The ingrained attitudes of old white friends are not beyond change – or at least I want to believe it


I feel a bit of a traitor writing this. Like a double agent denouncing other Whites, revealing their reaction to the Black Lives Matter protests.

The first is a friend who emailed me a pornographic joke referring to the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, playing Floyd’s cry “I can’t breathe”.

The sender frequently shares jokes and cartoons on the internet, and the group he emails them to – all in their late 60s like me – thinks it’s all a good game for humor, and that disagreement with this belief constitutes a stupid abandonment of political correctness.

I sent him a reply warning him that his drawing implied that the slow, torturous suffocation of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin wasn’t really that bad, and people didn’t really have to care. He then sent another similar joke, this time with a mixed race couple in the photo.

A second friend said he was concerned about the violent protests taking place near his home. Yet he persisted in his disapproval of the peaceful protests by Colin Kapernick and others for kneeling down when the national anthem was played in football matches.

I asked him if he had read that the protests had changed the minds of others, including star quarterback Drew Brees and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who ultimately believed there was no shortage of athletes. of respect to the flag or our troops, but rather pleaded for an end to the police taking innocent lives. He replied that he just didn’t see it that way.

A third person said he felt the need to do something as protests dominated the news. So he emailed or texted his friends and relatives who were police officers, to assure them that he was on their side. That he knew and appreciated what they did at work; and that he strongly disagreed with the ugly things written and said about law enforcement, including calls for reform: The whole system shouldn’t be portrayed as dysfunctional because of a few bad apples.

He didn’t mention George Floyd. Nothing about Chauvin’s eight-minute cold-blooded brutality. No words of sympathy or comfort for the family left behind.

The three men are kind, intelligent and dynamic personalities, long involved in Catholic and community charities, the March of Dimes and local pantries. We have debated racial issues for years.

Other white acquaintances expressed a belief that young black men would not be killed by the police if they simply stayed out of trouble like they do themselves, claiming that when black men are arrested by the police police as they walk to work or a Saturday night party, or a mid-afternoon mall, that they would be as safe as white people, provided they are polite and cooperative .

I expected college graduates to apply survey methods learned in school to recent events, to thoroughly investigate and learn, for example, a Stanford University study that found that drivers blacks are 20% more likely to be arrested. by the police – a percentage that drops considerably at night, when it is more difficult to identify the race of a motorist. Or a new Harvard study that found black people are six times more likely to be killed by law enforcement.

Yet even educated whites too often revert to the easier racist mindset they grew up with, the inertia of which seems impossible to redirect, let alone overthrow.

None, of course, consider themselves racist, which is why few have qualms about sending me the cartoons or emails, or sharing their views, even knowing that I write for the newspapers.

I continue to hope, however, that with a little imagination and increased interest due to the extensive media coverage of the protests, others might emerge from their cocoons of ingrained attitudes to see and feel what the protest looks like. excessive police violence and unnecessary someone at the reception.

That’s why I’m putting this on paper, to help open these cocoons. Expose everything to the light.

Because although racism seems more stubborn and incurable than a global virus, I have witnessed changes in whites my age, whose lifelong prejudices have been challenged and then dropped due to behavior and more compassionate beliefs of the younger generation, represented by their own children whom they love and therefore listen to more readily.

David McGrath is Emeritus Professor of English at the College of DuPage and author of a new collection of essays, “South Siders,” on life in Chicago and the Midwest. He can be contacted at [email protected].

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