I recently had breakfast with a new professional acquaintance. This gentleman is white and roughly the same age as I am. We discussed a wide range of topics, including our religious faith and the state of what most people refer to as “race relations” in America. He confessed that, as of late, he has come to acknowledge that systemic racism is real. As a result, he has begun to take concrete steps to address it in his industry. (He’s in financial services.) During one part of our exchange, the gentleman expressed concern that he might inadvertently “use the wrong words” or otherwise be unintentionally offensive to Blacks and other people of color.
In short, this man is concerned that his lack of cultural knowledge could hinder not only his being an ally in the fight against racism, but could also hinder deeper friendships with people of color. I shared that I understood where he was coming from and appreciated his candor. We then began to talk about the importance of extending “grace” to white people who genuinely seek racial reconciliation.
Over the years, I have engaged in scores of conversations of this nature. It is clear to me that there are a lot of well-meaning white people who — for whatever reason — have only recently come to terms with the insidious and widespread problem of racism in America. For some, the catalyst was the election of Barack Obama. For others, it was the election of Donald Trump. Generally speaking, these individuals acknowledge that their attitudes, and often their actions, have contributed to America’s racial problem. Subsequently, they have made a conscious decision to be part of the solution.
To be clear, I’m not referring to those who want to expiate “white guilt” by merely offering meaningless platitudes, such as blithely quoting from one sentence in one paragraph in one speech that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered. Neither am I referring to those who engage in symbolic gestures. (The infamous photos of white people “apologizing” for slavery by literally putting on shackles comes immediately to mind.) Rather, I’m referring to those who recognize that race-based power imbalances exist in our society and who are willing to use their positions of privilege to foster genuine equity. If someone is honest about his or her past, and is willing to be vulnerable and coachable, why would I not co-labor with them in pushing America to live up to its highest ideals?
Because I have supernatural powers, I can hear the groans of some of my fellow Black freedom fighters who will accuse me of “giving cover” to white people. They will accuse me of “going along to get along” or trying to curry favor for selfish purposes. I get that. There has never been a shortage of African Americans who are too quick to overlook or to forgive even the most egregious instances of racism, including the history of domestic terrorism that whites have directed against Blacks during the past 400 years.
However, at some point we should ask ourselves whether there is a chance — no matter how remote — that our nation can experience a genuine cross-racial drive toward justice. We have done so in fits and starts over the centuries, with decidedly mixed results. Perhaps this historical moment, which is fraught with threats from increasingly violent white nationalists, can also be a time that future generations will look back on and view as a tipping point for the cause of equity.
As the saying goes, it is incumbent upon us to meet people where they are and accompany them on their journey to where they should be. That includes working with white people who are committed to moving beyond sympathetic words. There have always been, and there always will be, plenty of white people who will stand in the way of racial progress. But failing to make room for whites who are willing to help dismantle systemic racism is like entering a boxing ring with one arm tied behind our back. We might ultimately win the fight, but it would have been much better to have done so without handicapping ourselves.
Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.