Today, January 18, is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. While Eternal Perspective Ministries doesn’t close for every holiday, every year I make sure we’re closed for this one. I want to send a message that it’s a serious and legitimate holiday that deserves observance. It’s less about one man than it is about a vision, a movement, a value of reconciliation between people of every tribe, nation and language. (The picture above is of me greeting Dr. John Perkins, one of my heroes in the faith.)
I’ve been reading Under Our Skin: Getting Real about Race—and Getting Free from the Fears and Frustrations That Divide Us by Benjamin Watson, which I highly recommend. Much of what Benjamin writes about has reminded me of what I learned in researching for my novel Dominion, which addresses racism.
In this excerpt from Dominion below, my main character Clarence Abernathy, an African American journalist, discusses issues related to race with to his friend and coworker Jake. There’s a lot of action in the book, but this is a fairly long dialogue, one that will hopefully help you think a little differently about racial issues:
“Yeah. Of course.”
“Don’t say, ‘Of course.’ White folks think they want blacks to be honest with them, but usually it turns out they don’t. How often have I thought about the color of my skin? Try every waking hour of every day of my life.”
“Are you serious?”
“Dead serious. Did you ever look through those black magazines I gave you?”
“Yeah, I did. It was really amazing. Every picture was of blacks—every subject of a feature, every writer, every advertisement had people with black skin. I don’t know if I saw a single white, except a few in Urban Family.”
“Now imagine,” Clarence said, “if when you grew up every magazine was like that, every television commercial and every billboard showed only people of another skin color, not yours. How do you think it would have made you feel?”
“Marginalized, I suppose. Out of it. Like maybe something was wrong with being white.”
“Exactly,” Clarence said. “That’s just how it was when I grew up. I’d look through all those magazines and the Sears and Montgomery Wards catalogues and wonder what was wrong with being black. Now if I was white, I wouldn’t think about it either. When you’re in the driver’s seat, you don’t think about conditions in the back-seat. When you’re born into a privileged class you just take it for granted. The people who think about it are the ones who weren’t born privileged. It’s a birthright thing. Kids who have plenty of food don’t think about the fact they have food. But when you’re hungry, it’s always on your mind.”
“I guess I don’t think of myself as being privileged,” Jake said. “I mean, I’ve worked hard for what I’ve got.”
“I’m not saying you didn’t. And I’m not blaming you for anything, Jake. It could just as easily have been me born white and you born with my good looks. But that’s not how it happened. Didn’t you tell me once your grandfather ran a hotel?”
“Yeah, in Colorado. His father built it. He worked with him from the time he was a boy. They did the building and maintenance and my great-grandmother did all the cooking and cleaning, then passed that on to my grandmother. Nothing came easy for them.”
“I’m sure it didn’t. But you’re telling me your great-grandparents established their business back in the 1800s and they passed skills and resources and economic experience and training from their generation down to yours. Right?”
“So you’re the beneficiary of generations of hard work and education and opportunity and freedom. But see, while your great-grandparents were doing all that, my great-grandparents were forced to till the Mississippi soil and pick cotton until they couldn’t straighten their backs. They worked even harder than your ancestors, but
the difference was none of it benefited their children or grandchildren. It all benefited the next generation of white children.”
Jake sat there, not sure how to respond.
“So you see,” Clarence continued, “your ancestors worked to pass on advantages to you, and my ancestors worked to pass on advantages to you. I’m not trying to lay a guilt trip on you. But you have to realize that’s the way it was.”
“But my ancestors weren’t slave owners,” Jake said.
“Are you sure?”
“Well, I’m pretty sure, at least going back to my great-grandparents.”
“But it’s not that easy. See, the whole country, south and north, benefited economically from the work of the slaves and the sharecroppers. Your ancestors worked hard. Mine worked even harder, but with one big difference. Yours worked hard as free people, choosing the kind of work they’d do. They experienced the rewards of their work. That’s capitalism at its best. But mine worked hard at the bloody end of a whip, and they didn’t receive the rewards of their work. Their white masters did, the white plantation owners did, and during sharecropping the white landowners did. With the dirt pay during Jim Crow days, the whole white community benefited at the expense of black folk, who just scraped by. Didn’t you tell me your daddy went to Harvard?”
“Yeah, he did.”
“I’m sure he worked hard to get there. But my daddy dropped out of school in third grade to work fourteen-hour days on land owned by white folks, to help feed his family. Your daddy was born with an opportunity my daddy wasn’t. Your daddy’s opportunity and your ancestors’ opportunity came, at least partially, at the expense of blacks.”
“I’ve never thought of myself as privileged—certainly not at somebody else’s expense.”
“Privilege is like being born tall in a world that revolves around basketball,” Clarence said. “If you’re a seven footer, basketball’s going to come easier than if you’re five foot six. Now a seven footer can say, ‘I had to work hard to become a great basketball player.’ Yeah he’s right, but he’d be a fool not to realize he was born with advantages that helped his dream come true. There’s no substitute for hard work. But your daddy’s hard work and my daddy’s hard work didn’t bring them equal advantages, not financially or educationally. Now character, that’s something else.”
“Maybe I’ve gotten used to privilege and it feels like I earned it all,” Jake said.
“Well, if some white folk are too slow to see their advantages, some black folk are too quick to see their disadvantages. I’m the first one to admit that, Jake. See, my daddy never let his disadvantages rob him of hope or keep him from working hard and building the best life he could. I hear some black folk whining all the time, when the truth is they’ve got all these advantages Daddy never dreamed of. The whining makes me sick. But when I hear some white people born with the silver spoon in their mouths talk about how everybody just needs to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, well that makes me sick too. Truth is, black people have had freedom such a short time, we haven’t gotten real experienced at using it. Then there was the whole welfare thing and all those freethinking white university professors in the sixties that pushed this me-first family-destroying lifestyle that cut us off at the knees. I don’t even want to talk about that, it makes me so angry. I’ve never been happy with liberals or conservatives on racial issues. Anyway, next time you think maybe I’m angry, there’s a good chance you’re right.”
Jake nodded. He seemed unsure what to ask next, but Clarence didn’t need more prompting.
“Tom Skinner used the example of a baseball game. The game starts, and one team—let’s call them the White Sox—takes the lead. Next thing you know they’re up 10-0. The other team, Black Sox, has been trying to get their attention that something’s wrong. Well, come the seventh inning the White Sox finally notice the Black Sox have been playing the whole game with one hand tied behind their back. So, they say, ‘Okay, we’ll untie your hand. Batter up.’ Well, by now the score is 20-0, and we’re in the bottom of the seventh inning. The White Sox have mastered the skills necessary to play the game. The Black Sox are now able to play with both hands, true enough, but they’re used to playing with one and they don’t have the experience yet and their one arm is really sore, some of their shoulders are dislocated, and they’ve still got the rope burns. Given all that, and the score being 20-0, who do you think is going to win the game?”
“Yeah,” Jake said. “I hear you.”
“And by this time, some of the Black Sox are going to give up trying because who can overcome that lopsided score? They’ve gotten so used to being disadvantaged that even when they’re untied they don’t think there’s any hope of catching up. Some of the black team adjust and excel, yes, but some just feel despair and anger, and some just give up and sit on the bench or throw rocks at the privileged team or fight with each other in the dugout.”
“Racial problems really aren’t getting better, are they?” Jake said, voice weighed down.
“For some people, they are,” Clarence said. “For others, it’s pretty much the same as always. And for other folks, it’s just getting worse.”
“I’m embarrassed to say I never used to understand all this talk about racism. But lately the lights have started to turn on. Race is a burden for you it’s never been for me.”
“Burden is a good word. More than anything else, I just get tired of it all. I’d like to put on white skin for a few weeks, not because I want to be white—I don’t—but just so I could take a break, have a vacation. Just get the hay bales off my back awhile, that’s all. So I wouldn’t have to face the issue again and again every time I see a police officer looking at me, or I drive up next to someone at a stoplight and hear them engage their power locks. Some days I’m just so worn out by it all. I can leave my briefcase at home, but I can’t leave my skin at home. Being black is a full-time job. Every class I was ever in, every white church I ever went to, I was expected to be the black voice, as if all blacks think alike. Somebody’s doing a story and they need to talk to a black man, they call me. You know Jake, if you ever get dog-tired at the Trib, you can put your head down on your desk and snooze a few minutes. I’ve seen you do it. I can’t do that.”
“Because when you do it, you’re just a man taking a snooze, probably because you stayed up late working hard. If I did it, I’d be a black man—lazy and probably up late partying or taking drugs. Cheating my employer by stealing his time. Proving black men are as bad as everyone thinks.”
“Come on, Clarence, you’re overreacting. Nobody would think that.”
“Maybe not everybody. But some would. That’s just a fact, Jake, whether or not you believe it. Dr. King used to tell the story of a man walking past ten drunk men, nine of them white, the other black. The man shook his head and said, ‘Just look at that black drunk, now would you?’”
Jake looked at Clarence like a student listening to a professor, in over his head, but struggling to understand.
“Have you ever figured out,” Clarence asked, “why I dress up when we go to a store, even a sporting goods store?”
“Beats me. Just thought you like dressing up. It’s always struck me as weird, I admit.”
“I love to go casual. Jeans and a sweatshirt, that’s what I really like,” Clarence said. “But I also want to shop in peace. I get tired of the salesclerks asking, ‘Can I help you?’ every five minutes.”
“I don’t like being watched.”
“Clarence, what are you saying?”
“That I’m a black man,” Clarence’s voice thundered, “and black men are expected to be shoplifters! There. Can you understand that?”
“Sorry, man. Didn’t mean to upset you.”
“It wasn’t you. Sorry.” Clarence raised his hands and waited to regain his composure. “If you’re a white man wearing jeans and a sweatshirt, you’re just another customer. If you’re a black man wearing jeans and a sweatshirt, you’re just another suspect. Dressing up makes me look successful. So it helps compensate for my skin color. Sometimes it’s enough to keep store security from breathing down my neck all the time.”
“I had no idea,” Jake said. “Are you sure—”
“That I’m not overreacting? Hey, I’ve got friends who are doctors and attorneys, and they do the same thing. If they dress comfortable, they’re a suspect. It gets really old.”
Clarence and Jake talked for another hour.
“Got to get home, bro,” Clarence said. He hesitated, then added, “Hey, thanks for asking me about this stuff. And thanks for listening to me. I feel better just talking about it.”
Jake put his arm around him. “Thanks for talking to me, brother. It gives me a lot to think about. It helps me understand you better. And know how to pray for you.”
The two men walked out the door side by side.