MECHANICSVILLE – Back when the states, exercising their dubious “rights” felt it was their business to tell citizens what race they were, I was legally black.
That would come as a shock to many of you. I don’t look it. Maybe if you look closely enough you’ll see signs of my Asian (Chinese) ancestry, but my African heritage is buried deeper than my skin. My Chinese ancestors came to this country in steerage. My African ancestors came in the holds of slave ships.
Growing up, the Asian part of my ancestry was obvious – my mother wears it clearly in her eyes – and that was enough to get us both threatened with death in Louisiana in the early 1960s. The “good” white people of the state did not want their prized European lines contaminated even with Asian strains.
While I was obviously not “white” in the eyes of many, my main threat to their sense of superiority was my African heritage. Louisiana backed off the one-drop standard by the early 1970s, but I met the fractional standard for blackness until 1983 when the state finally got out of the business of racial classification.
I tell you this because Black Lives Matter very much to me. I wish our lives mattered to more of you.
Saturday, a group of coaches from throughout Virginia gathered around the Arthur Ashe statue on Richmond’s Monument Avenue to call for a change in the way we Americans treat our populations of color, with African Americans such as the legendary Ashe the most threatened of that group.
The gathering by the 804 Coaches for Change Saturday was a good step. I hope many whose ancestors weren’t kidnapped from Africa listen. I hope the movement started at the base of the Ashe statue keeps its momentum going forward.
But the fact is that too many of us have died at the hands of people scared of or intimated by our blackness. We have been held down, deprived of our rights and property, and treated as largely subhuman by the majority population. Our intelligence and creativity goes largely unacknowledged, our contributions to American society are minimized – or the credit for them is stolen by others. The banjo, for example, wasn’t an instrument invented by Scotch-Irish moonshiners in the Southern Appalachians.
Please, don’t tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about. Since I pass for white and grew up in a largely white community, I have heard for decades what many of you really think about us.
Sure, the white majority loves African Americans when they perform well on the field, court or stage. But only when we limit our visibility to performing well on the field, court or stage. When we demand equal treatment under the law, or when we stand up for a moral cause, all of a sudden many of the majority turn on us and treat us like pariahs.
It happened to Muhammad Ali when he practiced the kind of civil disobedience that made the white Henry David Thoreau famous: Ali chose jail over service in a military whose actions he saw as unjust. Like any man of honor, he accepted the consequences, but many white people spent years heaping scorn on him for his principled stance.
I am old enough to remember John Carlos and Tommie Smith raising their fists in a Black Power salute on the medal podium at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. I also know what many white people said about them – the words that came out do not reflect well on the speakers. Carlos and Smith (and Australian silver medalist Peter Norman, who supported them) were heroes to me then. They remain heroes to me now.
I know many whites who celebrated the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Some I overheard celebrating that murder in this century, not the last.
Most recently, I saw and heard many whites condemning former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick for his rather dignified, in my mind, protests during the National Anthem. He showed a lot more respect for this nation and its flag by silently taking a knee than many white people did quaffing beers, running their mouths, and checking their cell phones in the stands; but, somehow, he was deemed less of a patriot than they were.
We will have equality in this country when the majority respects minorities for standing up for their rights. If the majority supports us only when we perform for its amusement and condemns us when we stand up for our lives, much less our rights, all other times, the majority should not kid itself that we are being treated equally under the law – or anywhere else.
Dave Lawrence can be reached at email@example.com.