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Why Black Lives Matter to White People

In my life, I strive to be as compassionately race-neutral as I know how. My being a piano player and working with great musicians of color has certainly informed my understanding and relationships. But even as I do the best I can on a personal level, I’m convinced that the results of racism have undergirded and supported white lives—mine included. And that troubles me. Because while it’s a profound disappointment to me that racism is alive today—given what Martin, Malcolm, Bobby and so many have sacrificed, it is very clear that it is still with us, that Black Lives DO Matter, and that they matter deeply to white people – even if many of them don’t know it yet. 

It’s important that my lighter-complexioned siblings reflect on the history of the past 50 or 60 years. Some kind of Fox News, delusion that we white folks “pulled ourselves up by our own boot straps” has infected our memory and our intelligence. We did nothing of the kind. We had enormous help. We have collectively enjoyed the benefits of a “legacy of advantage.” And that’s true no matter how hard life may have been for us individually.

The Legacy of Advantage

Anyone who has ever waited in line at a government office or bank knows that the person behind the counter can either make us or break us. Consider how that plays out when someone shows up who has never participated in the system before, someone unfamiliar—who may not benefit from grandparents or a community that have a local base of support. Are they greeted with welcome, understanding and equanimity? Are they granted loans? Do they have the same business opportunities? How about education? Are they served fairly or are they turned away with a smile, an apology and a “have a great day?”

Racism, sexism, religious-ism and other “isms” can be very subtle stuff.

Certainly, the past few years has erased any illusion that the police treat communities equally. And that’s not just unfair. It is a clear abuse of power that has absolutely no place in the America I’ve been raised to love and honor.

I recently read a story about 1950’s federal housing allowances that were divvied up to white veterans but withheld from veterans of color. Even apart from the boldface injustice of it, consider what that kind of act does to the long-term financial security of an entire community—yet one more example of the legacy of advantage we whites enjoy.

It’s probably not our personal fault. But we didn’t earn it. We just benefit from it. And today, our denial has no place—not now and not in the one country whose immense power and wealth is a direct result of the selfless contributions and sacrifices of so many.

E Pluribus Unum

“Out of Many, One.” That statement of unity is the true American legacy—the source of all our power, promise and even our security. How so many of today’s politicians could have forgotten it—and even work in active opposition to it—only reflects our own lack of participation in the process. Too many of us have been sleeping rather than voting. It is long past time to wake up. The wolves are at the door.

60 years ago, the courts took the first tiny, tentative steps to redress inequalities that African Americans had faced for generations. Brown vs Board of Education finally acknowledged that racial discrimination was illegal in education. Truman integrated the armed forces and small victories resulted in a few limited spheres of American life. It was a start, but it could not begin to address the scale of the problem.

There needed to be a moment. A moment when we apologized for our past and current sins and stated as a national policy—as one people—that if anyone in government or business treated someone badly because of their color, their religion, their sexual-orientation, their country of origin or anything else, they would go straight to jail. That if anyone abused their official position—under color of law—to favor one group or another, they should go straight to jail. Now I’m not a believer in putting people in prison, but if we are going to have prisons, let’s be sure we’re putting the right people in there!

Since the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s, we have been held in a kind of racial stasis. While the rewriting of laws started to turn us from the explicit racist policies of the past, we have not shifted our humanity to match those written changes. We have not met the mind with the heart. And our society, our culture and our nation are reeling because of it.

It does no honor to the American spirit to perpetuate and deny the current state of affairs in our relations with our brothers and sisters of color. These are OUR people. This is OUR country. And we all have a vested interest in the outcome—even white folks like me.

It is arguable that few alive today are truly at fault. But problems don’t just disappear because most of the guilty died out years ago. It is still up to us to fix it. And it has to start with an acceptance of responsibility for what happened and an acknowledgment of the racist legacy that still haunts us. Because nothing will change until we embrace the work and each other within the context of a profound level of honesty.

I have spent a lifetime studying the music, thoughts and inspirations of great thinkers—from John Coltrane to Howard Thurman, Art Tatum to George Washington Carver—all of whom are from the African-American branch of our larger American family.

It’s long past time to be true to our real heritage—the one that recognizes and acts from an essential universal truth: that we are—and always shall be—one human family.

Let us commit ourselves to an outcome worth living for. It may be late in the game, but there are still players on the field and a victory yet to be won.

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