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THOMPSON: Why some people can't understand the Black Lives Matter movement

August 31, 2020 - 12:00 PM

I have friends, even relatives, who say they don’t understand the Black Lives Matter movement. They recoil, claiming “White Lives Matter” or “All Lives Matter.”

The problem is white folks don’t often suffer the indignities and injustices of individual racism, and institutional racism doesn’t exist for white folks. I know because I’m white.

If you’re black in America, you’re more than three times likely to die at the hands of police than I am. So, until that changes, there’s no real need to shout, “White Lives Matter!” It would be different if white folks like me were dying suspiciously at the hands of police nationwide. Black folks are.

I’m a 70-year-old white man...from the South. I am the definition of privilege. I overcame life’s challenges through some talent, a modicum of intelligence, stubborn persistence and a measure of good luck.

But it was easier for me than many others...who lacked an advantage I had at birth. My success was more likely because I was white and male...the same race and gender that has always shuffled and dealt the cards in America. You see, I never played against a stacked deck...the cards were mostly with me...and certainly never against me.

I’ve been a world traveller since I was 20...visiting 60 countries and living in three. I’m a veteran...serving four years in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam era. After graduation at the top of my class from the University of Florida with a B.S. Degree from the College of Journalism and Communications, I worked as a journalist, a public relations professional and  speechwriter in Washington, DC, Wilmington, DE, New York City, Florida. My career has been an uninterrupted string of challenging and interesting high-profile positions that paid well. I have lived, by any account, a charmed life.

I was never refused service based on my race. I was never told I couldn’t buy a home in any neighbourhood...or turned down for a mortgage on any of the five homes I bought. I once got a mortgage on my signature...and a copy of a single tax return. I drove new cars...never fearing a credit check. In 55 years of driving - other than three speeding tickets - I was never stopped by a cop. But when I hung out with a black buddy in the Air Force in Tampa in 1970, every time we left the base with him driving, cops pulled us over.

I’ve seen a lot though...enough to know that some people I liked had a harder time simply because they weren’t white...weren’t men...or had the great misfortune of being neither. I grew up in Ocala, FL with parents who lifted themselves into middle class respectability during the 1950s. They worked long and hard and deserved their rewards. But the widespread - and not always unspoken - belief held by many other white folks was the most educated blacks across town...whether doctor, lawyer or businessman...were not the equals of my parents.

When I attended all-white Ocala High School in the mid-1960s, black business leaders and clergy hand-picked a half dozen black students from Howard High School - the all-black school across town - to integrate the school. They chose the top black students...knowing anything less would be dismissed by the white community. It was a common theme...you had to be twice as good...just to have a chance at being equal.

I soon learned what these black teenagers had come to know...as young as they were. You see, they lived in what decent white folks then called “colored town.” Racism was as much a part of my hometown as the banks, the restaurants and the stores that “reserved the right to refuse service” to anyone. No doubt, there were better...and worse places...in America if you weren’t white.

There were two movie theatres in town...and two drive-ins. The Marion Theatre didn’t allow blacks...even after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 “ended” segregation. The Ritz - re-named the Florida Theatre in 1957 - allowed blacks...but through a separate entrance, with no lobby access...and seating in the balcony only.

Little League and Babe Ruth League baseball were whites only...so was the recreation department and so-called city pool. The black kids had their own Little League teams...often with cast-off uniforms from the town’s white teams. They had their own pool. Blacks had their own municipal golf course...in a time when budgeting the white-only course was a financial  strain. That’s how deliberate the effort was to keep blacks separate from whites.  Everything - groceries, drugs and sundries, clothing, barbers, restaurants, churches, hospitals - was segregated. Civil rights laws be damned.

Black families couldn’t visit Silver Springs...Florida’s top tourist attraction before DisneyWorld...just a short drive from my home. Blacks had a separate swimming area and beach one mile from Silver Springs...Paradise Park...owned by the same white man. Indeed, the only blacks allowed in Silver Springs were the “captains” of the glass-bottom boats and the custodial staff.

In 1967, the law of the land meant you could enter Silver Springs whether black or white. But like the Scorpion-and-Frog parable, Silver Springs closed its swimming area and beach rather than let black folks mingle with white folks in the same water...on the same beach.

I’ve witnessed these kinds of racism my whole life...from individuals who claimed to be the pillars of their communities to religious folks who went to church every Sunday and Bible study on Wednesday night. I watched deacons of the First Baptist Church block members of the local Seminole tribe from entering church services...ironically on the day the preacher’s sermon was “Love Thy Neighbour.” 

Sadly, most of the white folks I grew up with - friends and neighbours - were good people...but were caught in a intrinsically racist society...and were all too often either unwilling to do the right thing...or simply turned a blind eye rather than make waves. Some stood up against racism...and we’re often shunned.

Race relations has taken a step or two forward with a step backward throughout my entire life. But I never faced what every black man in America knows from the time they wear long pants...the deck is stacked against them. Put up a fuss...and you’ll pay the price...maybe with your life.

And for too many years, local and national politicians, school boards, police, courts, churches...the powers that be...conspired against truth, fairness and equality. Still, to this very day, Trump and Republicans don't want equality...they want America to look like the snapshot they hold firmly in the memories...the 1950s.

As for me, I’ve never had a relative or ancestor who was lynched...who was beaten...or shot...or harassed day after day, year after year. How must you feel if you are black and love America...actually fought for America...and see yet another unarmed black man - Jacob Blake - get shot in the back seven times by police? That wasn’t last century in Kenosha, WI...it was last week.

So, friends and relatives, when you see Black Lives Matter on a sign or a shirt...don’t take umbrage...it’s not diminishing you. It’s people rightfully claiming what we white folks had from birth. You see, you don’t have to give up anything for everyone to live with the rights and privileges due all Americans.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines. His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.

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