Walsh’s Wonderings — The uncomfortable conversation
Sixty years after Harper Lee wrote To Kill A Mockingbird, its chilling story of an African American man caught up in a broken system remains as relevant as ever. Lee framed the devastating effects of racism in a way reality rarely can because the reader is clear on who did what and why; we are free to assign the roles of hero and villain with some degree of certainty. Only now, with the advent of body cams and shaky cell phone footage, is the real world finally allowing us this more complete narrative of incidents once framed solely by those “in charge.”
As a white man raised in a middle class home, I have a limited vocabulary to comment on issues of race. I’m painfully aware that my comments on racial issues are like having someone who’s never tried to swim explain the process of drowning. I can only relate my understanding in terms of my very narrow experience.
During a late night discussion in college when I felt particularly enlightened, I once told a friend I didn’t see her color, just her. She sighed, “If you don’t see my color, you don’t see me.” In trying to share how I didn’t look at her differently because of her skin color, I disregarded her story because I couldn’t get my arms around it. It’s like giving up when having trouble pronouncing someone’s name and deciding, “I’ll just call you Fred.”
People are struggling to wrap their arms around this last week’s violent protests over George Floyd’s death in much the same way. It’s hard to attack even the more questionable actions of the protesters because of the underlying, uncomfortable truths behind their anger. The African American story began with the indefensible: the ravages of slavery. It continued with the indefensible: a hundred years of systemic denial of basic rights through legislated segregation after slavery was finally abolished. It continues with the indefensible: the terrifying number of cases in which African American voices and opportunities have been silenced by those who abuse their power.
It’s hard to blithely argue that protesters should inherently trust a legal system with such a long history of injustices behind it. Americans are still alive who remember how Alabama falsely convicted nine African American teenagers with raping two white women during the Scottsboro Trials of 1931 even though one of the women admitted fabricating the story. In 1955, they saw the “not guilty” verdicts for the two Mississippi men who admitted to lynching 14-year-old Emmett Till for having the temerity to whistle at a white woman. Generations watched the coverups of these acts of “local justice,” whether the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963, the Mississippi Freedom Summer murders of 1964, or any of the thousands of other hate crimes that history shows us were either excused, permitted, or sometimes even perpetrated by law enforcement.
We don’t have to condone the burning of buildings or looting we see at some of these protests; we simply need to be open and truly willing to listen to the frustrations of marginalized people at moments like these. I see the woman screaming at the police officer behind the plexiglass shield and I see the mother of Walter Scott, Ahmaud Arbery, and the thousands of others who’ve mourned the disappearance of their sons without the comfort of clarity surrounding how it happened. I see myself under different circumstances.
I also look into the eyes of that police officer and see fear, the confusion that complete strangers he’s sworn to protect with his life assume him capable of the same inexcusable act that killed George Floyd. I see my brother in his eyes, an Oregon cop who truly cares about people, and realize how easy it is for us to paint an entire people with one brush when sometimes all we have in common is a badge or a skin color.
One thing is clear: we can’t continue to avoid the uncomfortable conversations around race if we hope for justice. Even imperfect players like me have a role in making novels like To Kill A Mockingbird seem dated and obsolete. Until then, we could learn from one of its main characters, Atticus Finch, when he says, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”