An open letter to my fellow white Americans
As a sophomore in college, I watched Los Angeles burn on a black-and-white television in my dorm room. The verdict in the Rodney King trial had been rendered. Many of you probably remember that moment, or earlier events from the 1960s or ’70s. The images filling our screens now may feel like some disturbing déjà vu—history repeating itself.
I did not know what to do back then—only that I wanted to do something. So I asked one of my professors, an African-American man whom I greatly respected, whether we could get together to talk. “I’m happy to talk, Matt,” he said. “But the conversation you need to have is not with me, but with your white brothers and sisters.”
I have never forgotten those words, which prompt me to write to you today—not to admonish, cajole or moralize, certainly not to pick a partisan fight, but to open up a conversation. There is something we need to talk about, my friends. Even more, there is something we need to do.
I know that we are not the same. We are different ages and different ethnicities; we come from different classes and belong to different religions. But there are at least two things we do have in common: We are white and we are Americans. I would like to talk with you about that, starting from my own experience.
I grew up in Massachusetts in a white middle-class family, the fifth of six children. We were Catholics. We lived on Cape Cod but we were not wealthy. We were not members of the country club; we worked there. My parents were Irish-Catholics. My grandparents were Irish-Catholics. You would be hard pressed, in fact, to find a non Irish-Catholic branch in my family tree.
I had good, loving parents—a true gift. Their greatest achievement was to break the patterns of brokenness that had characterized their family histories. My parents were not perfect, but I never doubted that I was loved, nor that I had a duty to love.
I really knew only one of my grandparents. My grandmother was a Celtic tour-de-force, an exacting matriarch who was quick to judge. She was capable of great acts of kindness, some of which she bestowed on me. She also had another side. An alcoholic who stopped drinking but never really sobered up, she was tormented by her own history. Somehow she had internalized the anti-Irish bigotry that determined the social order of turn-of-the-century Boston, and it shaped her self-worth for nearly a century. She even denied that she was Irish, admitting that fact only in her 91st year, just days before her death.
My parents were not perfect, but I never doubted that I was loved, nor that I had a duty to love.
You might think that my grandmother’s personal experience of bigotry and discrimination would make her sympathetic to those in similar situations. It did not. Hurt people hurt people, they say. The same kind of bigotry that others had directed toward her my grandmother directed toward others. She was a racist. Her views and her remarks about African-Americans, Jews, Hispanics—almost any group of whom she disapproved—were cutting, searing, even for her time. As a boy, these statements only confused me. As I matured, I followed the lead of the people around her and stayed silent when she said such things. I regret that, not only because what she was saying was wrong but because my silence denied her an opportunity to change.
I loved my grandmother, though it was sometimes hard for me to understand why, apart from the significant fact that I owed my existence to her. I am inescapably a part of her and she is a part of me. “I am a part of all that I have met,” Tennyson wrote. “Though much is taken, much abides.”
I need to remember this heritage, especially when I am tempted to believe that my experience with racism ended with my grandmother.
It did not.
Because I had loving parents who did not display the bigoted attitudes of the generations before them, you might think that I have lived a life free from personal complicity in prejudice and racism. That is not true. Our family histories are not the only histories we inherit. In addition to being sons and daughters, we are neighbors and citizens of the United States. We were born into that history, too, which includes much that is noble and true, and also includes slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, lynchings, discrimination, assassination and police brutality.
Most of us did not directly cause those things. We were not even alive for much of it. Most of us do not wear white hoods and burn crosses. We do not believe that any race is superior. And yes, most of us believe in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of a country where people are “judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
You might think that I have lived a life free from personal complicity in prejudice and racism. That is not true.
But we do not live in such a country, not yet anyway. And as a white man, that fact gives me a certain power. I do not believe that because I am an ideologue or an activist, or because The New York Times or my Twitter feed tell me so. I believe it because I have lived it. I have often been judged, not by the content of my character, but by the color of my skin, and that judgment has nearly always redounded to my benefit.
How? That is a fair question. A few examples come to mind.
I once had an assistant who was African-American and whom I asked to make a purchase for me at a local store. I wanted my assistant to purchase some gift cards that I could give to business associates as Christmas gifts. My assistant did not get the cards, and I wondered why. It was a couple of days before my assistant explained that the purchase would have to wait for a day when a white colleague could go to the shop. The clerk at the store would not sell my assistant the gift cards.
I am sure that most of you know that this kind of discrimination is wrong. But here is the part that I did not know until it happened: During the days while I waited for an explanation from my assistant, it never occurred to me that racial discrimination might be the reason why my assistant could not make the purchase.
Why? Because it is inconceivable that such a thing would ever happen to me. Not only would a store clerk not refuse to sell me the cards but, judging me by the color of my skin (not to mention my sex), the clerk might very well assume that I have plenty of money and might even try to sell me more cards. And because I will never be in the position my assistant was in, I will also never experience the humiliation of having to explain to my boss that I cannot complete a task because of discrimination against my race.
I have often been judged, not by the content of my character, but by the color of my skin, and that judgment has nearly always redounded to my benefit.
Another story, one more proximate perhaps. Surely you have used a public restroom. Strangely enough, public restrooms are hard to find in Manhattan. When I need one, I have learned to look for a hotel because there is usually a men’s room just off the lobby. Over the years, I have walked into the lobby of more than a dozen hotels in Manhattan and used the men’s room. I have been stopped exactly once.
On that occasion, I entered the lobby with a friend who is black. He was just behind me. The white concierge nodded when he saw me, assuming, I suppose, that I was a guest or on my way to a business meeting. But my friend was stopped and was not allowed to proceed until I informed the concierge that he was with me.
Like me, you probably see the injustice in that. The only reason the concierge stopped my friend was because he is black. Again, here is the part I did not grasp at first: The only reason I was not stopped was because I am white. In that lobby, my friend and I were each judged by the color of our skin. The difference is that this judgment created an advantage for me and a disadvantage for him. In fact, it resulted in a humiliation for him, one he has experienced many times but something I had never really given a thought to until that night.
Was the concierge a racist? He certainly did not say anything like what my grandmother might have said. He even seemed a little embarrassed when I told him what was up, as if he might have known that he had done something wrong. He might have acted out of some conscious bigotry, but I do not know for sure; I knew the man for only 45 seconds.
I have walked into the lobby of more than a dozen hotels in Manhattan and used the men’s room. I have been stopped exactly once.
What I do know, however, is that the concierge also inherited a history from his family, his community, his country. He, too, is a part of all that he has seen. That history might have even formed a reflexive bias in him, an automatic response, something that surprised even him. If so, I know something about that.
Which brings me to the harder part. Those last two stories were easy to tell. This next one is not. But this is what we need to talk about and somebody needs to go first. Since this is my letter, I will.
I was in college, around that time that Los Angeles was smoldering. I had just bought a new car and as I pulled out of a supermarket parking lot, I turned to check the traffic when I saw a black man walking toward me. I immediately locked my door. He was not doing anything to suggest that he would harm me, or try to take my car, so why did I do that?
I locked my door because he was black. I am ashamed to admit that, but it happened and denying that it happened is obviously no way to make sure it will not happen again. Where did that reflex come from? I mean, in those days I was a red-flag-waving liberal. I thought I had all the right ideas and intentions. I thought I was a pretty nice guy. But that instinct to lock the door—that surprised me. And yet it did not come out of nowhere.
A few of you might say, I suppose, that this sort of crime is committed by African-Americans at disproportionate rates, so I may have been in some way justified. Even if that is true, it is beside the point. Three-quarters of all securities fraud is committed by caucasians, but I do not hide my stock certificates every time I see a white guy. No, I did not lock my door after running some mental calculation and concluding that there was a one in a 100,000 chance that this man might mug me. There was not that much thought involved. I locked the door because he was black. It is that simple. And that means that not only do I not live in a country where people are always judged by the content of their character, but I have myself judged people according to the color of their skin.
I locked my door because he was black. I am ashamed to admit that, but it happened.
Does that mean I am a bad person? Maybe, but not necessarily. What it definitely means is that I am a person, a human being. Like all human beings of every race, I have biases and prejudices, many of which I inherited, some born from my personal history.
But it is also more than that. I am not just any person, but a specific kind of person: I am a white man who came of age in the last quarter of the 20th century, in a country with a long history of racism; a history so deeply entrenched, so pervasive, so pernicious, that it structures my now, my habits, my thoughts, my worldview in ways I do not even know and do not always want to see.
Forgive my presumption, but I think I know something else that you may be thinking: “Lots of people face hardships and challenges. I had to overcome great disadvantages. Why is race more important than anything else?” I will admit that I have asked a similar question from time to time. Here is how I think about it.
I did not have many advantages growing up, other than the singular advantage of loving parents. My father had lost his business and our family was on public assistance during the year I was born. We did face hardship, as generations of my family did before me. But the fact that my family’s history includes discrimination, adversity and hardship; the fact that I personally had to overcome illness and loss to make something of my life; the fact that I was not born into wealth or to parents who went to Harvard; those facts, which are important, do not change the fact that as a white man, I have benefitted from living in a country where people are often judged by the color of their skin.
African-Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of white people.
I have just recounted a few stories that are evidence of that fact. I am sure that you have similar stories, moments when you witnessed racism or when you recognized how prejudice factored into your choices. It is impossible to be a white person in this country and not have such stories. Maybe your stories involve big events; or maybe, like mine, your stories concern relatively small events, involving just a few people. Regardless, all of those stories appear to be chapters of an even larger story. Here is what I mean:
The poverty rate among black Americans is more than twice the rate for us, for white people. African-Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of white people. They are more than twice as likely to die at the hands of a police officer, as George Floyd did. There are many forces at work in all that, but ask yourself this: Is it likely that those big stories, those big statistics, are completely unrelated to those relatively small events, the kinds of stories I just told you? Is it not more likely that if racial prejudice is at work in places like that hotel lobby and in my Volkswagen and at the corner drugstore, then it is also at work in much larger ways, in much larger parts of our society? Does it not stand to reason that this might be a big reason why those statistics are what they are?
Racism is a big issue with a million stories. It is so big that we have a hard time getting our heads around it. But when I begin by looking at my own story; when I think it through from what I know I have experienced, then I can start to see that, as big a problem as it is, racism is not so big that I cannot begin to understand it; to see how I am a part of it; to begin to do something about it.
I do not know how to solve all these problems. What I do know is that not talking about it is not working. And while it might seem that we are always talking about race, are we? Do we white people really talk honestly with each other, let alone with our black brothers and sisters? I do not mean posturing or moralizing, or tweeting or giving lectures or writing op-eds, but talking candidly about our lives—the kind of candor that hurts. For if we find it easy to talk about race, then we are probably not really talking about it, not in an honest way, for that kind of honesty often hurts.
Yet if we cannot speak honestly, then we cannot listen generously. And that, my friends—listening—is even more important. We need to listen to our African-American fellow citizens, to all people of color. Our stories have much in common: universal experiences of sin and grace, life and death, triumph and tragedy. It is where our memories diverge, in those places where we tend to stop listening, that we need to listen most, for memory is the soul of conscience and conscience is the motive force for change.
You may recall that my grandmother denied that she was Irish until nearly the day she died. For whatever tragic reason, she was ashamed of herself. I do not feel that shame, at least not in the same way. I am proud to be of Irish descent; proud of the Irish community’s many contributions to this country and to my church. My grandmother was not racist because she was Irish. Yet I also know that prejudice toward non-whites is a part of the Irish experience in this country; its effects are real and they are still with us. At the same time, many of those police officers out there today—the vast majority of whom are serving with honor—are of Irish descent. So I guess, somehow, it is complicated. And yet, somehow, it is not.
I believe in Dr. King’s dream. I want America to make his dream come true.
I write this letter to you, my friends, because I love this country. I believe in Dr. King’s dream. I want America to make his dream come true. Our fellow Americans are asking us to change, to make his dream a reality. You know as well as I that lasting change requires radical honesty. So let us be honest. You and I are a part of this problem, whether we like it or not, whether we chose it or not, whether we know it or not. This is not about left or right. It is about right and wrong. It is painful, but there is reason to hope: We have the witness of countless black and white Americans across the centuries who have shown us how to know the difference between right and wrong and how to act on it. That is our history too.
A few months after those riots in Los Angeles, I traveled to Washington, D.C., for the presidential inauguration of Bill Clinton. From the steps of the U.S. Capitol, I listened as the poet Maya Angelou recited her work, becoming the first black poet to appear at a presidential inauguration. This is what she said: “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived. But, if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”
Have courage, my friends. It is long past time to face history, what we have done and what we have failed to do. It is long past time to act.
Lift up your hearts.
Be not afraid.
Matt Malone, S.J.