I was asked to be an analyst at the age of 12. I was beginning the seventh grade when my father asked me if I wanted to plan a trip. I eagerly said “Yes!” and he told me we were going to Israel that winter. I immediately began gathering as much information as I could about our next destination. When one thinks of a trip to the Holy Land, a pilgrimage comes to mind. For me, a pilgrimage is a journey taken in search of meaning and truth. When I looked back on all my travels, I realized they had all been pilgrimages. My parents were trying to reveal the truth to their children. I wanted to make our trip as meaningful as possible.
Israel was a land of conflict then, as it is now. In 1970, the Six-Day War was fresh in everyone’s mind. I planned the trip to see as many sides as possible. We rented a car. My father drove and I navigated. We traveled through the West Bank and around the Golan Heights. We saw Roman ruins and Bedouin encampments. We visited Palestinian villages and Jewish kibbutz. Of course, we toured the religious holy sites. I saw first-hand one meaning of the expression; truth is the first casualty of war. Each side existed in its own version of truth which often contradicted the truth of its neighbor. I saw this was feeding the conflict.
Upon returning to the states, I recognized the parallels between what I witnessed in Israel and what was happening here. We too were in a war, a racial war that had been occurring for hundreds of years. Wars inevitably have objectives, and the apparent objective of America’s race war was white dominance. It had been carried out with brutal force and subtle campaigns. Like Israel, the U.S. could trace the origins of the conflict to its conception. Both lands were founded on the ideal of entitlement at the expense of others.
The ’70s were a heady time in Charlottesville, like other progressive liberal towns and cities, it tried to deny its racist underpinnings. It elected its first black city councilman. Integration was becoming the apparent norm and efforts were made to look ahead and ignore the past. The University of Virginia became a coed institution and the school gained its reputation as a “party school.” I attended anti-war demonstrations on campus where Black students were few and far between. Blacks who were admitted seemed to believe it was a privilege to be there, which only added to its allure.
The more I ventured out alone, it became apparent to me that people I met often perceived me to be of different races and ethnicities. There were interesting similarities. Those assumptions were usually made within the first moments of an encounter. Most of the time there, was no attempt to verify those assumptions. There was a stark difference in treatment depending on the assumption. For someone who aspired to be a “racial weatherman,” this was an opportunity to observe and be the fly on the wall. Some have told me that they feel that this is deceptive or that I’m trying to “pass.” When I joined the Navy in 1980, the white recruiter reviewing my paperwork looked up and casually said, “Your experience would be better if you said you were white.” I simply said no. I know who I am. I know my life’s journey. I know what I’m seeking. It’s not an advantage, rather understanding.
What’s plain to me is the extent to which systemic racism permeates America. At every level, the winds of racism blow. They have blown in one direction since the beginning. Systemic racism is fueled by white supremacy in the same way weather is driven by air flowing towards low pressure. Everyone in this country is affected and has been affected by racism. There is a distinction between the two that we must each recognize. When a president says to Black people, “What do you have to lose?” It’s a not so subtle way of saying, “You have nothing of value!” When a Black person talks about “good hair” and “fair skin,” they may not realize it, but they too are expressing the effects of systemic racism.
Systemic weather is controlled by the forces of nature. Systemic racism is controlled by forces of the heart. Therefore, only a change of heart can change the climate of racism. We can learn from the past what doesn’t work and what does. A look at the past will reveal a cyclical pattern of racism that we don’t seem to be able to break. I’ve often heard it said recently, “We’ve been here before.” As someone who has been observing these things for a while, I would have to agree. So how do we change the trajectory?
First, I believe it begins with acknowledgement, acceptance of the truth. That truth must grow from within to change our heart. Recognizing that racism occurs in someone else or someplace else does little to change the system. It just creates an opportunity to point the finger and make one feel good about oneself. To believe it occurred in a different time and therefore we have no responsibility only allows for it to fester and reappear. We must recognize that accepting the truth is for the common good and we all benefit. We have to undertake this soberly, knowing it is not easy or without pain. For far too long, Blacks in America have carried the burden of racism. Now we all must share.
We need to realign our self-image with reality. Our self-image here and abroad has not fit what was happening on the ground. American exceptionalism will only take us so far, then we must deal with what we’ve created or didn’t bother to create. The longer we postponed that reckoning, the harder it will be.
Finally, we must embrace truth. I believe we have been lulled into the false belief that the increase of information would foster truth. We have seen the opposite happen, we now have alternative facts and facts that are manipulated. Although we like to think we have a moral based society where truth is treasured, a quick look around would show us this is not the case. I sometimes wonder why would anyone tell the truth. There is usually a larger cost than benefit. It’s when we realize that it is truth that knits us together and when it frays, we fall apart, only then we will truly embrace it. We’ve done it with the weather. Why not do it with racism?