A Question for White Racists

I am a 66-year-old white man who has seen and known racists who are white, and I have a question I’d like to ask them.

Now, how things and people come to be (and why) are not matters I am degreed in. I am, however, fortunate, if that’s the right word, to have lived a life in which I’ve not had the yoke of racism hobble my character. However, I’ve seen white racists and known white racists and, I have a question I am bound to present respectfully, because people are free to be bigoted if they want to be.

I have a memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. asking an audience, angered by an attempt a white man in his fifties had just made to punch Dr. King, and I paraphrase honestly. “If you had been told, every day of your life, for more than fifty years, the blacks were bad, what would you believe?” 

And there it was, the beautiful thought-clarity and spiritual sense of justice of Dr. King, pointing out a salient, heartbreaking reality.

All bigotry is learned.

Back to my question for white racists. Clearly, one of the basic tenets of white racism is rooted in the believe  you are, because you are white,  in some way superior and preferable to the black and brown races. In short, the lighter skin reflects a human value you believe is lacking in black and brown races.

And so, to my question.

If white people are superior to black and brown people, because they have lighter skin, then someone needs to explain tanning to me?

All those white folk out there on the beaches, trying to do what, get a tan. They are trying to get darker.

When is the last time anyone heard a black or brown person say, “Oh sweat, look at the time, I need to rush down to the Pale-ing Salon, see if I can’t, lighten up a bit.”

Here’s a fact. Bigotry never defines reality accurately.

A letter to President Barack Obama

Dear Mr. President,

Roy Innis said a kindness to me years ago that significantly lifted my spirits. It was related to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a hero of mine for as long as I have memory. I’m 63. It occurred to me that the kindness Mr. Innis offered me is more accurately applied to you. Mr. Innis and I were members of a panel on a Newsradio 88 talk show in NYC in the wake of the Bernie Goetz shooting incident, December 22, 1984.

That I was on the panel with Mr. Innis was related to my experience with gun violence; I was held up and shot in the head at point blank range, August 24, 1984, the bullet remains lodged in the brain. Also, I was one of the co-founders of the NYC Chapter of Victims for Victims, a victims advocacy group, founded in 1982, by actress Theresa Saldana. Years ago, Jim Brady and I met during a Handgun Control (now Brady Center Against Gun Violence) convention. The moment was not without its humor; we agreed we were the founders of The Can’t Duck Worth a Damn Club of America.

Before I tell you what Mr. Innis said, I’d like to first, please, share a few thoughts with you.

I can’t begin to imagine what you are experiencing now, other than to point out the obvious, that we are in a democracy-gut-check wake-up call moment. Only when it happened, when this man was elected, did I realize something, nearly in an instant. The moment we are in now was bound to come. My hope is that we are witnesses to white power’s last gasp.

As for this election outcome, the fact is we the people dropped the ball. You didn’t. If even for a moment you notice your mind drifting in the direction of blaming yourself, please call it on back. Many of us, and that includes me, made the mistake of believing we were more healed on the bigotry front than we are. In short, we couldn’t help but be the flawed, sometimes dopey, and sometimes dangerous creatures, our species is capable of being.

While I wouldn’t wish your experience on anyone, Mr. President, I am grateful beyond-the-reach-of-words that history chose you when it did. It is inconceivable to me that anyone could have handled and managed the task of being the first black president with, what history will show — and many of us already know — the level of greatness you brought to the job. Your greatness, Mr. President. I’m dead serious. It’s not just charisma, a gift we’re all lucky you have, it’s your uncanny ability to manage your interaction in the moment you’re in, without taking your eye off the ball, while at the same time understanding the moment’s role, or potential role, in history. It’s like that moment in “Team of Rivals” when Mr. Lincoln was told the time had come to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, I think in Seward’s office. Lincoln had been shaking hands all morning with White House visitors. His arm and hand were a bit sore. When he lifted the pen to sign, his hand was a little shaky. He put the pen down, explaining to his staff that if his signature looked shaky, people in years to come would think he wasn’t sure about the proclamation, and, of course, he was. As you know, he waited until his hand calmed, and signed. He understood the moment he was in. Therein lies the brotherhood you have with this man.

Mr. President, you’ve recognized the moment of history you are in every step of the way with uncanny accuracy, you did your best for this country and all its people, every step of the way. And, you never lost your cool! Though, if my fantasy of dribbling, say, Ted Cruz up and down the court came true, and you were the ref, I’m willing to bet you might not call the foul, at least not right after the first dribble.

To Mr. Innis. On the panel, Mr. Innis sat to my right, Sen. Alfonse D’Amato was on my left, William Kunstler and Curtis Sliwa sat across the way. Mr. Innis proposed that civilians be trained and armed to help keep the streets safe. I disagreed, saying that I adhered to the nonviolent methods we learned from Dr. King and that arming civilians seemed to replicate the arms race. While I believed Mr. Innis’s proposal was from the heart and well-intentioned, he’d lost two sons to gun violence, I thought it misguided.

It was in the moments right after the show ended that Mr. Innis said the kindness to me, that I, Mr. President, would like to say to you. When we stood up and shook hands, I told him he was someone I admired. I told him Dr. King had always been one of my heroes, and how much I wished I could have known him. And then, it happened. Mr. Innis looked at me with a smile and said: “Martin would have been very proud of you tonight.” It was one of the most mind-blowing, beautiful things anyone had ever said to me. So, let me tell you now, Mr. President, Martin would be very proud of you. So would Malcom and Nelson Mandela. So would Rosa Parks, Medger Evers, Emmet Till, and, yes, Mr. Lincoln. All of them and more, Mr. President, would be proud of you and grateful that you are, indeed, the truly good and decent and courageous man you are.

I am one of many who genuinely love and care about you and your family. If our paths ever cross, my hope would be to shake your hand, give you a hug, and thank you in person.

By the way, the rallying cry that I am encouraging those around me to use, is: We Shall Overcome because Yes We Can. Like I said, Mr. President, Martin would be proud of you.

With great warmth and respect,

Peter S. Kahrmann

 

  • A hard copy of this letter was mailed to the president on November 18, 2016