I feel slightly traitorous writing this, like a double agent ratting on other white people by disclosing their reactions to the Black Lives Matter protests.
The first is a friend who emailed to me a pornographic joke referencing the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, playing off Floyd’s cry of, “I can’t breathe.” The sender frequently shares internet jokes and cartoons, and both he and the group to which he mails them seem to believe anything is fair game for humor and that disagreement with that belief constitutes a silly surrender to political correctness.
I responded and warned that his cartoon implied that Chauvin’s slow, torturous asphyxiation of Floyd was not really that bad and that people do not really have to worry about it. He subsequently sent the same joke, but with a mixed-race couple in the photograph.
A second friend expressed concern about violent protests taking place close to home, yet persisted in his disapproval of the peaceful protests by Colin Kaepernick and others kneeling when the national anthem is played at football games. I asked him if he read that the protests had changed the minds of others, including star quarterback Drew Brees and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who were finally persuaded that athletes were not disrespecting the flag or our troops but were pleading for an end to police taking innocent lives. He replied that he simply did not see it that way.
A third person confided that he felt a need to do something when the protests were dominating the news. So he emailed or texted his friends and relatives who were policemen to assure them that he appreciated what they do on the job and that he strongly disagreed with the ugly things being written and said about law enforcement. The whole system should not be painted as dysfunctional because of a few bad apples, he wrote.
He did not mention George Floyd. Nothing about the eight-minute, cold-blooded brutality of Chauvin or about the family left behind.
All three men are kind, smart, and dynamic personalities, long involved in Catholic and community charities, the March of Dimes, and local food pantries. We've debated for years about racial matters.
Other white acquaintances have expressed the belief that young Black men would not be killed by police if they simply stayed out of trouble the way they themselves do, maintaining that when Black men are stopped by police on the drive from work or from a party on Saturday night or from a shopping mall in the middle of the afternoon, they would be perfectly safe as long as they were polite and cooperative.
I had expected that some would have applied the methods of inquiry they learned in college to recent events, to investigate in-depth and learn, for example, of a Stanford University study that found Black drivers are 20% more likely to be stopped by police, a percentage that plummets dramatically at night when it’s harder to identify a motorist’s race. Or a new Harvard study that determined Black people are up to six times more likely to be killed by law enforcement.
Yet even educated white people too often revert to the easier racist mindset they grew up with, the inertia of which seems impossible to redirect, let alone overturn.
None consider themselves racists and have no compunctions about sharing their views.
I continue to hope, however, that with a little imagination and increased interest because of the prominent news coverage of the protests that more might step out of their cocoons of entrenched attitudes to see and feel what excessive and unnecessary police violence looks like to someone on the receiving end.
Because even though racism seems more stubborn and incurable than a global virus, I have witnessed changes in some of my contemporaries in their 60s and 70s, whose lifelong biases have been challenged and then relinquished because of the more compassionate behavior and beliefs of the younger generation, as represented by their own children whom they love and to whom, therefore, they more willingly listen.
David McGrath is a former Hayward resident, an emeritus English professor at the College of DuPage in Illinois, the author of “South Siders,” and a frequent contributor to the News Tribune Opinion page. He can be reached at email@example.com.