A few months ago, my wife traveled to Memphis to meet her best friends from college. When she returned she gave me this t-shirt that she bought at the National Civil Rights Museum which has been established at the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
In my work as a civil rights lawyer, I represent clients who are victims of many forms of discrimination, including racism, but until I saw this t-shirt, I had not really thought about the role that white people need to play to regularly and actively “nullify the effect or force of prejudice or discrimination.”
Despite my professional civil rights work, in the last few years, I have realized that I need to make a conscious effort to combat the impact of racism and other forms of hatred on those who suffer from it, in my personal life as well. After all, as a beneficiary of white privilege, it would be very easy to sit back and enjoy the privileges that my white skin brings me, and simply ignore the negative impact that white privilege pounds into people of color on a daily basis.
But I have never been one to take the easy road. So, a few years ago, I started mentoring Isaiah, who was in 5th grade at the time, and will enter 8th grade in the fall. I just returned from taking him out to lunch, which I do almost every week, and he often tells me about the racism he must deal with at school and in the community. I have learned a lot from Isaiah, about what it is like to grow up in a segregated neighborhood in our supposedly liberal city, and while he educates me, I try to impart some adult advice on how to handle the roadblocks that are thrust in his way on an all too regular basis. When necessary, and with his mother’s permission, I provide more direct assistance. Our relationship is voluntary and he knows that while I am there for him when he needs and wants me, he is also free to let me know when he wants to be on his own or with his friends.
In addition, I have gotten involved in the Circles of Support program run by Madison Urban Ministry. This program is designed to provide support to individuals who have been released from prison, but are still on probation, and need support to manage the many challenges they face. I have supported four men in this way-all African-American, and currently continue to support two of them. While I hope my support for them has helped them survive the many roadblocks our society puts in front of them, including racism and discrimination against those with a criminal record, I know that each one of them has deepened my insight into the insanity of our so-called corrections system which is designed to keep these black men under the thumb of the state, rather than providing them the housing, health care, employment and education they need to live productive lives in our community.
More recently, I have provided training and support to Urban Triage which seeks to empower black parents to advocate for their children. Brandi Grayson has graciously helped me learn how to be an ally and I look forward to continuing to work with her to empower her team of black parents.
But sometimes, situations just present themselves in unanticipated ways. Yesterday, I happened to be wearing my Eracism t-shirt when I went grocery shopping at the Co-op. When I was locking up my bike, a middle aged African-American man asked me how I was doing, and I told him I was fine. He then asked me if I had any spare money as he was a homeless vet. I asked him if I could buy him a sandwich and a drink in the Co-op and he readily accepted my offer. So, I told him to just pick out what he wanted to eat and meet me at the cash register when I checked out.
I noticed one of the Co-op employees talking to him when he entered the store and then I did not see him again when I finished shopping and was ready to check out. Before checking out, I asked the employee if he had asked the gentleman to leave, because I feared that he was being targeted as some form of security threat. But, the employee said he had not asked him to leave, and sure enough, as I put my groceries on the check out counter, the gentleman arrived with a roast beef sandwich and a bottle of fresh squeezed orange juice. I just told him to put it with my groceries and then I paid for them and gave them to him.
He thanked me and then when I returned to unlock my bike, he thanked me again while he enjoyed his sandwich and juice. Then, he asked me what my t-shirt said. I showed him and explained where my wife had bought it. He then shook his head and told me that he experiences racism every single day. I told him that I believed him and then he proceeded to pull up his pants leg to show me the scars on his leg from wounds he had received in combat. He showed me because he said that others claimed he was just faking in order to get free handouts.
I shook my head and then shook his hand and told him that I hoped he had a good day.
I know that my individual acts of eracism will not, by themselves, eliminate racism in my city, let alone in the wider world. But, even if I can reduce the impact of racism on those I come into contact with, I hope I am making their lives a little easier. Engaging in active eracism has also deepened my knowledge of what it means to be black in my community and the challenges people of color face every day simply due to the color of their skin.
Perhaps if all of us took the opportunity to engage in eracism, we could actually nullify the effect or force of discrimination in our society.
For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.