For all the optimism among those of us who are white people that America has moved into a post-racial era, the daily news reports say this isn’t the case.
One of the latest racial “incidents” that grabbed headlines occurred in Philadelphia recently, when two African-American men were arrested in a Starbucks. After issuing an apology to the two men, Starbucks decided to close their stores nationwide to engage in anti-bias training for their staff.
This story is just one more glaring reminder that white racism is still alive in our country. People of color certainly know this is the case. It’s those of us with white skin who continue to live in denial about the persistence of our racial discrimination and the lingering effects of institutional racism that have plagued people of color from the days of slavery.
It’s white people who keep insisting that Confederate monuments have nothing to do with white supremacy or hatred and only represent Southern heritage and pride. It’s white people who often suggest that the existing economic, educational and criminal justice disparities between white people and people of color today are simply indications of the failure of African-Americans and Latinos over the past 60 years to take advantage of their equal opportunities. In short, white people tend to look at nagging racial issues today only from our white point of view with all its racial blinders.
My wife and I went to Montgomery, Alabama, to attend the opening of the Equal Justice Initiative Memorial to lynched African-American victims of white racism, and to the Legacy Museum, both of which opened April 26. At the summit meetings, we listened to John Lewis and other civil rights leaders talk about the difficult experiences that African-Americans suffered in their efforts to stand up for racial justice during the 1950s and 1960s. We heard Bryan Stevenson, the African-American attorney who has been defending people of color from injustice in the criminal justice system, explain why the black community needed a memorial to the lynching of more than 4,300 documented victims of white racial violence during the Jim Crow era.
We located there the memorial to the two African-American victims of white lynchings that took place here in Williamson County in 1930 and 1933 — despite the fact that Dan Moody had famously put the KKK on trial in the Williamson County courthouse nearly a decade earlier. We were moved to tears by the artifacts and depictions of the brutality and inhumanity of slavery, Jim Crow laws and unequal justice on display in the Legacy Museum that now occupies one of the old slave market buildings in downtown Montgomery.
We stopped in Selma to read about the assault of peaceful marchers trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. We traced the 54-mile Freedom Trail to the Alabama Capitol. While in Montgomery, we visited the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was serving as the pastor in 1955, when the civil rights movement began.
We also went to the Rosa Parks Museum to learn about her refusal to give up her seat on the city bus for white people and the bus boycott that followed. A few blocks away, we stopped at the old Greyhound bus station that now commemorates in a museum the violent reactions of white people to the arrival of white and black “freedom” bus riders from the North who were challenging segregation practices in the South.
We were inspired by the acts of courage that took place during the civil rights movement to confront gross racial injustices at the hands of the dominant white community. Our moral sensibilities were upended by the stories of white terrorism raining down on vulnerable and defenseless black citizens and families when public lynchings sometimes drew thousands of spectators.
During our time there, we felt profoundly sad about the brutality and inhumanity that white people inflicted on African-Americans with the institution of slavery and the violence of the Jim Crow era. We learned from all this painful history to appreciate the resiliency of dark-skinned people who have been subjected to the most vicious and unrelenting forms of white racism. We were asked to recognize that the ideology of white superiority is still with us today in ways we do not like to admit or acknowledge.
A white neighbor of ours asked me when we returned from Montgomery why white people would want to go see the Equal Justice Initiative Memorial or the Legacy Museum to recount the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow racism. I told him this question was addressed by the African-American leaders at the event we attended. They suggested that before we will ever make any more real strides to overcome racism in America, white people will need to work on our “empathy deficit.”
I take this to mean that white racism is at its heart the failure to see our common humanity that is more than skin deep among us. So, I am encouraging all white people I know to make a trip to Montgomery to enlarge our empathy capacity for the trials and tribulations of racism that people of color continue to face in this country to this day.
Sneed is a retired minister in Georgetown.