Am I racist?
Like many liberal white Americans — indeed, many Americans period — I’m reconsidering things. Am I racist, do I not get it as a privileged white guy?
After all, at the age of 15, I was on the mall in August of 1963 for Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial. I traded my “JFK in ’64” campaign button for an NAACP hat.
When we first moved to Washington in 1961, we ignored a neighbor’s advice not to go to the public pool at Glen Echo Park that had just been integrated; coming from up north, we didn’t understand what the problem was. I fought back against a junior high classmate who maintained that science showed that blacks were intellectually inferior to whites.
My father was director of personnel in the Kennedy White House and actively recruited African Americans for top-level administration jobs. He and others, including Robert Kennedy, were offered memberships in exclusive clubs that did not admit blacks and, instead, formed the Federal City Club, which did.
When I was a student in the late 1960s and had Hubert Humphrey as a professor at Macalester College, I participated with him and many others in demonstrations for fair housing in the Twin Cities of St Paul and Minneapolis.
My eventual boss in the Senate, Frank Church (D-Idaho), had helped integrate the local Kenwood Golf Club in the 1960s by filing a lawsuit; he had helped secure passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Bill in the Senate earlier in his career. He didn’t do these things because there was a large African American constituency in Idaho to represent, but because it was the right thing to do.
As a political consultant, I worked for, and learned from, the Chair of the D.C. City Council, civil rights icon John Wilson. One of my early clients was Congressman Bobby Scott (D-VA), now the Chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee and the first African American to serve Virginia in Congress since Reconstruction.
All my life I have supported civil rights. All my life I have recognized the desperate need for equality of opportunity in education, in jobs, in housing, in access to economic success. I am a liberal Democrat, after all.
But after the recent events in Minnesota and around the country, and what I have seen over many decades, I know that is not enough. I have not done enough, felt enough, confronted enough the advantages that I enjoyed from having been born white and in more privileged, better-connected circumstances than most Americans.
Yes, so-called good, decent, educated white people like me know the history of slavery, of the Civil War, the rise of the KKK, separate but equal, the Tulsa riots, the Brown decision, racist covenants, voter suppression, and discrimination that has kept blacks out of the economy, as well as police brutality. We know that DWB, driving while black, is really LWB, living while black. We know. Our brains know. Our hearts know, too.
But does this absolve us of our racism? The noted young author of the best-selling book, “How to Be an Antiracist,” Ibram X. Kendi, maintains that just saying you are “not racist” doesn’t cut it. He holds that this is an in between, safe space that does not confront the issue positions you take, your activism (or lack of it) and your overall attitudes.
“The heartbeat of racism is denial,” he writes. “The heartbeat of antiracist is confession… Only racists shy away from the R-word.”
Here is what we also don’t get. We don’t get outside our bubble. We don’t deal with our fear when we are the only white person on the subway, on the street late at night, being watched by someone who is not “one of us.”
We also don’t get, as James Baldwin put it, that “white is a metaphor for power.” We are very happy to keep the power, to raise our children in privilege and to live in our neighborhoods with black friends and work alongside “minority” co-workers. We are comfortable. Comfortable with our whiteness and our situation. Because, ultimately, we feel we have the power. We may feel that pang of fear when we are outside our bubble, but we are the ones who are still in control.
If you are black or Hispanic or Asian, you feel that loss of power every day. In a pandemic, as you lose your job and income and can’t pay the rent, and when you watch once again a victim like George Floyd murdered, you can’t breathe either. You are sick and tired of being sick and tired.
Over my lifetime I have not done enough to change that long arc of history that is supposed to bend toward justice. This is not liberal guilt talking; this is a reality that defines white America of all political stripes.
Raul Peck, the filmmaker who created the documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” about James Baldwin, said “We don’t have two different histories; they’re the same. Each of us, each nation, each individual, each race and each gender has a role in this history and we need to confront it.”
Baldwin himself wrote: “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” It is long past time for all of us to confront the racism that engulfs us, that defines some of us and misguides some others, but deeply affects us all, to greater or lesser degrees. It is long past time to change who we are and to act on it.
Peter Fenn is a long-time Democratic political strategist who served on the Senate Intelligence Committee, was a top aide to Sen. Frank Church and was the first director of Democrats for the 80s, founded by Pamela Harriman. He also co-founded the Center for Responsive Politics/Open Secrets. Follow him on Twitter @peterhfenn.