For the past 40+ years, I have been proud of the wrong thing. I attended a predominantly black high school in a predominantly black neighborhood. I once held a party at my house in which I was the only white kid. As sports editor for the Daily Californian at UC Berkeley, I interacted with many black athletes, and as a young adult, I bore witness to, advocated for, and fought alongside community leaders and policy makers, many of them black, for equal rights and opportunities. As my friend Robert said to me at the time, “you’re blacker than a lot of black people.”

I didn’t really know how to process what that meant, but it sounded cool. Being a friend to the black community was cool, and I took a sort of naive delight in it. Into my late 20s and early 30s, I had moved past seeing people in terms of their color. I had earned this pedigree, I believed. I owned the resume to defend this stance, and I had proudly proclaimed myself to be post racial.

Man, that sure was stupid.

Today, it is evident that none of the good intentions of my youth are worth a damn. Our country is as racially divided as ever, systemic racism is everywhere, and knowing in my heart that I am not bigoted is about as useful as a Facebook post that calls for us all to love each other. I sat on the sidelines of the black struggle for nearly 30 years and let’s just call this what it is: I am part of the systemic racism. I am practically the face of it — the white dude who means well but does nothing.


Black folk in America have gotten the shaft for centuries and white folk cannot even begin to fathom what it must be like for them. I’m not going to take up this space to mansplain white privilege, especially when a veritable bible exists, thanks to journalist Lori Lakin Hutcherson. White people exude their privilege precisely because they do not feel it. We can’t relate to being the only person of our skin color in a room. We don’t know what it’s like to have all eyes fall upon us as we enter a convenience store. We never think about how we must represent ourselves in the presence of law enforcement (like the man Hutcherson depicts who keeps a stuffed animal in his car, so a cop who pulls him over might see him as a black family man, not just a black man). And we don’t know what it feels like to have someone say about us, “she’s black, but she’s really smart.”

We white folk can’t understand the conversations that black parents need to have with their children about how the world is so profoundly different for them, at an age when we are wondering what to say to ours about Santa Claus. We can’t relate to the regular conference calls that black parents conduct in order to compare notes: what is the right thing to say to their four-year-olds, their eight-year-olds, their 13-year-olds? At what age do you tell them that they could be killed if they aren’t careful?

Mother Nature discriminates: more black than white people per capita die in hurricanes. Even Covid-19 is racist, felling a much higher percentage of blacks than whites.

Black people neither need nor want sympathy from me, but they sure have my admiration. They sustain and grow their culture despite these injustices, if not actually because of them. “Hallelujah anyhow,” explains Van Jones, CNN political commentator. “That’s black theology in two words. No matter what you do to us, you’re not going to steal our fundamental joy.” That is amazing, beautiful, and sad, all at once.

I am grateful the PC term “African American” has fallen out of favor; I never liked it. Not only is it potentially inaccurate (not all black people identify their roots as African), it is also weak. Black is a stronger, better word. I am white, you are black — simple and pure. I loved how Michelle Obama used her Democratic convention address to describe her daughters as “two beautiful, intelligent, black young women.”

Adding to this etymological digression is the increasingly popular usage of Black, capitalized as a proper race. Many literary style guides now consider that to be preferred usage, while interestingly, white is not to be capitalized, according to those same arbiters of style. (I understand the selective capitalization intellectually, my personal jury is still out on it, and I will use the rest of this article to try it on for size.)

The (Grass) Roots of BLM

“Hallelujah anyhow” is why the Black Lives Matter experience makes sense to me: it is a grass roots movement that does not have a charismatic MLK-like leader. Founded by three women in 2013, BLM is a bottom-up organization that almost goes out of its way to not surround itself with celebrity. “We work with everyday people,” says co-founder Patrisse Cullors, not wanting personality to supersede cause.

The murder of George Floyd became momentous for two reasons. First, BLM found an unlikely, but somehow fitting martyr in a less-than-upstanding citizen. Floyd had a lengthy rap sheet, and while he appeared to be turning his life around, he was far from a celebrity figure or role model.

More significant was how his murder galvanized millions of white Americans by the sheer awfulness of the act. It was so blatant and so incomprehensible, it cut through our white privilege right to our very core. We couldn’t imagine how this ever could have happened, which of course, is yet one more example of systemic racism.

And with that heinous act, the Black Lives Matter movement suddenly has become palatable to tens of millions of white Americans who otherwise would have disregarded it, or worse, meekly parroted that now-all-too-familiar reaction. And here, as a delightful aside, is the best retort that exists on the planet to the “all lives matter” response.

We said “black lives matter.” Never said “only black lives matter.” We know “all lives matter.” We just need your help for black lives are in danger.

Whether you regard her as a rising cultural voice or the Black person’s anti-hero (and it’s the latter for me), Candace Owens is correct when she points out that a small percentage of Black violence is committed by the police and that a larger share is Black-on-Black crime. She speaks forcefully about how Black men have to step up and be more accountable for their actions. While it might be the only area where we see eye to eye, I do agree with her about the importance of responsibility to the community and the need for Black families to remain intact.

It is okay to acknowledge this. It’s okay to draw your line about unacceptable protest behavior. It is perfectly all right to speak out against vandalism, property damage, and violence. It is acceptable to express uncertainty about events that you can’t relate to. You just can’t pretend that they don’t happen or that they are senseless and without reason.

So what can you do?

Start with the obvious: don’t be a fool like me for most of your adult life. Do not proudly proclaim your color-blindness. Acknowledge white privilege, admit to systemic racism, and concede that you are part of these very real phenomena. Then consider some of the following actions:

Advocate for 8 Can’t Wait: This initiative identifies eight ways to regulate law enforcement’s use of force: 1) ban choke holds and strangleholds, 2) require an effort at de-escalation, 3) require warnings before shooting, 4) require exhausting all alternatives before shooting, 5) duty to intervene with fellow officers, 6) ban shooting at moving vehicles, 7) require use of force continuum, 8) require comprehensive reporting. Not every one of these will be appropriate for all cities — New York cops need more leeway than those here in my town of Pleasanton. The victory will be in compelling our respective hometowns to consider them and adopt those that are appropriate.

Lobby for mandatory body cameras: What a great tool of technology that is. What an offense against sensibility that police officers are not universally required to wear and activate them.

Seek social justice: If you witness racial discrimination, legal recourse is way too slow. Post examples of it and make it shareable. Few things will get a business’s attention than bad P.R.

Push for continued decriminalization of marijuana: There is no evidence that Black people smoke weed more than white people, but there is ample evidence that Black people are arrested more for it.

Host a watch party for the Netflix documentary 13th, which explores the history of racial inequality in the United States.

Visit 75 Things: Peruse the list from which several of these suggestions came. It is a living document simply entitled “75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice.”

Hire a Black home decorator: Now that your home is your studio, perhaps you are considering sprucing it up. Here is a list of worthy candidates.

Refer Black storytellers to us: The Presentation Summit is always looking for qualified Black presenters to share their narratives. Please steer us to ones you know.

Talk to Black people: Well, what a concept! In fact, not all Blacks are comfortable speaking about race issues with whites, but we all must be held to the same standard here. We all need to get a bit out of our comfort zones.

Not a sprint

Achieving racial justice is a marathon, not a sprint, and after decades of non-action, the marathon starts with wokeness. Black people everywhere share how much they appreciate white people simply owning up to their own disregard, however unintentional it might have been.

To quote my daughter Jamie, who often acts as my mentor in these matters, “We have to learn new behaviors and unlearn old behaviors, and the way to do that is to research, read, and listen. For those of us who haven’t directly experienced racism, we need to accept that we are going to say the wrong thing sometimes, but that shouldn’t stop us from doing the work.”

Our ancestors might have been the ones who first broke this, but we have done little to fix it, having allowed a thousand little cuts over generations to become deep wounds. Our work to fix that which we helped break is not done until Black people tell us it is.

7 Responses

  1. Well said, Rick. We all need to hear this. And thanks for all the links.

  2. Candace Owens does not speak for the black community. Her putdowns of people of color are likened to the actions of house negroes who sell their own for profit. You were fine until you mentioned her.

  3. As a citizen of Germany we have our own catastrophic history of racism and murder. Fascists and racists seem to be on the rise everywhere. Turkey, Hungary and, sadly, Germany.

    We had a local community politician shot dead by a fascist killer on his patio a few months ago. Why? Because this person accepted more refugees than he needed to. He took the “Christian” in his political party’s name serious and then paid with his life for it.

    It is my problem. We need to stand up (just like you did) world wide and say NO.

    NO to institutional racism
    NO to systematic fascism
    NO to ethnic jokes, no matter if they are about Jews, black people, Hispanics, women, or any minority

    And we have to say YES.

    YES to going the extra mile in our neighborhood to make black lives matter
    YES to speaking up when we hear things that are not okay.
    YES to stand in for our convictions that ALL lives are important, no matter what color their skin has.

    Among the many that I receive these days, your email opened my eyes.

  4. I woke up to your excellent article — one of the best I’ve read. And thank you for the “what you can do” links.

  5. People are right to be upset about the death of George Floyd. I would be interested to know why, however, people believe it was racially motivated, or has anything to do with racism. What facts or evidence is there of this being about race? The fact that the officer kneeing on Mr. Floyd’s neck was white and the apparent disregard for human life demonstrated by the actions and inactions of the four officers involved does not automatically make this a racially motivated incident. There is nothing said or done that I am aware of that would indicate this is more than an inappropriate use of force, extremely bad decision making and a disregard for their training and for human life by the involved officers, all of whom are being held responsible for their actions and inactions.

    Please be careful about jumping on the emotionally charged claims of systemic racism, police brutality and targeting and mistreatment of blacks in America by the police. None of those claims are true and none are based on fact. It is an affront to the 900,000 law enforcement professionals in the 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S.. Law enforcement has tens of millions of interactions with citizens in their communities every year in the U.S. The total use of deadly force by the police is about 0.00031 % of all those interactions. Only about 25% of those involve the use of deadly force against black subjects and a very small percentage of those are inappropriate uses of force.

    Every profession, race, religion and country in the world has people who are racist. Law enforcement is no different. There is however, no systemic racism in policing and no systematic mistreatment of blacks by police in America. Both are false narratives and not supported by facts and evidence. In fact there are a number of well-educated, well-read, well-spoken blacks in the US, such as Thomas Sowell, Larry Elder, Brandon Tatum, Coleman Hughes, Jason Riley, and Walter Williams, who are very outspoken against that narrative and make a compelling evidence-based case that there is no systemic racism in the US towards black people.

    Somehow in all the hype “All Lives Matter” has become a racist statement. In fact a sign at a Black Lives Matter protest in my city on Saturday stated, “All Lives Don’t Matter Until Black Lives Do.” Think about that for a minute. Interestingly, prior to COVID-19 the black unemployment rate in the US, under the Trump administration, was the lowest it has every been.

  6. I was reminded recently of “white privilege” when a group of friends from Atlanta came up for a weekend of motorcycle riding. There were about 20 of us and several members of the group were black.

    We had stopped at a rest area when a sheriff deputy pulled in beside us. He got out of his cruiser and approached us, cordial, friendly and commenting about a perfect day to ride. He asked if he could see our ID and insurance, a practice we are all familiar with. I extended mine for him to see, but he totally ignored me and instead turned and took the ID of three of the black members of our group. He walked over to his cruiser, got inside, and appeared to call in the information. After about 10 minutes he gets out, hands them back their IDs, states that everything was in order, tells us to be safe and exits the rest area.

    I was appalled by what had just happened and apologized to my friend (one of the black members of the group). He just shrugs it off and said he is used to it. I thought the rest of the ride how it must feel, to be the point of focus out of a group, in all encounters.

    I have looked at this situation in our country differently since that day. My work takes me to some extremely impoverished areas. I have never had any issues in over forty years of work because I treat everyone with the same respect that I expect. I pray that this will end someday, and you are right, the change begins with me and it begins now.

  7. This is excellent, Rick! Thanks for taking the time to write and share this.

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