On a recent flight from Phoenix to Baltimore I set next to a man who was on lifelong disability for injuries, mental and physical, sustained over several military tours of Iraq and Afghanistan. He was nice. He loved that I’m from Wyoming but managed to make it this far in life without ever discharging a firearm. He gave me his number and told me to call him if I was ever in his neck of the woods. He’d “teach me how to shoot the right way.”
He looked young, but there was nothing young about him. He carried an anger with him- an old and familiar anger that comes from not being able to reconcile the illogical self-destructive nature of human beings. His solution to many of the world’s problems was for all of us to stick to our own kind. Especially blacks and Muslims. He scoffed at the attempt by various churches to pre-empt the anti-Islamic rally at the Phoenix mosque last month. He apologized to me for the tip-toeing I’d have to do with my three sons because of our mixed bloodlines and ties to the Northern Cheyenne reservation. He had his first daughter on the way and he was going to be sure to warn her of the dangers of intercultural mingling. I didn’t have much to say in return, but I listened. Eventually he was asleep and I was buried in my laptop.
The conversation didn’t surprise me. It’s a conversation I’ve unfortunately been in many times before with people I consider dear friends. I’m sure if adults of all cultures were all honest about our closed door conversations about race with the people we feel safest around, people would be shocked. Growing up, some of my closest friends used to tell me that because some race-mixing went on in my dad’s side of the family tree, that the sins I had to be forgiven for included being the product of intermarriage. Another friend I looked up to as a kid used racial epithets regularly. Another refused to use a bathroom or shower if the person who occupied it immediately before them was of another race- for “hygienic” reasons. One of my longtime pastors told me that Muslims are essentially a “dirty race,” as in they had a predisposed, natural tendency toward living amongst garbage. These are all flawed, bad ideas. Sometimes harboring dumb ideas about race seems harmless. Sometimes believing the chasm between races is too great to bridge creates apathy. Sometimes, those who seek to make that chasm permanent do things like Dylann Roof did this week, and people get hurt.
What happened in Charleston is awful. What’s happening all over the country when it comes to race relations, urban violence and income inequality isn’t supposed to be happening. All that shit was supposed to end with us Millennials- but it hasn’t. In the same way that we giftwrapped the internet, smartphones, Netflix and all the other things that make your childhoods infinitely more privileged than ours, we were supposed to hand you a racially harmonious country free of all the riots and police abuses we read about in textbooks. Maybe we assumed the fight for equality was a passive process that would rectify itself with the passing of each generation. It isn’t. We’re inheriting these ideals and biases as surely as we inherited eye color and height. Whatever the reason- things are still ugly, and they’ll stay that way unless everybody gets a little uncomfortable and admits there’s a problem. For skin color and culture and religion and ideology to eventually cease to matter, it needs to matter a whole hell of a lot more than it does right now.
In 2013 blacks were 2.76 times more likely to be denied a conventional mortgage than whites.
In 2008, 11% of all small business administration loans were extended to African-American owned businesses. By 2013 that number had dropped to 2.3%.
Mandatory minimum drug sentencing that adversely affected minority communities, including five years in prison for possession of five grams of crack (you needed 500 grams of powder for the same sentence-100:1 ratio), wasn’t amended until 2010. It’s one of the reasons that a demographic that makes up 13 percent of the overall national populous makes up nearly 40% of the incarcerated populous.
Yet data from Stanford researchers shows that telling white people about racial disparities and injustices in culture might actually make them LESS likely to seek or support systematic changes.
The truth is, sometimes when we hear a statistic, we assume there must be a decent explanation for it, because imagining evil and bias isn’t easy for someone who doesn’t practice or encounter it. You’re my sons. You’re innocent, sweet, curious, hopeful and filled with wonder. It breaks my heart, but there will come a point when some of that will need to take a backseat so you can prioritize and process some harsh realities about the way our society deals with race.
When it comes to these prevailing issues of racial disparity and disharmony, the one thing I want you to promise me is that you won’t take your own word for it. Get to know your neighbors. Ask each other questions. If you find yourself fatigued by the racial narratives pushed by the media to keep people frustratedly glued to their television sets so they can rage-purchase whatever’s being advertised during commercial breaks, BUT you can only count on one hand the number of people from other cultures you could call up and meet for a beer to talk about it, that’s part of the problem.
The Charleston shooter was with his victims for an hour before opening fire- and it’s being reported that their kindness nearly changed his mind about doing what he had spent months planning to do. That hour of having his convictions challenged came too late, and the actions he took to affirm his own narrative about another culture is something the entire country hopefully won’t soon forget. Obviously murder is the pinnacle of evil, but I wonder how many daily acts of spite and injustice are perpetrated on others based on a need to protect one’s own connotations of the way things are, and should be. I regret not challenging the notions held by the man I met on the way to Baltimore with stories about how much my life has been enriched by the racial and cultural diversity others have shared with me.
While I am sorry that it seems our cultural, racial and gender-based divides are being handed from my generation to yours, I’m confident you’ll learn from our mistakes and make progress. I beg you, my sons, not to cut yourself off from those who are different than you in order to protect your own ideas about those differences. I also hope you never miss out on the opportunity to share the value a life among the living has brought you. Heart and minds aren’t won over with arguments, they’re won over with examples.