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A necessary education for white Americans

President Donald Trump talks to reporters on the

President Donald Trump talks to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington on Oct. 25, 2019. Credit: AP/Susan Walsh

No doubt you’ve seen President Trump’s recent comparison of the impeachment process to a lynching. Citizens, activists and political pundits have been swift to admonish the president and rightly so.

But as we struggle to make sense of his comments, let’s also take a moment to consider the conversation many of us are not having: Blithe use of racially insensitive terminology — and the ignorance it represents about our past and present — isn’t only a Trump problem. It is a widespread American problem.

Had Trump referred to lynching a month ago, I may not have felt as strongly as I do now. As a white American with the privilege of neither suffering from generational trauma nor having to live in fear of racial discrimination today, I am part of the majority group that was taught and encouraged to believe the mythic American story: land of the free, home of the brave; a place where all people are created and treated equally as promised by the Constitution.

But after visiting the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., earlier this month, I have a much deeper understanding of what the term “lynching” connotes in America: racial terrorism inflicted upon black Americans between the 1870s and 1950s in order to preserve white power.

The same racial discrimination that enabled lynching to occur continues to pervade our society in deep and damaging ways now manifested through police brutality, presumptions of guilt and the use of mass incarceration as a weapon to silence and control people of color. I believe American citizens — especially white Americans and most especially our president — share a moral responsibility to proactively seek to understand this history and its lasting legacy.

The Legacy Museum chronicles our evolution of racial oppression through four key chapters: slavery, racial terror lynching, segregation and now, mass incarceration. I listened to stories of families separated by the domestic slave trade. I absorbed over 4,000 names of lynching victims inscribed on hanging plaques. I read letters from current inmates appealing death sentences. There were thousands of life stories asking to be told, shared, listened to. I was struck by the suffering as well as the resilience of African Americans in this country.

Above all, however, I found myself stunned at my own lack of awareness. I was embarrassed to feel as though I was relearning — and sometimes learning for the first time — details of landmark Supreme Court cases and their lasting legal and cultural ramifications on civil rights. I reflected on the seemingly whitewashed version of U.S. history I had been taught in school. And I wondered why so much of the story remains either invisible or distorted in the minds of many Americans today.

I sought answers by inquiring about the response to the museum since it opened 18 months ago. Several EJI staff said they receive a large number of international tourists, but fewer domestic and local visitors. As I thought more about it, I realized that none of my immediate family members, friends or colleagues had been; few of them had even heard of the museum.

In my mostly white community, we don’t talk about our racial past or its present ramifications in our day-to-day life. Perhaps this is because it is more comfortable to ignore and, for us, it’s possible to ignore.

But our inability to openly discuss history — our “white fragility” as Robin DiAngelo calls it in her book of the same name — makes it harder to understand how modern-day practices like harsh criminal sentences that disproportionately affect African Americans are inextricably linked to slavery and lynching. Active dialogue is the first step toward recovery — recovery such that we might evolve into a more just society where all human life is valued equally, as Bryan Stevenson, founder of the EJI, advocates.

I believe every American who can afford it, such as President Trump, has the responsibility to visit Montgomery and proactively pursue dialogue about our racial history and legacy. Efforts like EJI and The New York Times 1619 Project can help open discussion.

It might be easier to react on Twitter and quickly move on than to use this as an opportunity to engage in conversations about race in America. But we, especially white Americans, must start and become active participants in those conversations. Our ability to achieve racial and social justice depends on it.

Laura Thompson Love is based in Baltimore and director of Year Up, a workforce development organization with offices in more than a dozen U.S. cities. She wrote this for The Baltimore Sun.