This column makes me nervous.
As my mugshot in this paper makes clear, I’m a white guy. Always have been. That means I carry with me all the privilege that entails.
I’ve never been afraid of police contact, never feared for the safety of my children because of the color of their skin and never been forced to endure near daily reminders of the enslavement of my ancestors under the guise of Southern “heritage.”
Like so many, I’ve watched in various stages of shock, horror, disgust and outrage as the events of the last year have played out. Ferguson seemed like a low point. Then came Baltimore and, most recently, Charleston.
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It’s 2015, and racism in America is still a fact of life. What’s been made clear over the last week is this is still a difficult thing for many to admit.
It comes in many forms; there’s the outright hatred epitomized by the white man who shot and killed nine innocent people during their church Bible study, and there are the more subtle forms of institutional racism so deeply woven into the fabric of our society, to the point that they can go undetected or be plausibly denied by those threatened by this narrative.
This is all very real, yet writing about it – in this column – scares me.
Why? It’s a question worth introspection.
For one, I’m afraid my whiteness makes me unfit to comment thoughtfully on the subject of racism. I’m afraid of being insensitive, or sounding privileged and dumb.
Perhaps more directly, I’m afraid I am privileged and dumb. Putting that in writing, in the newspaper, even in an attempt to say something meaningful, is frightening.
Secondly, I’m afraid it isn’t my place. I worry that allowing a white guy from The News Tribune to have a platform on matters of racism, while the African Americans who are living with it don’t have the same platform, is disingenuous and problematic.
Still, I’m compelled to say something. Silence can be viewed only as complicity.
So how do we move forward?
This isn’t just about African Americans. It’s about all Americans.
And it isn’t just about Charleston. It’s about places like Tacoma, too.
“The church is the center of black experience, so there’s no Tacoma and Charleston. The views here in Tacoma are Charleston’s views, and the reverse,” Tacoma’s first black mayor, Harold Moss, told me Thursday.
He was joined by four other members of Tacoma’s Black Collective, a volunteer leadership group created four decades ago to address issues affecting the black community.
City Councilwoman Victoria Woodards was also in the room. In discussing Charleston, her eyes filled with tears, and her voice trembled with anger and grief.
“Before Charleston, most of the conversation was around law enforcement and communities of color. Charleston flips all of that on its side,” Woodards said, earning nods of agreement from around the room.
“We have hard work to do,” she continued. “We have hard conversations to have. It’s going to take people calling (racism) out.”
That means you. That means me.
And it means important steps such as recognizing the Confederate flag for what it is — a symbol of “systemic oppression and racial subjugation,” as President Obama described it Friday during a eulogy in Charleston for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney.
It will take all of us, not just the African-American community. Black Collective co-chair Lyle Quasim put it in simple terms: “There is a big rock to move, and the people who have to put their shoulder into that rock are white people. ... Because we’ve done what we can do. We’ve offered up our humanity.”
The question, again: How do we move forward from something like Charleston and into a more just future?
Dennis Flannigan, a retired four-term state representative from Tacoma, offers important perspective.
Flannigan, like me, is white. In 1964, he left Tacoma and traveled to Mississippi to help register black voters as part of the Freedom Summer. He entered the state not long after the murder of three civil rights workers.
“It’s about ‘How do we start small and grow?’ not ‘How do we create a march and a demonstration that will eliminate racism by Thursday?’ ” Flannigan told me. “I think it comes from discussion. ... How can we see what we cannot see? We can’t do it with our ears shut.”
Or our eyes closed.
Or our voices silent.
“Progress is made incrementally,” Moss told me with the determination that defined his career. “That young man crossed a line (in Charleston) that forces everyone to take a look at who they are, where they are, what’s right and what’s wrong.”
“I can see change coming,” Moss continued. “We’re going to make it, because we as a people are tough as hell. And when I say make it, I’m looking at an America that will one day live up to its damn dream.
“I believe that with all there is in me.”
If Moss is right, and let’s pray he is, part of reaching this goal almost certainly involves folks like me facing their fears and apprehensions.
Not everyone has a column, but we all have a place in this conversation.
And, most importantly, an obligation to have it.