I am a 63-year-old white racist. You might not think so if you knew me. However, every morning when I look in the mirror that is exactly who I see starring back at me. I do not write these words with any sense of pride—only with brutal honesty. My friends, even my wife, do not think of me in these terms because from the outside I appear to be nothing more than a “regular guy”. Perhaps a bit more political than most, but surely no racist.
I was born into a liberal Democratic family and my political beliefs have driven me further left as I have aged. I read the Biography of Malcom X in high school and then in college the works W.E.B. Du Bois, Fredrick Douglas, Frantz Fanon, and James Baldwin. I have been a subscriber to the Nation for over 20 years (it is the oldest weekly in our country that started as an abolitionist paper).
I fell deeply in love with jazz before I was 12. That meant Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Lee Morgan, John and Alice Coltrane, Abbey Lincoln, Quincy Jones and Art Blakey—to name just a few of the black artist I fell in love with—were the musical sound track of my youth rather than rock and roll.
In high school, I supported the Soledad Brothers not only because Jonathan Jackson was a classmate I knew but because I believed it was the righteous thing to do. Most of the people I look up to as courageous heroes, to this day, are again a list of mostly black men who, more often than not, were killed long before their time—Malcom X, Fred Hampton, Medgar Evers, Bobby Seal and women too.
I attended UCLA two years after the dismissal of Angela Davis and she too has been a hero of mine, as have Elaine Brown and Eartha Kitt, who I had the pleasure of working with for a short time; all women of uncommon courage and intelligence.
At this point you are probably wondering where it was that I became a racist. The sad truth is that I was one all that time and remain one today. Lets be clear about one thing right now. I hate racism and all it represents. However, I would be a complete fool not to recognize the virus that swims in my very DNA. It’s there when someone cuts me off in traffic, acts in a way I find offensive or appears not to know “their place.” It is the default reaction that happens without thinking and many times with clear intent as well.
Pasadena in the 60’s was still very racially segregated and the attitudes from my world taught me that to see someone black in “our” neighborhood should be a cause for fear and anger.
You see, I was born in Pasadena, California. Until I reached high school, I largely attended all-white schools. As I came of age, black people were still considered less than human and of an inferior caliber by almost all the adults around me. Sure, none of those adults would have ever considered their attitudes or beliefs racist in any way. But Pasadena in the 60’s was still very racially segregated and the attitudes from my world taught me that to see someone black in “our” neighborhood should be a cause for fear and anger. I lost count of the times I was to hear the refrain “they are moving in.”
The summer after 8th grade, my sister and I took the bus that stopped in front of my grandmother’s home where we lived at the time. For a dime, we rode the entire circuit, which took us thru the “black part” of town for the very first time. We both were amazed that “they” had their own stores, movie theaters, beauty salons and even billboards. We also became aware of the how much more impoverished everything was. Perhaps that was the first time I began to think in terms like “us” and “them”—as if we were a breed apart.
Shortly thereafter the Watts riots occurred. As the carnage progressed, we watched the fires burn on TV. My stepfather, at the time, after the second night of unrest, bought a cheap rifle (the exact same model that Oswald was said to have shot Kennedy) “just in case.” As I listened to the adults comment on the riots, all I heard was their fear of the animal depravity and sheer stupidity of a people willing to burn their own homes and businesses. What the causes or reasons for the unrest were not discussed, other than the August heat.
As the Civil Rights struggle was in ascendancy, I heard from those same adults, parents, teachers and priests that patience was required from Negros. True equality could only come with more time; always more time. That things could not, and should not, happen overnight. And that the very rights and privileges I took for granted as an 11-year-old white boy, from an all-white neighborhood and all-white schools needed to be “earned”. The message was loud and clear to my young ears: “Let the good Negros have a chance to prove themselves to “us” but the niggers be damned!”
How could I not end up a racist? Everything that surrounded me in my all-white schools and on my all-white TV trained me in overt and subtle ways to think of myself as somehow superior simply because of my lack of melanin.
In college I took a psychology class. One weekend, for the extra credit, I took part in an experiment at The Fuller Seminary across town from Pasadena City College. That experiment was a revamping of the famous Stanley Milgram study on obedience and submission to authority. This experiment calls for three people—a participant (me), someone that I met at the start of the class who I was led to believe was another college student seeking in extra credit and a man in a suit running the show. During this experiment, the other student was out of sight in another room . However, I had witnessed him being strapped in a chair with electrodes attached to various parts of his body.
Once the experiment was underway, I could not see him but I could hear him clearly through headphones. The man in the suit told me that I was to ask a series of questions and when the answer was incorrect I was to administer a shock.
Each incorrect answer required that I give shocks of greater and greater intensity. The end result is that I killed the other participant. Not only that, I tortured him before I killed them.
The only thing the man in the suit told me as I progressed was “The test required that I continue”. However, in the end I was informed that the entire thing was a ruse. The other “student” was part of the test, only pretending to be first in excruciating pain and then dead. Prior to this event I considered myself a rebel, an iconoclast. Someone who would never just follow the rules. Someone who knew what I was and the things I would and would not stand for. How wrong I was!
Afterwards I was informed that I simply did what over two thirds of all participants did. That we have been taught since birth to obey authority. When I shared this experience with my friends and relatives, nearly all of them said the same thing “I never would have done that. Never!”
Racism is just like that. Ask any white person you know if they are a racist and the answer you will get is, more than likely “Me? I’m not a racist! Never!”
Martin King wrote in his last book “To live with the pretense that racism is a doctrine of a very few is to disarm us in fighting it frontally as scientifically, morally and socially destructive. The prescription for the cure rests with the accurate diagnosis of the disease.”
Well, I am here to tell you that each and every day I look in the mirror I see a racist looking back. I know as a diabetic does what is in my system waiting to pollute my mind. Each and every day.
I call myself a racist simply because I never wish to be its victim by falling back to the default position I have been bred to. If you are white in America it, more than likely, is the same default position for you as well.
I truly believe that Black Lives Matter. Perhaps I might have put it differently by simply adding the adverb “too”. That way it might have stopped the “Hey man, White Lives matter or Blue Lives matter!” nonsense. Perhaps not. Of course, all lives matter. However, in America there is a difference that cannot be denied. If, as a white man, I am pulled over by the police I will be considering its impact on my life in a very different way than every Black or Brown Man, Woman and Child. To me it will be an annoyance that may require a day in court or a fine. If you are a person of color it could be the last day of your life. That is a simple fact in America today!
So, what is to be done? People of color do not need white friends to tell them that they have it rough. Of one thing, I am certain; they already know that. They certainly do not need white people to tell them how to solve their problem, because it is not their problem, it is ours! The problem is what, we as a society, choose to allow to happen over and over again to our black and brown citizens.
What I do believe that white people of good conscience can do is to first recognize the mote in our own eye. Regardless of how deeply it is buried or how honorably we may think we act, we need to recognize that our “privilege” has always come at someone else’s expense.
Racism is found in the bedrock of America. Each group of immigrants has had to face it. However, no group has faced it to the degree or in the ongoing manner that has beset black American’s. Our forbearers came by choice and not unwillingly as personal chattels as our black brother’s and sister’s ancestors did. None of our forbearers were subjected to the cruelties of slavery, which lasted for over 250 years. White Americans were never considered less than human. However, until the enactment of the 14thAmendment as stated in law by the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision, slaves were 3/5 of a human beingfor legal purposes; less than human. Although all this was long ago there are still far-reaching and lasting effects today.
If you really want Black Lives to matter as much as society does white lives, white people need to talk to all our white friends, relatives, business associates or anyone with whom we come in contact. We need to tell them that prejudice is what we inflict on others. That this is “our problem”. That nothing can change for the better until “we change”. That it is our behavior and actions that need to change, not the behavior or actions of our black sisters and brothers. We all need to be aware that freedom and equality are merely privilege extended unless they are shared by us all equally.
“If you really want to make America Great, if you truly believe in equality and if, you too, believe, as I do, that Black Lives Matter, you start by looking in your own mirror each and every day and recognize the racist that looks back at you and tell him or her “Not today or ever again!”
Vincent De Stefano