Racism and Belonging

If you have ADHD, you may be living well and still feeling that you don’t belong. Imagine being in a family or a community that for generations didn’t belong anywhere, except within that family or community. Imagine that your family has less access to resources and protection than people outside your family or community. I was disturbed by the murder of George Floyd, and countless other black citizens who have been treated as if they don’t matter. I observed the Floyd family during public events honoring his life and its meaning. It is clear that he belonged to a family and a community who loved and respected him. His life mattered. His own country was built on the backs of his ancestors. How could he not belong?

The “Black Lives Matter” slogan does not mean that other lives don’t matter. Of course, all lives matter, and that is key to the slogan. The point is that nonwhite lives matter as much as white lives. To think otherwise is white supremacy. Important black lives were excluded from my textbooks when I was school age. I only recently learned that the first black legislator in the Tennessee General Assembly was elected in the nineteenth century, before Jim Crow laws were enacted. I didn’t even know who Jim Crow was until well into adulthood.

I am not a descendant of slaves, and my family never owned slaves. And yet, like others in the majority, I benefited from an economy built on the backs of slaves whose lives mattered only in the most inhumane way. The trading of human beings would represent the largest commodity in the global stock market for many years. Female slaves who were pregnant were especially valuable commodities of a slave-based economy.

African Americans achieved so much so soon after slavery that white southerners felt threatened and passed Jim Crow laws to limit their liberty. I grew up in an era when racism was not subtle. Black citizens could not eat where I could, could not use the same bathroom, drink from the same water fountain, stay in the same hotel, or swim in the same pool with me. Segregation created problems for which our culture still suffers. Too much separation remains the norm.

I experienced a major awakening one day in 1967. I was approaching my 18th birthday when I sat through an afternoon of trials in in a Myrtle Beach, South Carolina courtroom. I observed a judge slapping the wrists of young white defendants while harshly sentencing older black men. Black defendants were given thirty days in jail for minor offenses. One man was told his sentence would be suspended if he bought a bus ticket and left town. Among the crimes of black defendants were “loitering” and using profanities while riding a bumper car.

Loitering! All of us had been loitering…that’s what you do at the beach! One of the younger white defendants had driven his car off the road and knocked down a utility pole. He explained that he was trying to kill a spider that was on the dash of his car. Everyone in the courtroom laughed at this young man for believing he would get away with such a story. He was acquitted. I witnessed racism in a place where justice is supposed to mean something. Today, people of all ages and colors are chanting “I can’t breathe.” I’m more hopeful than ever that we are turning a corner and will overcome this country’s original sin. I want to believe that “some day” has come.

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