To the editor:
Juneteenth was June 19. I’m a retired white guy from the North Country. I’ve never paid much attention to Juneteenth, except that it sounded odd and had something to do with American slavery. The enslavement of Black people, much like the herding of native Americans onto reservations, was something that whites did to non-whites long ago in a much less enlightened time. I knew vaguely that white America kept the descendants of slaves in their place for the next hundred years with Jim Crow laws, picnic lynchings, segregated schools and redlined neighborhoods. I also knew it took marches, protests and many deaths for Black Americans to finally wrest equal Civil Rights from white America.
Yes, there were still far-away ghettos,lopsided prison populations and few non-whites in my town, but I grew up assuming this was all fairly normal, and was content that the Civil Rights Act had finally leveled the playing field. Then in 2008, as if to decisively wash away the vestiges of a more ignorant past, Americans actually elected a Black man as president. As I headed into a comfortable retirement in my little white corner of the world, I felt reassurance that our country was finally measuring up to our “all men are created equal” declaration.
But then 2016 happened, and a real estate tycoon, disdainful of democratic principles, became leader of the free world. His promise to “make America great again” resonated with millions of Americans. Apparently they had been harboring many resentments: the American Dream was bogus, there were too many immigrants, liberal elites were socialists, etc. They admired this non-politician who told it like it was and would drain that bureaucratic swamp. But there was a more insidious fear that this populist leader exploited: reverse racism. What if whites eventually became the minority? His popularity also seemed a backlash to the success of his black predecessor. Through four years of Trumps’s reign, we all became more aware of the racism that exists throughout society, racism that is rooted in our founding, and continues to infect our laws, policing, prisons, neighborhoods. It may be more subtle than it once was, but it is all around us.
I expect most non-white people easily recognize this racism in it’s various forms. As whites, we simply don’t experience it because we are charter members of the institutions and privileges that were built to favor us. The evidence of systemic racism and segregation is in plain sight: the communities we avoid, prisons that benefit rural white communities, the complexion of our media sources. But what are any of us supposed to do about this insidious racism we inherited and, frankly, benefit from?
Maybe it just starts with curiosity and appreciation for the efforts of local authorities and anti-racism groups. Maybe it’s as simple as putting up a BLM yard sign and not worrying about what neighbors thinks.
And maybe next Juneteenth will have more meaning than just an odd-sounding holiday.
John P. O’Neill