had recent conversations with my students about race and racism during our coverage of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s 2015 book, Between the World and Me, a nonfiction account of living as an African American in America. But clearly, I had not said enough. Clearly, my words and questions had been too narrow. Clearly, I did not feel the same pain as my African American colleagues, although I recognized it, having experienced, first-hand, sharp anti-Semitism, another form of discrimination, as a boy. But even as I recognized the injustice of Floyd’s death, I did not know what more to say.
I knew the pain my colleague felt I did not share, at least not in the same way. My two sons and daughter do not have to risk their lives when they choose to jog in an upscale neighborhood, stop their car to ask a police officer for assistance, or happen to walk down the street near the vicinity of a crime. But there was something deeper that seemed to restrict my ability to speak within the school community, the feeling that any outrage in the unjustness I recognized would better come from an African American.
I turned again to my colleague’s email and read the note from another outraged educator in the email trail below it: “If you are a white educator or white school leader who CHOSE to serve black or brown students, [u]se your ‘privilege’ to make a difference. Your silence is not appreciated. Your ignorance to the injustices black people are facing is NOT appreciated. Your excuse of ‘I don’t know what to say, how to respond, or how to be part of the solution” is NOT appreciated.” In that moment, the fallacy of my silence became more apparent, and, as I compared the painful reactions of my African American colleagues with my own, I was struck by a blindness that had engulfed me my whole life.
After decades practicing law in downtown Washington, D.C., after a summer training in implicit bias and educational inequity, after three years teaching in an urban school, I had not missed the fact that the discrimination, the exclusion from privilege, the injustices against African Americans has and continues to occur. But I had thought, had wanted to think, had chosen to believe, that this horrible and unjust treatment was isolated to certain people, not endemic of all people with black, brown, and red skin.
I was raised to believe that anyone can attain the privileges of power and money from hard work, education, and the resulting accumulation of some wealth. Certainly, many African Americans have achieved great academic and professional success, including economic gain. But until now, I had wrongfully viewed the lack of success of many people as solely the result of what I perceived to be their lack of education, marketable skills, or willingness to work hard. I had discounted the impact of institutional racism and inequities that tilt the playing field.
Living as a boy in Manhattan, as well as growing up and attending school in Connecticut and Pennsylvania, I had heard political leaders talk about law and order in America without thinking about the hundred and fifty years of systematic racism and oppression since the abolition of slavery in 1865. The hundreds of years of oppression against African Americans before then seemed too remote even to consider.
During the first three years of Trump’s presidency, I had discounted the president’s not so subtle “dog whistle” references in campaign-type speeches to the racist impulses of the president as only one person within his party. I had not understood the historical context, for example, the similarity between Republican positions today and the Nixon Southern Strategy in the early 1970s, or between the Nixon strategy of the 1970s and the segregation and other bigotry of the 1950s.
As a result, I had viewed the unjust murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Eric Garner, Renisha McBride, Freddie Gray, John Crawford and Tamir Rice, as well as Amy Cooper’s weaponization of racism in a call to police from Central Park as horrible but isolated examples of racism. I had failed to see the lie, both within myself and within our country.
But the truth about America, tarnished by slavery and centuries of racial bigotry, the truth, jaded by decades of recent material abundance by so many, is that African Americans and white Americans live in two different worlds. For the longest time, I had failed to recognize that such a statement served not as evidence of racism but rather as an indictment against it.
The difference in these worlds is ingrained within institutions, such as the criminal justice system, education funding, housing policy, and the implicit biases of people with decision-making power throughout society. The comparison between police restraint in Wisconsin when faced with armed whites protesting the lawful exercise of state power in early May and police tear gas and riot gear in Minnesota when faced with angry Blacks protesting the unlawful exercise of excess police force the day after George Floyd’s murder is striking.
Accepting the charge of my African American colleagues to speak and recognizing the privileges I have enjoyed during my sixty-five years, it seems clear now that America was built upon a white lie, the lie that its laws and freedoms stem from natural law, that its foundation is anchored in the concreteness of God-given rights and morality. None of that seems true, unless—unless we can exorcise the crime of slavery and the immorality of institutional racism from the legacy of the American Dream, unless we can regain the unified spirit of the Constitution.
Clearly, radical reforms of laws and attitudes are needed. But white Americans like me, those who condemn racism and understand the operation of implicit biases, must recognize the lie many of us have chosen to believe—that the laws and government institutions of this country can and do operate to protect most people equally, fairly, and justly, that the problem of institutional racism does not extend everywhere, that the problem is limited only to some bad actors. Our willingness as white Americans to cling to that lie remains part of the problem.
Doug Canter, a retired attorney, teaches World Literature at Western High School in Baltimore City. Doug received a Master of Arts in Non-Fiction Writing from Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C. His writing has appeared in Hedge Apple Magazine, Evansville Review, Talking Writing, 20-Something Magazine, and Public Utilities Fortnightly, among others, as well as on the websites of the American Bar Association, Discovery Channel Tech, and Danya Institute. When he is not teaching English or writing, Doug is walking the local trails on the C&O Canal near the Potomac River.