There it was again. Black and white. Separated.
My brother-in-law told me that in Shreveport, Louisiana, his hometown, a black man accused of murder would have a predominantly white jury. Not because Shreveport is filled with white people—there are more black residents than white in that city.
The issue is racism. Today. Not just in the past. Not just in Shreveport.
It is possible for people with white skin like mine to live in white-skinned neighborhoods and to look at our own experience as the norm. Sequestered, it is easy to be oblivious to injustices such as this one. I know. I did it for much of my life. I still forget.
But I prefer to live in the real world, where the diversity of our experiences is noticed.
I live in Portland, Oregon, famous for our micro-brewed beer, bicycle commuting and progressive green living. We are also known as the whitest big city in the country—or, as the census would label it, the “non-Hispanic whitest” big city in the country. We have our own Jim Crowe history. Today, gentrification is growing as certain neighborhoods become white and artsy, squeezing out long-term, black-skinned residents. I enjoy wandering among the shops on two of these streets, Albina and Mississippi, but I understand the cost to the families who once called this neighborhood home. On another front, Karyn Hanson, a friend and a city of Portland civil engineer, is working on a process to shed light on institutional bias that has racial impacts.
The focus of my life work is to open up conversations across our differences. I want relationships to hold the possibility of transformation rather than remain caught in historical or present day schism and distress. But that doesn’t mean I can ignore signs all around me that things are still amiss. Waking up first requires seeing the world around me with clear eyes in order to catch sight of things that don’t make sense and degrade us all.
I can’t stand on my high horse, however. I was asleep for far too long to have any moral superiority. I’ve woken up and fallen to my knees in shame and sickness at what I saw. But the issues at hand were far too important for me to stay there. And injustice wasn’t the whole story. I know I need to stand up and bring my whole self to the conversations and actions across the gaps.
It is humbling. It is frustrating sometimes. But I don’t want my children and grandchildren to be trapped in the same racist systems as my ancestors. As we are today. It harms us all.
I’ve experienced the shifts that can happen in sustainable, collaborative partnerships. Not easy. Not quick. But absolutely possible.
Even in Louisiana or Mississippi or Texas or Oregon.
I am staking my life on it.