The triumph of the United States is that it has shown the world the glory of freedom.
The shame of the United States is that it has not allowed African Americans to be free.
The denial of freedom for African Americans has been part of the country virtually from its beginnings. It became a way of life for white Americans and for black Americans. Racial inequality is part of our culture.
The great mystery of racism is how it evolved into a problem that white people can’t see. Black people can see it but they can’t fix it, because they don’t have the power. Race in America is a problem that white people must solve. Before we solve it we must see it.
For 400 years, white Americans and black Americans have been on a journey. They have been traveling side by side, free white Americans with black Americans waiting to be free. It’s as though we left on a trip 400 years ago, two trains on parallel tracks, whites on one train and blacks on another. We’re going to the same place, but we’re traveling separately. African Americans have sometimes told themselves they are on a train to freedom, but that isn’t true. Freedom isn’t a destination. Freedom is a way of living, and freedom is on the white train. Since Brown v. Board of Education and the civil rights legislation in the 1960s, white people have told themselves that anyone can get on their train, any time, even the people from the black train. That isn’t true, either. That is what has to change.
When George Floyd was murdered, it was as though our two trains stopped at the station, side by side, and we all got out to stretch our legs. We walked around Minneapolis, walked around Los Angeles, walked around New York City. We walked all around the country. Now it’s time to get back on board, and we have an opportunity. We can rearrange the cars, so white Americans and black Americans will be on the same train when we leave the station. We can make the second train the baggage train, and we can fill it with our white baggage and their black baggage. (We can put all those statues on that train, too.) The baggage train will follow us. Eventually, as we travel together, we will simply leave the baggage train behind, on a siding somewhere. Our baggage will be history.
The trains are leaving the station now. One way or another, black and white, separate or together, our journey will continue. The time has come for us, black and white, to travel together. The time has come for African Americans to be free.
The time has come for white me to look at white you and say “we need to change, you and I.” The time has come for us, maybe for the first time, to acknowledge and examine our racial baggage, the baggage that is largely invisible to us. We need to open our suitcases, look inside for a few minutes, then close them up and put them on the baggage train. We need to talk to each other, white-on-white, to share thoughts and feelings and uncomfortable truths about what’s in those suitcases.
The easy choice would be to board our white train and watch as our black neighbors climb back onto the black train. We need courage and determination to make the hard choice. The easy choice would be to forget the little bit that we’ve learned, to go back to not seeing and not hearing, and to move on with our comfortable lives. We must be willing to be uncomfortable.
If the promise of America is to be complete, we must all be on one train. White people have made the easy choice for too long.
Each person’s trip is different, because each person carries their own suitcase. We need to examine our baggage. We don’t need psycho-analysis; we don’t have to dredge up every event from our personal history and ascribe some greater meaning to it. There’s no blame to be assigned, there’s no guilt to agonize over. We’re not looking to assess responsibility. We just need to look long enough to understand what we’ve been carrying in that bag and how it has affected us as we travel. We need to see our culture so we can change it.
In some of these essays, I’ll look at my baggage. Maybe you will see things in my suitcase that you have in yours.