Being Racist

Wise County, Virginia Civil War Veterans in 1912.

We have to look at ourselves in the mirror and consider whether we are racist. It’s not easy to do in the best of circumstances.

Dictionaries consistently define a racist as someone who has a notion that one’s own ethnic stock or genetic makeup is superior.

Which is it, ethnicity or genetics that defines race?

The authority of dictionaries has diminished in society. There are few rules in the living language except we be understood. Haters gonna hate, as Taylor Swift noted, regardless what’s in the dictionary.

I was confronted with the idea there were different races as a child. It was and remains for me an idea. I knew I was different, but superior? I don’t think so. Diversity in the neighborhood in which I grew up meant defining whether one’s family was of German or Irish descent. Racism as we know it today, as in the Black Lives Matter Movement, wasn’t an obvious issue. We were shielded from racism and those blacks we encountered were in a context of their relationship with our father: plantation workers in Florida, co-workers at the meat packing plant, and fellow union members.

What are the genetic characteristics that define race? What cultural behaviors are specific to race? Should we care about race? These are the questions I’m asking while witnessing the resurgence of protests over race after the viral video of George Floyd’s murder.

Our family visited the Gettysburg battlefield when I was a grader. Which side of the Civil War was I on? I felt I had to be on a side. My maternal ancestors immigrated after the war and my paternal ones from Virginia fought on both sides. After a moving childhood visit to the battlefields I adopted the Confederacy as my own history and bought a Confederate flag in the museum gift shop.

We cannot disown our history even if we want or if our current values discredit the peculiar institution of 19th Century chattel slavery in the U.S. southern states. Thanks to the combined work of my fourth grade teacher and my mother I came to realize the racism inherent in embrace of the Confederacy, and that it was wrong. Before long, with their encouragement, I sought and found my own history.

I first encountered systemic racism while serving in the military. I paid little heed to the naming of military bases after notable racists Andrew Jackson and Henry Lewis Benning, where I trained in the U.S. Army. I was stationed at Robert E. Lee Barracks in Mainz, Germany. It was named after the World War II veteran with the same name as the commander of the Northern Army of Virginia. Racism in the military was about more than names.

Daily work was integrated, which is to say as an Army officer I paid little attention to race when giving orders or following them. All but one officer in the battalion was white and the lone black lieutenant and his family lived in a twelfth century castle off base. I visited them a couple times while we served together. In conversations, I came to understand he was held to a different standard because he was black.

When we lived in Indiana I managed an operation that recruited thousands of truck drivers. I became familiar with parts of Chicago and the suburbs because of this work. I hired the first black recruiter the company had and remember the surprised faces when we returned to the corporate office for a meeting. Race made no difference in this hire. I just wanted someone who could do the job.

We rejected an applicant from our new driver orientation and he threatened to call Bobby Rush because he felt we were discriminating against him because he was black. The claim bordered the ridiculous because more than half the group in orientation was black or Hispanic. I don’t recall why we rejected him but I said I’d like to have that conversation and provided my number. Several weeks later we received a letter from Rush’s office and I replied. That was the end of it.

That protesters in our county seat chose to shut down Interstate 80 in response to the murder of George Floyd was predictable, expected, and ineffective. It’s something, yet I’m not sure exactly what. In 1971 I was part of a group of protesters that shut down Interstate 80 near the Dubuque Street exit in response to the Vietnam War. We built a bonfire in the Eastbound lane feeling we had to do something to disrupt business as usual. What more usual thing is there than traveling on an interstate highway? Law enforcement attempts to keep the interstate open, although there was a report one of the Coralville exits was closed by them in anticipation of protests. Protesters have to do something to gain attention enough to create a fulcrum point for change. I support their actions and also believe there has to be a better way.

What does the Black Lives Matter Movement mean to me? In our rural subdivision the only time race comes to the surface is when it is scratched. If there is talk of a black family moving in neighbors assert property values will decline.What does one do with that? I point out to them the assertion is patently false and reject it. Most people here don’t scratch the surface of race to avoid such conversations.

If George Floyd’s murder was a turning point in how racism is viewed in the United States then some good will come of it once he is mourned dead and survivors heal. We must look ourselves in the mirror on racism. If we can’t then we probably are racist and don’t want to admit it. If so, Floyd becomes just another black man who died at the hands of police as white hegemony continues a while longer.

My religious education taught we are all equal in God’s eyes. That’s how it’s supposed to be in the United States. Yet slave owners sought to justify the peculiar institution using the same Bible I read today. In the end, we have to ask ourselves if we are racist, not because we seek an answer, but because in asking we open the possibility of a remedy to today’s long-standing problem. We seem so far from that now.

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