The silence of White moderates: Bystanders must take a stand against racists if we want to end racism
“I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’” – Dr. King’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail
I’ve had many White people over the years tell me about being embarrassed by the openly racist behavior of friends, family members, co-workers, neighbors, and such. As much as I appreciate that honesty in sharing, it really does not change much. People being a witness and refusing to do anything out of fear of repercussions is why racism refuses to go away.
We live in a society where White people view racist acts up close and personal. They are in the room when a person of color who just finished a job interview is called a racial epithet after they leave. They are in the private boardrooms when a racist remark is made by a leader of the company when no people of color are present. They attend meetings with school board members when racist remarks are made but not put into the official meeting minutes. White people see their co-workers follow Black customers around a store while some White person is shoplifting on the other side of the store.
White doctors and nurses are in the operating room when their peers make racist remarks about an unconscious patient of color. White people are in the teachers lounge when their peers make racist remarks about the Hispanic students they teach when no teachers of color are around. These bystanders are on the scene when their White peers harass, beat and sometime kill innocent people of color but hide behind a blue wall of silence, refusing to snitch on their fellow police officers.
Instead of doing the “right thing,” these bystanders bite their lips and later tell a person of color about this horrible behavior they witnessed. I understand that doing the right thing is fraught with possible negative consequences. Someone needs to do it though.
Racism will never be mitigated simply by people being woke if they don’t do something that may be tough. The issues Dr. King spoke of in 1963 are still as relevant in 2021.
As I sit and read countless stories of school board meetings where people make ridiculous arguments that the teaching of the history of racism is somehow harming White children I see the same pattern of bystanders refusing to stand up and make their voices be heard. They are afraid for obvious reasons. Fear should not be a deterrent if you are really woke. When I hear people say “don’t argue with them” I want to throw up. Someone needs to say something.
“First they came for the Communists And I did not speak out Because I was not a Communist Then they came for the Socialists And I did not speak out Because I was not a Socialist Then they came for the trade unionists And I did not speak out Because I was not a trade unionist Then they came for the Jews And I did not speak out Because I was not a Jew Then they came for me And there was no one left To speak out for me.” – Martin Niemöller
In what other instance are people in favor of something told to sit idly by while people speak out against it?
Even calling yourself woke now as a White person comes with negative consequences. In the past they would have publicly called you a nigger-lover, now they do it privately. They whisper in the corner of their yards over the fence to neighbors that such and such is a nigger-lover because they have a Black Lives Matter sign in their yard or window.
America took its racism underground under pressure from the former Soviet Union, which used it to make America look bad during the early days of the Cold War. The de-segregation of the armed forces in 1948 by President Truman partially happened because of Cold War propaganda by the Soviet Union. Openly racist actions during the Civil Rights Movement were used as fodder by the Soviet government to show the world America’s hypocrisy in shouting about democracy, freedom and liberty for all, while denying it to people of color.
America has taken a turn back to openly expressed racism and many often use what’s called dog-whistle language. The problem with dog-whistle language, which is simply the use of coded words and phrases to express racist views, is that more than just the dogs can hear it. Do you honestly think people of color have not decoded this rhetoric?
Back in 1954 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional and even further back in 1948 when they ruled that racial restrictive covenants to keep neighborhoods all-white, were unenforceable, the nation had to begin hiding from openly expressed racism. America was shamed into changing because people around the world tuned into newly created television sets to watch the brutality of American police in Birmingham and Selma.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau there are just over 36 million non-Hispanic White men and nearly 41 million non-Hispanic White women who are old enough to have been alive when the final major Jim Crow laws were still perfectly legal in 1968. That means 77 million White people are still walking around in this country with at least some knowledge of living during the time when Jim Crow discrimination was mandated by law in multiple states in this country.
Prior to the Civil Right Movement, few of these White people were openly challenging the status quo. Some did join the Black Civil Rights struggle, some participated actively in the Chicano and Native American Civil Right struggle. The courage of this very slim minority of White Americans led to some of them becoming martyrs in the movement.
William Lewis Monroe, a White postal worker from Baltimore, Maryland, was shot and killed during a one-man march against America’s segregation on April 23, 1963 and his story is not known by many.
Likewise, Rev. Bruce Klunder, who was crushed by a bulldozer while protesting the building of a segregated school in Cleveland, Ohio on April 7, 1964, is a person whose bravery has not been remembered by most Americans.
More well known are Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner who were murdered along with James Chaney in Philadelphia, Mississippi on June 21, 1964. Unitarian Minister Rev. James Reeb’s name is in many history books after he was beaten to death by a mob of White men in Selma, Alabama on March 11, 1965. The shooting death of Viola Luizzo, a mother from Detroit, while riding in a car with a Black man in the aftermath of the Selma campaign on March 25, 1965 is very well known.
In fact, these murders received more attention than the untold number of Blacks murdered during the Civil Rights Movement. White Americans in some places were appalled at White people being murdered, but had little empathy for the Blacks who had lost their lives in far higher numbers. U.S. Presidents, and the press paid particular attention when White martyrs lost their lives.
Those courageous few are examples that can be followed today. No one should lose their lives fighting against racism, but we know that it has happened time and time again in this country. This anti-racism work is difficult and dangerous. It is also necessary. America has never changed without pressure. Racism will not change without pressure.
Along with that pressure will always be a counter-pressure from those who want to maintain the status quo. Their voices are often louder and more impactful simply because well-meaning Whites are too often quiet. It’s time for more to understand Dr King’s words in that letter:
“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”