ESSAY #10 – 10.13.20 POSTED 5.5.21

Where We Are, Part 1, 2nd in the Series

If we are going to take a journey, we must know where we are going, but more importantly, we must know where we are. There are 400 years of history here in America, but our modern history, the story of where we are, begins with the progress brought about by the Civil Rights Movement and the end of the Jim Crow Era.

Where We Are, Part I – Second in a Series of Essays on Race, Repair-ations, and Reconciliation: Resetting the RelationshipYears ago, as a management consultant in corporate America, I would begin my first meeting with each new coaching client with a question: “If we were going to go somewhere, what would we need to know?” Everyone could identify the first, most obvious thing—we would need to know where we were going, of course. But amazingly, most people struggled to realize the second thing—we would also need to know where we were. Otherwise, the journey could easily head off in the wrong direction.

I was only able to be one step ahead of my clients because of my experiences as a fraternity pledge in college. When I pledged, there was this thing called “taking him for a ride,” which consisted of a group of active fraternity brothers grabbing a pledge or two, taking them for a ride in a car, and dropping them off an hour or so away in a completely unfamiliar place—leaving them to find their own way home. Although it might sound unfair, we didn’t mind so much, as pledges could do the same to active members, and there was always drinking involved.

But when you find yourself staring down a straight, moonlit dirt road at 2:00 AM, surrounded on either side by eight-foot dried-out corn stalks, getting home is not a simple proposition. Today, our phones tell us where we are and how to get everywhere, but in the early ‘70s, when I was a simple young white guy pledging a fraternity at my local university, phones had cords and didn’t leave the house, and drinking while driving was often only punished with a stern warning. Hmmm, times have changed.

But back to my coaching clients—the thing I found interesting about this initial conversation with these extremely bright, well-educated, mostly (but not only) white over-achievers, was that they almost never knew where they wanted to go, and seldom knew where they were. Oh, they knew where they worked and what city they were in, but they didn’t have that same general knowledge about themselves as employees. They didn’t really know where they were in relationship to their employers and co-workers, or what their strengths and weaknesses were in relationship to what was expected of them. That told me that we needed to have a conversation that would generate a self-evaluation.

An evaluation of this nature does not identify “the truth” or any other absolutes. What it does is reveal a relative, personal understanding of the evaluatee’s paradigm for viewing their own life. Similarly, for this country to begin a conversation about healing the racial discomfort that we have been trying to avoid, we need to understand our own paradigms—where we are. There is no true story, because it lives in each one of us as individuals—a perspective on race that was formed over time, through conscious and unconscious experiences. As nothing stays the same, and almost everything we do informs our perspective, we all have a different set of memories and a different story to tell. That’s important, because what happens over the next few years regarding racial issues and relationships will have a lot to do with how well each of us knows our own story, and whether we know that it is just a story, and not the truth.


Speaking of which, now I am going to tell you a story. It is not a true story. It will not be full of facts and verifiable data. It won’t even be my story (because although I do like to hear myself talk, doing so would make this too long, and then no one would read it). It is just a story, from a perspective (mine) designed to fit these pages, so you can see how it fits your story (yes, you also have a story).

As I write this, in a week, it will be 69 years since my birth, and I will be entering my 70th year as a denizen on this dirt clod hurtling through space. A lot has happened in this country since I was born—much of it taken for granted by people just twenty years younger than me, because for most of us, the only history that matters is the one that started sometime between being four and ten years old. The greatest conflagration of all time, World War II, ended a little over six years before I was born, killing 60 million people, and although all the adults in my life were affected by it, for me, it was just something that happened a long time ago.

It seems to me that a lot of people also think of the Jim Crow Era and the Civil Rights Movement in this country as things that happened a long time ago. I was 12 or 13 years old when the Civil Rights Movement heated up in the early ‘60s, and before that, I had no idea that there were still places in the United States of America where black people couldn’t vote, have a meal, or get a drink of water. And they weren’t called “black people” back then. The N-word was commonly used, or the more respectful terms, “negro” and “colored.”

It wasn’t that white people suddenly became generous with black folk, and it’s not that there wasn’t already a lot of good will on the part of a lot of white folk—this there was. But what it took to change things was that black folk had to demand equal treatment in a way that the country could not ignore. They protested in the streets, peacefully walking toward the batons and water cannons of white police officers and their fierce dogs. People—mostly Blacks, but there were white people with them— were beaten, and the jails were filled. Just to be clear, these were people singing songs and walking in public. They weren’t rioting or vandalizing the community.

In the mid ‘60s, Lyndon Johnson, a Southern man who happened to be president at the time, pushed the Civil Rights Bill and the Voting Rights Act through, and in doing so, alienated many of his white Southern friends and colleagues, who maintained lifelong resentment for what was “done to them.” If I were to prosecute in the courts the case of those who felt aggrieved, I would have a lot of difficulty proving their damages, as there is no identifiable thing of value or ideal that was taken from them (unless you count their perceived right to subjugate another group of people).

Nevertheless, they experienced the pain of loss, as they were forced to accept that other people should have the same rights as them—rights that were not then and never would be taken from them—only shared. It is human nature to resent somebody with more power (like the government or maybe some old white guys) telling you what you can or cannot do, regardless of what is right or wrong. It just hurts, even when the event is incredibly ironic. Feelings don’t follow logic—one of the great bummers of life, especially for Old White Guys. Some are still experiencing the phantom pain of the amputation of that particular limb.

Over the next couple of decades, public schools were integrated, often forcibly, and Blacks were allowed to attend the nation’s universities in growing numbers. Blacks were also able to buy homes in more neighborhoods, thanks to changes to legal deed restrictions that previously limited ownership to Whites only. Progress was made through increasing day-to-day contact between Whites and Blacks, and through providing more opportunities to Blacks across the board.

Both public institutions and private industry created Affirmative Action policies, which encouraged the hiring of minorities, and the federal, local, and state governments enacted policies that gave preference to minority-owned businesses. These policies did make a difference. When I attended my 50th high school reunion, I saw that many of my black classmates were school teachers, one was a lawyer, another a playwright, and others were corporate managers or entrepreneurs—and all were the first generation in their respective families to attend a four-year university.

Also at that time, black people started showing up in TV advertising. Prior to that, it was assumed that putting Blacks next to your product would undermine its reputation and sales. Apparently, that was not a problem, as the practice grew—and another myth was shattered.


In my second year on a school board in a midwestern town in the shadow of Ann Arbor, I sat next to Janey, the newest elected school board member. We were seated in order of seniority, and she sat in the last seat on the left. I used to mutter playfully to her, and we became friends. She is bright, articulate, much more politically savvy than me, and she is black. (When I first wrote that sentence, I used the word “was,” and then realized that Janey still is all those things, including black, and our relationship was not just something in the past—there is a present-day connection that still has all the playfulness, fondness, and trust that existed when we first met almost 40 years ago.) I left my hometown a couple years later and moved south, but Janey is still there. She not only stayed on the board but became president, and eventually ousted the black superintendent that we (she, I, and a couple other white guys) installed in the last weeks before I left town. He tried to play the race card with her—bad move, Dude.

Janey moves through the world like color isn’t an issue, and her life has been, as she reports it, pretty much free of negative racial experiences. She said her first experience of racial discrimination was in her mid-twenties. Around the time (early ‘70s) my father sold our six-bedroom home—the aging of the flock requiring many fewer bedrooms—to the first black family to move into the neighborhood, Janey bought a home in another white neighborhood in our town. The seller changed his mind later that day, saying he didn’t want to upset the neighbors (my father probably never considered that, or if he did, he obviously didn’t care). Janey, in her simple, straightforward way, gave him a little advice: “I told him to call his lawyer and ask if he could do that.” He did, the transfer was made, and Janey, in due time, checked with the neighbors. They weren’t concerned about it at all. And that is the only time Janey remembers experiencing racially motivated discrimination in her life. Don’t get me wrong—she is not naive or asleep. If she senses you are snubbing her because of her color, she will subtly and efficiently eviscerate your elevated sense of self. You will feel it, and you will not know how it happened.

Janey’s story tells us how the progress of the past 60 years—great progress, for which we can all be proud—has permeated our society. However, this progress is not the whole story, and there is more to be done.

Just give it some thought, as you read the next two essays.