Raising My White Son In A Racist Age

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The Republicans’ nearly unanimous opposition today to the restoration of the Voting Rights Act hit me hard. It called to mind a more idealistic time in my own life and in that of the nation, and reminded me of how far we have descended in the 9 short years of my oldest son’s life. Let me explain.

My son was born early in 2010. In the years before my son’s birth, galvanized by my relationship with my new wife and new experiences living on the west side of Chicago, I had experienced a racial awakening. As a good evangelical Christian, I had long ago had a conversion experience. But this was a second conversion, in many respects more thoroughgoing than the first. I began to face my racism and reorder my commitments.

I read John Lewis’s autobiography during that awakening. I remember crying. I didn’t approach it as a historian or a critic. Any subtleties or faults of this frail human being were lost on me. I felt as though I was encountering a modern-day saint. Here was a man who nearly gave his life for the right to vote. Here was a man who never wavered in his principles, who returned love for hatred, and bore in his body the evidence of his commitment.

When our first-born son arrived, we could think of nothing better to do than name him John Lewis. It was a fit of youthful presumption and idealism, I now admit. But I don’t regret it at all. It was true to who we were at that time. And it seemed to me to match the tenor of the moment. I found President Obama to be an inspirational and steady leader, and I looked forward to positive changes ahead.

I hoped that my son would grow up to be a man of courage and love in the cause of his own time, as Lewis was in his. I didn’t expect voting rights to be a cause of my son’s time too! But when my son was 3, the Supreme Court struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act. It quickly became apparent that the Republican Party that had reauthorized the Act as recently as 2006 no longer existed. The ensuing years have given us a wave of new voting restrictions, suppression, and gerrymandering as the GOP turned to overt racism as a tool to gain power.

My son lived his early years at an inflection point in American life. The post-civil rights era, a time too ambiguous to have a proper name, was ending. A new era of racism and anti-racist activism was beginning. When my son was 2, George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, and protests and vigils spread across the country. We were living in Akron, Ohio, at the time. One Saturday morning I buckled John Lewis into his car seat and headed down to the courthouse. I felt I needed to be there, and in some sort of cosmic way beyond memory, I felt it was important for my boy to be there too.

The ensuing years saw the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, which exploded to national attention during the summer of my son’s 4th year. “Where are you going, daddy?” I stop at the door. “I’m going to a protest, son.” He ponders. “What’s a protest?” How do I explain it? How do I teach him to live in a racist society when I don’t even know myself?

We bought the March books. He liked them but found them confusing. We sent him off to school where, year after year, he is the lone white face in his grade. Does it matter? Does it accomplish anything beyond making me feel that I am doing something?

Some of you might think this all sounds like a lot of pressure for a little boy. White parents with unresolved racial guilt using their son as a guinea pig. Ok.

But there’s another pressure out there, greater because invisible: growing up as a normal white kid in a normal white neighborhood. How are those kids going to resist the evil of our age?

My son will set his own course in life. We rarely talk about where his name came from anymore. But the ambitions behind it linger. A long time ago, Dr. King said that white people are sick. It’s still true. And what parent doesn’t want their children to grow up to be healthy? He will have to be loving and courageous to escape the sickness permeating our time.

During his short life, the racism of the Republican Party has become so much worse and more entrenched. We don’t know where the bottom is, but we know it’s going to affect his life, and even more so the lives of his friends and classmates in our working class black neighborhood.

But there’s no need for despair. As John Lewis puts it, “We must continue to speak up & stand up, to find a way to get in the way to build the Beloved Community.” Whatever path my son takes, I think he’s going to find a way to make some #goodtrouble.

The Civil Rights Movement Doesn’t Automatically Belong To You

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John Lewis and Jim Zwerg after being beaten, 1961

A new civil rights museum is about to open in Mississippi, and President Trump is planning to attend. That this would be taken as an affront and would cause veterans of the movement to boycott the event ought to have been obvious. Trump is an opponent of what the civil rights movement stood for. When John Lewis duly announced today that he will not attend, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders responded:

We think it’s unfortunate that these members of Congress wouldn’t join the president in honoring the incredible sacrifice civil rights leaders made to right the injustices in our history.

Does Sanders know Lewis led SNCC? Does she know about Bloody Sunday? Does she care? Does she know that Lewis has taken criticism over the years for his willingness to sit down with white segregationists who claimed to be repentant? John Lewis, of all people, has shown himself willing to give second chances to people who don’t deserve them. He would probably do the same for Trump. But repentance has to come first.

It is impossible for Trump to honor the movement without first repenting of his open and flagrant racism. Unless he does so, he’s making a mockery of the movement.

If the absurdity of the administration’s position isn’t immediately obvious, it’s only because of the general ignorance the American public has about the civil rights movement.

This is a good occasion to return to my article on white memories of the civil rights movement, published this year in History & Memory. In that piece, I show how white Americans came to mythologize white resistance to the civil rights movement as inherently violent, extremist, and ultimately vanquished. Instead of grappling with the way opponents of the civil rights movement helped create “colorblind” America, white Americans began to believe there was a vast distance between the contemporary United States and the bad old days of the 1960s. This mythology has proven so strong that even when President Trump actively promotes racism many Americans are unable to accept the plain historical meaning of what he is doing.

But others know better, as the Washington Post reported today:

JACKSON, Miss. — The president is coming to America’s poorest, blackest state to open a civil rights museum on Saturday, and people in the neighborhoods surrounding that gleaming tribute to the past would rather have Donald Trump visit their present.

“It’s hostile now, more hostile than in a long, long time,” said Pete McElroy, who employs three men at the auto repair shop that has been his family’s business for three generations. “People almost boast about it: ‘We got our man in the White House, and this is the way the ball’s going to roll now.’ ”

Three miles from the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, over rutted roads, past littered lots, abandoned houses, and shuttered plants and warehouses, McElroy, 69, and other black residents of this struggling capital city say that after nearly a year of the Trump presidency, they have a definitive answer to the question candidate Trump posed when he spoke at a rally in Jackson in August last year.

“What do you have to lose?” Trump asked, making a quixotic and ultimately failed bid for black votes to a nearly all-white crowd.

“We’re losing a lot,” McElroy said here this week. “Losing Obamacare. Where are people going to go? Losing money. He’s making the rich richer and the poor poorer. Mostly, we’re losing respect. No way you can evade that. The way he speaks, the racists feel like they can say anything they want to us.”

Trump supporters: the civil rights movement doesn’t belong to you! Have the courage of your convictions. The rest of us already see where you’re coming from. Time to be honest with yourself.