White America Can’t Let This Go

Today, I didn’t want to write about the ongoing issues regarding race that are enveloping our country at the moment. I wanted to write a much lighter piece about our family selling a vehicle that we’ve owned for 16 years. But talking about anything other than the death of George Floyd, the current state of race relations in America and the desperate need for institutional change in our country just seems wrong.

Which I suppose it the whole point, isn’t it? As a white American, if I get down or depressed or stressed out about the plight of African-Americans in our country, I can just choose to not think about it anymore. I can focus on something else. The color of my skin allows me to leave those overwhelming problems behind.

Which is why for decades nothing has changed.

I can tell myself that I’m not racist. I truly do believe I’m not. I certainly try not to be. I’ve empathized with African-American families who have lost loved ones to police brutality, but I’ve also been guilty of becoming judgmental when negative aspects of the victim’s life come out. I have to admit to having thoughts of, “Well, maybe he did something to deserve this. I mean, he’s barely in his early twenties and he already has an extensive police record.” If you’re white and reading this, be honest. Have you not had similar thoughts as well?

I’ve also found it easy to dismiss the plight of the African-American community when protests have turned to riots. I have, in the past, justified myself in moving on to other thoughts because if that is how those individuals feel about their own community, why should I get too worked up about it? I have my own problems. Which I would then move on to and forget about what day to day life might be like for people in this country with skin color that is different than my own.

Writing those two paragraphs makes me ashamed. It legitimately brings tears to my eyes because I have always thought of myself as a Christian person who wants to do good.

And at that same time, I know that my failures in this area do not define me in total. I really don’t believe I’m a bad person.

I’m just privileged. So privileged in fact that I have the luxury of not having to think about race problems.

A few years ago, I got pulled over crossing the San Carlos Apache Reservation. The Native American officer who pulled me over wasn’t a police officer. He was a tribal equivalent of a game and fish officer. He had been driving in front of me for several miles at a rate of speed that was at least ten miles below the posted speed limit. When the time arrived, I passed him legally and did not exceed the speed limit in doing so. He pulled me over anyway. He took my license without specifying what I had done wrong and left me sitting in my vehicle on the side of the road for over 10 minutes before returning to ask me what my hurry was. He then suggested I slow down. He never told me how fast he clocked me going. I’m not sure he had the equipment in his vehicle necessary to do so. He just stopped me because he felt I was going too fast and he had lights on top of his truck that gave him the power to do so.

It was extremely frustrating. I whined and moaned about that experience for weeks and declared I would never stop for any law enforcement on the reservation again. My attitude was that if tribal cops wanted to call ahead and have me stopped by “regular” law enforcement, I would be happy to deal with them.

Now, after two days of reading account after account of African-American men who have been pulled over, detained and harassed-simply because they match a description of being black-I feel pretty silly. For them, there’s no one to complain to. There is no “regular” law enforcement coming to help them in their search for justice.

They just have to take it.

And that has to stop.

The problem is, I feel powerless. What am I supposed to do? I am a pretty average white guy in rural Arizona. I have no power. I have no ability to enact change.

Except I do.

I am friendly with a number of people of color. I say friendly, because I worry about granting myself the designation of friend based on my lack of interest in what their American life experience has been. One of these people I have great respect for is a woman named Royce Hunt. She’s amazing. Yes, she never gets me the form I need on time for an annual event I oversee, but it is well known where I live that if you want someone committed to getting things done in our community, you call Royce. Over the years, we have talked on occasion about the struggles African-Americans face in society, but the truth is I could have listened more. I should have listened more without the prompting of national riots. Now, one concern I do have is that people of color are likely to be bombarded with people like me suffering from white guilt who suddenly want to know “their story.” I don’t know that forcing those conversations now is necessarily the answer either.

But what I can do is vote. And those are the conversations I can have. I don’t need to badger people who are different than me to share their most uncomfortable experiences. I’m certainly open to hearing them should they want to share them. But what might be more productive is talking to Royce, or talking to my brother who is Asian-American, or talking with many other voices I know about political issues. Issues that I think I understand, but maybe could understand better with added perspective from a person of color. I can then act on that information and add my voice at the ballot box to those who would make our country better for EVERYONE. I can vote for candidates who will fight for better funding for schools that teach predominately black and Latino students. I can vote for candidates who are willing to stand up and say we need to open up the hood on law enforcement in this country and seriously evaluate what we can do better. I can vote for candidates who recognize that statues of Confederate heroes are an abomination to entire communities within in our country. It’s not a culture issue, it’s a form of intimidation. We never erected a single statue honoring the Japanese pilots who bombed Pearl Harbor. So why would we recognize the men who committed treason against our nation and caused the death of over 400,000 loyal American military men just to protect the institution of slavery? We shouldn’t, and I can vote for candidates committed to tearing those abominable monuments down. And lastly, I can vote for issues I don’t even know about yet because to this point they have never affected me.

Bottom line, I can vote for a lot of things. And I can speak up on those issues and let others know why I am voting for those things. I can also be more compassionate. It’s not much, but it’s what I can do. It’s what I, as a privileged white American in the middle of nowhere, can do. And by doing that, I can go from being “not a racist” to being a person who is actively against racism. I believe it’s my duty as an American. But significantly of more importance, I believe it’s the answer to a question I try to ask myself everyday:

What Would Jesus Do?

Today, I believe He’d tell me that Black Lives Matter and to do what He would do if He were here.

So to the best of my ability, I will. I hope we all will. Because if we don’t, then we may have to acknowledge that America isn’t as great as we all think it is, and never was.