Shortly after the killing of George Floyd by Officer Derek Chauvin in front of three fellow officers on May 25 in Minneapolis, I received an email from a white politician urging me to “listen and learn” from the protestors about his death.
This advice struck me as odd. For the pertinent questions about the death of this Black man are two: first, would Chauvin have acted as he did if George Floyd had been white? Second, would the three officers have intervened if Floyd had been white?
If the candid answers to these questions are, to the first, probably not, and, to the second, almost certainly yes, then the cause of this killing was simply white racism.
Now, as a white man of a certain age, I don’t need to listen and learn about white racism. I am an expert. In fact, if white racism were a disease, I would call myself a recovering addict, with the caveat that, like all other addictions, white racism does not disappear. It has to be faced and overcome every day.
For white racism is simply the feeling that this is my country. The feeling that the normal American is white. And, you can add, in the appropriate circumstances, straight and male.
That is the sort of person most white people expect to see, hire, interact with, listen to and treat as an equal.
This feeling is embedded in most of us. Overcoming it is hard work. Fortunately, among the young, you can tell it is less present.
Chauvin is more brutal than the average white person. But he is not necessarily more racist than white people who send their children to private schools, live in segregated communities, hire other whites, ride in cars rather than public buses, oppose homeless shelters in their communities and Section 8 housing nearby.
Which is to say, Chauvin is not more racist than the rest of us.
White racism is the reason that police reform, as welcome as that is on other grounds, is irrelevant to what happened to George Floyd. Chauvin was not using some police department-approved chokehold and then got carried away. Chauvin was enforcing white authority over a black man.
Since white racism is the problem, it is the responsibility of white people to end it.
In that sense, the movement to stop, finally stop, the killing of people of color, ought to called, White Racism Matters. It ought to be composed of white people. Its slogan ought to be, “What is Wrong With Us?”
That would put the focus on the proper party. It would be like the story told about Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. Once, when a series of rapes occurred in Jerusalem, she responded to a proposed curfew for women, that the curfew needed to be for men, not women, since men were doing the raping.
And when some well-intentioned critic suggests that all racism matters, the proper answer will be that, while all lives matter equally, all racism does not. Since the power structure in America is overwhelmingly white, that is the racism that matters more. We can worry about the racism of others after we have defeated our own.
The emphasis on white racism also responds to Justice Clarence Thomas’s objection to affirmative action programs. Quoting Frederick Douglass in Grutter v. Bollinger in 2003, Justice Thomas wrote that what black America needs from whites “‘is not benevolence, not pity, not sympathy, but simply justice.’” In the context of what happened to George Floyd, what people of color need from whites is to no longer be killed by them.
There is no simple cure for white racism. We see how deeply embedded it is from the resistance to removing Confederate War memorials and commemorative statues and to renaming military bases.
Like other young white boys in the 1950s, I grew up idolizing Robert E. Lee. I followed his brilliant military campaigns and looked down on Ulysses S. Grant, who was actually a genuine hero for human rights.
I ignored the fact that for all his nobility in urging the South to accept the end of the Civil War, my hero, General Robert E. Lee, fought to destroy my country and enslave my fellow citizens. I still revered him.
That is how white racism works—on the emotional level. It insists that it simply wants what is familiar and comforting. It just wants things to remain as they are—or were.
That is why it was not crazy for Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to say that America must turn to God to heal racism. I wish he had said white people, for we are the problem. And I wish he had started with renaming Ft. Hood in Texas and with his own prejudiced past—for example, boycotting a prayer by a Muslim cleric on the floor of the Texas Senate in 2007—to show he was sincere.
But Patrick is right that white racism is a spiritual sickness that demands a form of conversion. And it is also true that our religions contain the original promise of the solidarity of all humanity.
That is why Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., began a 1957 sermon about brotherhood with a reference to St. Paul:
“All men, created alike in the image of God, are inseparably bound together. This is at the very heart of the Christian gospel. … it is expressed in the affirmation, ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ This broad universality standing at the center of the Gospel makes brotherhood morally inescapable.”
In a secular society, many of us will not be turning to God as such. Nevertheless, we have to confess our sin. We have to find a way to ask to be healed. And we have to ask to be forgiven.
All of that is the level, the only level, at which white racism will finally be banished from the soul of white America.
Opinion contributor Bruce Ledewitz teaches constitutional law at Duquesne University Law School in Pittsburgh. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Listen to his podcast, “Bends Toward Justice” here.