I can’t remember thinking much about race as a kid. I don’t remember ever having thoughts about the skin color of my friends, though I have a faint memory of being curious about how my friend’s mom did her hair in braids like that. My first close friend who was black was a middle school friend who was one of the few friends I spent time with outside church and school. She was a middle-class girl like me with two married parents, like me, in fact we had a lot in common. She was religious like me, we liked the same music and movies, we did band together, and we always felt comfortable together. We lived in Fairfax county Virginia about 20 minutes (without traffic) outside Washington D.C. in a very affluent neighborhood. My father’s military salary meant our family of eight was squished into a small town-home so we could live close enough to the Pentagon, so my dad’s commute wasn’t too bad, in D.C. standards that is. One reason my friend and I got along so well was because in our school we were the “poor kids.” My friend and I had never been to "that part" of DC -- you know the scary part, the dangerous part. We thought of certain areas in the DC as places you don't go under any circumstances. Was that implicit racism? Were my friend and I having racist thoughts? Was it white privilege? Was we doing something wrong? At the time, our parents were protecting us by keeping us away from dangerous areas of the city. I didn't think it was about skin color, but I did think it was about crime.
The first time I experienced racial tension in a tangible way was after we moved from the DC metro to Kansas. Ironic huh? Well, I lived at Fort Riley where my father was stationed. With the black kids on base I didn’t feel uncomfortable, but when I started going to the high school in Junction City it was shocking. As I tried to make new friends there it became immediately clear that the black kids wanted nothing to do with “this rich white girl.” It was a strange adjustment too, because where I had come from I had been the “poor kid” and now in Kansas, living in a big house on the base, I was considered the “rich kid.” In Virginia and Kansas both the first kind of social divides I became acquainted with had to do with money, but at JC I was in for a real awakening about racial tension.
I had never had so much animosity directed at me for what seemed to me like absolutely no reason. My three years of high school at JC and I was only able to create friendships with a few black kids. My black friends were athletes, good students, generally good kids and for that they were also treated with derision from other black kids who called them Oreo’s and accused them of trying to be white. I’d like to say that I wanted to be friends with “the others” but frankly they were utterly intimidating, demeaning, and crude. In certain parts of the halls I could only pass through with my head down if I didn’t want to be harassed. Making eye contact was literally dangerous. The school was rough!! There was an active gang culture and I didn’t feel very safe at school, our school had a shooting the first year I was there, and my sisters’ friend was shot in the head by a ricochet bullet. It was awful!! After that my school installed metal detectors we had to enter through everyday. I said it was a rough school.
One day when my big brother was home from college (he had never lived with us at Fort Riley, he went to collage before we moved there) he came to a school basketball game. I love basketball, but I’m a short white girl so instead of play I was the team manager so I was taking stats next to the coach. Anyway my brother found me and sat down next to me. When we finished the first quarter, and I was free to talk for a bit, my brother said, “Do you see that?” As he looked across the gym at the student section. I said, “What?” “That” he said again. I was confused. He said, “You could draw a line down the center of those bleachers between the black kids and the white kids.” I looked at the student section from my brother’s eyes, and something I had become so used to being normal looked terribly wrong. The kids in my school had segregated themselves (with few exceptions), the school didn’t have designated black or a white sections, but the students had voluntarily segregated themselves. My brother just shook his head and said that it was the most extraordinary thing he had ever seen, he said, “That’s just sad!” He was right. It was a broken school, a broken community.
In my three years at Junction City High School only once did I make a acquaintance on the “otherside” of the school, and it was a rocky start. On the first day of biology class, I sat down at my assigned desk – yes, my biology teacher had assigned us desks, probably so we wouldn’t segregate ourselves – and in front of me was a black girl I didn’t know. I did what I had learned to do, I tried to keep my head down and mind my own business. While we sat and waited for class to start she turned around and stared at me. I just sat their silently, when I finally looked up and smiled and said, “Hi” – the only thing I could think to do. She got in my face and said, “Was I talking to you, b**ch!” I didn’t know how to respond, so I just apologized and went back to keeping my head down.
That day I went home and told me mom what happened and expressed my anxiety about my seating assignment that semester. She told me I needed to change my behavior. She advised me NOT to divert my eyes, to be respectful and polite, make eye contact and smile, talk to her normally when appropriate, and then wait for opportunities to be friendly. My mom told me to keep doing it no matter what the girl did or said to me. At that time in my life what my mom was asking me to do seemed impossible, I wanted her to call the school and make my teacher move me, but she didn’t. So I determined that I was going to do it. I mustered the courage and changed my tact the next day. It took a few weeks but slowly it began to change. We started having civil interactions and then more and more we had friendly encounters. By the end of the semester she was even greeting me in the hall when I’d pass her and her friends. One time some black girls in the hall near our classroom where messing with me and she came up and cussed them out and told them to leave her “homegirl” alone. It was an a surprising experience for sure. High-school was the first time I felt like I was experiencing racism first hand. I’ve pondered those experiences often as I’ve thought about what racism is and how it acts and looks. As an adult looking back I realize that the divide in that town was a deep racial and socioeconomic divide that was generational.
The dictionary says that racism is: prejudice (dislike, hostility, or unjust behavior deriving from unfounded opinions), discrimination (the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people), or antagonism (enmity, contention, bitterness, resentment, hatred, malice, spite, malevolence) directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one's own race is superior. The belief that all members of a race possess characteristic specific to that race, so as to distinguish it as inferior to another race or races. A racist is: a person who shows or feels discrimination or prejudice against people of other races, or who believes that a particular race is superior to another.
Spite – Hostility – Unjust Behavior – Discrimination – Antagonism – Enmity – Resentment -- Hatred -- Malevolence
There are a lot of ugly thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and behaviors surrounding racism, but with out this primary motivation – “Against someone of a different race based on the belief that one's own race is superior” – These qualities are just despicable behaviors in the mistreatment of others.
What I experienced and witnessed at JC was a lot of those most debased human attributes breaking down by race. Were they the result of people believing their own race to be superior? If that was the motivation then it wasn’t just anti-black racism. Of course, there were white kids at our school who antagonized black kids, but it went both ways and it was destructive all the way around. Was it anti-black racism that was the cause because in an historical sense white people started the cycle of hate? Is that how all racial tension get’s blamed on anti-black racism?
I can’t speak for all of the other white kids at our school, but I can speak for myself and the people I associated with, and I don’t ever remember my friends talking about how superior they were because they were white. The kids I hung out with did not use fowl or crude language or treat others with hostility. Since I did my very best to stay away from the ugliest of those tensions at my school and did my best to surround myself by good friends, I can’t say with certainty that any of those engaged in this racial antagonism were expressing racial superiority, and I certainly can’t judge what is in someone’s mind and heart, what they believe about the entirety of another race.
MLK said he had a dream that one day a person would be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin, but what was happening in this little Kansas town was far from that dream.
Later in life, when I married a soldier and moved to the Baltimore suburbs, once again I was in a racially diverse area outside Fort Meade. Once again, my interactions with black acquaintances was generally good and respectful. Through our church my husband was making regular trips into the poor neighborhoods of inner-city Baltimore to do missionary work and minister to members of our church living there. The first time I accompanied him on one of his ministries I was shocked by the experience. In all my life I had never seen that kind of poverty, I had never imagined that people lived that way in America and in the neighborhood we were in it seemed to be entirely black Americans who lived there. I guess on some level I knew that there were racial disparities like this in inner cities, but I had never seen this kind of poverty first hand.
As an adult I began to try to understand my personal experience through a grown-up lens. I began studying history to get perspective and find answers, and then the politics of race, the data of poverty and crime. I was impacted profoundly by studying African American history. I was affected by the horrors of slavery and inspired by the triumph of the human spirit under those conditions. I appreciate the faith of African Americans as a cultural group and I admired the leadership of their community to hold America to account for the ideals and values espoused in our founding principles. In the same way that my childhood experience with race was filled with confusing contradictions, my study of history, current events, social science, poverty, and crime exposed the same contradictions.
My next exposure to the racial disparities was in my Midwest community in Omaha, NE. I was advocating for my son’s education. I had started a community organization to be a voice for parents in our suburban school district, but while doing this work I discovered an aggressive truancy law that our state had passed that peaked serious concerns about the law overstepping into parental authority. I began sounding the alarm on this law because it had the potential to throw thousands of families into the juvenile justice system who should not be dragged into that. The advocacy against this law caught me up in a whirlwind of state politics to get the law repealed. Just as we predicted the law pulled hundreds and then thousands into the country attorney’s office. We began documenting the stories of the families getting caught in the ugly tentacles of this law, the racial disparities were undeniable, the greater portion of the families who were being intimidated by the law, some even loosing custody of their children, were poor minority families. White students in suburban school districts were falling into this legal trap but they were better positioned to advocate for themselves, get legal representation, and deal with the legal hoops.
I took call after call from distraught mothers needing help and not knowing where to turn. My heart was weighed down for their circumstances and I learned very quickly that the conditions attendant to poverty among minority families was being treated by the law as child neglect. A law was created by “well meaning” liberal politician who wanted to “help” poor “at-risk” children, mostly minority children, get better educations was too punitive to the families. By hurting the family the law was not helping the children. It enraged me!! There were marked racial disparities in what was happening in the juvenile justice and CPS systems of our state and from what I was seeing the hammer of justice judging differences in culture, circumstance, and parents in poverty to be guilty of the crime of educational neglect, child neglect.
I was learning from my experiences that racial hostilities and disparities were far more complex then a simple diagnostic of racism could explain but there were definite observable racial inequalities. In my high-school town an ugly racial divide had developed over many generations and it had taken on a life of it’s own, a them vs. us mentality, everyone standing their ground and never seeing eye to eye. In inner city Baltimore generations of black families had been trapped in poverty beyond imagining. Was it racism that trapped them there? If so, why didn’t all black Americans get trapped there too? What were the differences?
One thing I knew in my heart was that the stark realities in the history, and the data on social science, poverty, and crime cannot express my experiences and certainly don’t capture the full breadth of where race relations are today. To those living in the haunting streets of Baltimore it doesn’t feel like America has a growing economy and falling crime rates. It feels like there are two different Americas and the one without crime is like a fairy-tale you can only watch on TV and dream about. How do I know that if I’ve never lived there or walked in their shoes? Well, I learned that through the eyes of a friend who had grown up on those Baltimore streets.
One of the greatest blessings the Lord gave me to help me learn about poverty in black communities, was putting in my path a wonderful black sister in my church. She would become my dear friend. At first, my bishop asked me to reach out to her and help her get to church because she didn’t have a car. I began picking her up each week for church. As I got to know her I saw that she was a beautiful lover of God, a generous, self-sacrificing, brave woman and devoted grandmother of six children. She was struggling to raise all her grandchildren alone in her old age. Through government programs she was able to leave the inner city and get her grand-kids enrolled in better performing schools.
We spent lots of time together over the five years we lived only a few streets away from each other. She didn't drive, so every time I was running errands, I'd invite her along and we'd get all our stuff done together. Sometimes we'd just meet up and have lunch together and I almost always drove her to church. Sometimes we just sit together in her home and talk. The time we spent together was precious to me and I thank God that he placed her in my life so I could learn from her.
We had lots of time to talk during those hours in the car together and what I learned about her life in the violent streets of Baltimore left me confounded. What I learned about her fears and her dreams, about how I looked to her, those things opened my eyes. I can't ever really know what it was like, but as a mother I tried to imagine it. I cried at the passion she had for keeping her black boys out of those streets. She often said to me that she would never go back there and prayed her boys would never go back, she said that she knew if they went back they would not grow old. What grew in my heart during those years was a deep desire for all those mothers to be able to escape, to walk out of those streets, out of the prison of poverty and away from the terror of crime.
One thing I know with my heart, and not my intellect is that I absolutely love my black friends and want them to feel loved, respected, supported, their culture and experiences celebrated, their contributions respected, and I don’t want to see them judged by the color of their skin. I’m a pretty academic type of person, I read a lot, engage in a lot of debate and argument a counter argument, and that stuff comes off as cold when people are suffering in poverty and crime ridden neighborhoods when bad blood and racial tensions are pulling apart communities, when laws intended to help raise needy families actually do more harm than good.
Is it racism tearing us apart? I’ll tell you what I know for sure, since judging peoples motivations and thoughts is nearly impossible, I know for sure that unjust behaviors that manifest as hostility, antagonism, resentment, discrimination, brutality and many other despicable debased qualities are enough to tear us apart regardless of the motivations behind it. In the absence of the more obvious racial discrimination of the past we see the stark racial disparities across critical areas of our society and seek to understand them. My concern is that when we are asking people to wake up to their racism, we are redefining racism as a more subtle, non-obvious, or even subconscious state that is present in the DNA of white people and prejudices them – almost against their will – toward dark skinned persons. First, that redefinition either ends up watering down the full evil encompassed in the word racism OR it will cause a great many innocent people to be inherited retroactively with the evil of racism.
If the new “systematic racism” is embedded attitudes that are so imperceptible, so subtle, that we don’t even recognize them in ourselves, then I wonder if it is useful to continue to talk about widespread systematic racism. Wouldn’t it be better to focus on solving concrete problems in concrete ways? When we look at all the ugly human characteristics associated with racism, no matter what their motivations, we are looking at something that is solved through repentance, through coming to Christ, through moral living, through stronger families. We need to do those things, those back to the basic things. That’s where my passion is because that’s where my heart is. In my heart I know that they way to pull people out of poverty, out of cycles of hate, out of anger, vengeance, brutality, antagonism, and hostility is to preserve the dignity of human liberty and strengthen the spirit through moral precept.
I don’t always communicate my heart very well, my feelings, especially not in political discussions and interactions online aren’t the same as face-to-face. I am principled and certain about a lot of things, but I do realize that I have more to learn about how to build bridges. What is behind my politics is that I truly want Americans, all Americans, to be able to heal the deep divide that seems to be threatening our very existence right now. I love America, and ALL freedom loving Americans, and I don’t want the rancor between different tribal factions to corrode the civil society that so much has been sacrificed to build. I want us to move forward. I want us to be more unified around common values, I want ALL American families to be stronger, I want Americans to be more moral, and more free. I hope and pray we can do it together.