In 1975 Baton Rouge, when I was 16, my racist Svengali and I conspired to burn a house occupied by black people we didn’t know as revenge for the stabbing of a friend.
I was certain no one in the house had done the stabbing, even though my Svengali had convinced himself someone there had. Our friend had been stabbed in a fight started by the Svengali and lived on a street rapidly shifting from mostly white to all black, just as my own street soon would. I’d tried to convince myself that our act would be an act of “war,” a defensive message against black “invaders.”
Thank goodness the better lessons from, ironically, my racist parents and my racist church (that had voted not to allow in African Americans) brought me to my senses and I rebelled against the Svengali, who evidently needed my support to go forward. The house stood.
And yet, the next year I participated in a gang fight at school after a hardcore racist acquaintance’s car was shot twice and his grandmother beaten by some of our African-American classmates. In my mind, I was no longer fighting all African Americans, but rather out of a sense of honor, taking down “uncivilized invaders,” as if I’d stepped out of a bastardized Sir Walter Scott novel and forward to 110 years after the Civil War.
But did I go after just the black kids who’d done the shooting and beating? Of course not. No matter my mindset, it was still a racial struggle to “protect” our white neighborhood, from which we working-class whites were fleeing and taking the meager capital and stability with us.
Luckily for me, one of the young men who likely had been involved in the beating flattened my nose. I was suspended by our racist principal. My father transcended his racist beliefs to talk sense into me. And my former athletic rival—the first black quarterback at our school—confronted me. “That’s not you, Tim,” he said. “Fighting n---as ain’t you.”
So I know what it’s like to have walked at least a ways on the road that Dylann Roof walked, but not all the way into that Charleston church. It’s a road of racist propaganda, insinuating stereotypes, belief in the superiority of “white culture,” and the old conviction that only violence against lazy, ignorant, violent black people can save us. And I know that my own journey programmed me in ways that I am still programmed, as Roof was programmed, as many white Americans, most unaware, in all regions and of all classes, are programmed.
Know that we act because of that programming without even knowing it. Not in ways as grotesque and savage as Roof’s or as extreme as mine, but in ways that are insidious, socially corrosive, and segregating.
There is no complete escape from racist indoctrination and no easy escape even from the type of dangerous situation I was in. I was fortunate. Before those people around me stepped in (or literally punched me in the face), I already had a moral foundation and an understanding that African Americans were—of course—people.
At the time of the high school fight, one of my best friends was an African-American basketball teammate, although I had tried to deny him that friendship once I was spiraling into more combative racist thinking and action. So despite my complicity in my racist mentor’s brutality of black kids on the street—he once nearly killed a man with a hurled ninja star he made in shop class—my moral foundation was always inside me, often tormenting me with the voice that told me I was wrong.
That foundation came from having taken in Jesus’ teachings of accepting everyone—a message reinforced by our Sunday School songbook’s cover, which showed, I remember, children of different shades listening to Christ, a message also reinforced by listening to Christ’s words among the apocalyptic rantings our church favored, a message instilled in me even while those around me preached the inferiority and threat of blacks.
When my father told me he didn’t approve of my acting on the very racism I’d learned from him—when friends and teachers stepped in to tell me that I was not like the other racists around me—I finally heard them. I began the slow process of seeing individual faces and actions and not looking for only actions that supported my stereotypes. It was the beginning of my escape.
I had to dissect my own rage and fear to realize that no one thing, no one race, and no one social change was the cause of my anger, terror, and dread. I had to confront fear and the endless complications that come with understanding that no brute solution, no violence, and no belonging to a group or ideology would stop the inevitability of loss.
But compared to others mired deeply in the programming, fears, and destructive impulses of racism, my move out of the direst chapter of my life was easy.
What about young men like Dylann Roof? Was there a method to point him down a different road—one that didn’t end with him looking for an hour at individual people’s faces, talking with individual human beings, doubting his intent, and yet still pulling the trigger time and again? Perhaps with sustained mental health support, perhaps with stricter gun laws, perhaps with someone to show the lies and warped conclusions of right-wing propaganda, he would have turned.
But in our country such resources and laws are shamefully lacking, especially for an isolated, young man with limited means. For Roof, the questions are the same as those regarding other mass shooters. But the more pressing questions concern people like my former racist mentor, who blaze against anything progressive.
Recently I published an op-ed on the topic of this ongoing racism, and among the widespread support of people of many ethnicities came the expected attacks. The arguments were predictable and sophomoric.
You are an ivory-tower liberal. You hate white people. You hate the South and betray your Southern heritage. You are lying about your experiences. You ignore black crime and racism. You are stirring up trouble; let the past lie. You are a faggot.
This last one was oft repeated on one website from my hometown, alongside multiple postings of my photo.
I believe the only way to move these extremists from these positions would be to somehow remove them from the insulation of like viewpoints and nonstop vitriol, which they use to convince themselves that blacks and liberals are out to get them—that the law of the insult and the gun is the only way to retain their identities.
The most troubling responses to my story and opinions, though, are the familiar diversions from talking about racism. They are more mainstream ideas than I like to think, and they often come from people I know, respect, and even love. These are reactions I often still struggle with myself, but they are, in fact, often unintended justifications of racism.
What about black-on-black crime? What about black hatred of whites and violence against whites? What about reverse discrimination? What about blacks trying to take away our heritage? What about blacks draining our tax dollars in dangerous, failing schools that our kids don’t even attend? What about racism in the North?
Let me repeat: Many of these toxic thoughts, and much worse, still poison me, despite my years of work to see clearly, truly, and with complexity. On my worst days, if a black person does something I don’t like or reinforces a stereotype still lodged in me, the N-word comes to mind quickly and sharply. Then I have to gather myself, bring reason to bear, once again dredge up the roots of these thoughts, and once more disconnect racist wiring laid in me since my childhood and recharged today by white institutions and media.
It is this type of wiring—this deeply ingrained paranoia about African Americans taking “what is ours,” or a simmering grievance that blacks are now somehow privileged in political speech and opportunity—that cause the diversion from a full discussion of racism between whites. It’s what prevents a thorough examination of ourselves and, worse, hampers our ability to listen without defensiveness to the experiences of African Americans.
The subject matter that comprises these diversions is often legitimate and clearly already the subject of wide discussion, most fully among African Americans. Yes, black-on-black crime is a scourge, especially to minority communities who live in fear—and particularly to young, disenfranchised black men who are murdering one another in appalling numbers. Yes, some African Americans do hate whites and other ethnicities, because African Americans are individuals with the same flaws and vulnerability to prejudices as all other people. Yes, many—probably nearly all—African Americans want the Confederate battle flag to come down from government property.
These are clearly issues that deserve and already do generate conversation and debate, but they do not obviate our need to examine racism in America. It’s our need to examine the corrosive, ongoing economic and social consequences of slavery and overt and covert repercussions of Jim Crow Laws. It’s our need to examine disenfranchisement of black voters. It’s our need to examine the way our own fears and stereotypes often invisibly shape our reactions to people of color.
The way toward change begins with each of us. It is difficult, unending work. We whites must have these conversations, and we must look inward to understand what we bring to them. We must be aware of how being a person in the majority can subtly color our perceptions and make us susceptible to biased messages we don’t even notice. We must be aware that privilege does not mean that every white person is better off than every black person, but that privilege has constructed institutions and avenues that benefit most of us.
If we don’t have these conversations and commit to introspection, we continue to clip the wings of our better angels.