Though I am white, and almost certainly have been a beneficiary of sometimes subtle, sometimes not, “privileges” afforded my race, Julie Delegal — recent writer of guest editorial, “Reborn or Torn Asunder,” will have to excuse me from the hard labor of white atonement.
If you are tempted, after reading that first sentence, to make certain assumptions about my attitudes and affiliations, you might want to postpone your indictments and read on. I am not, at least in the figurative sense of the word, a redneck. Nor am I a gun-toting, tough-talking, war-mongering, conservative Republican who believes that Barack Obama was born in Africa and is secretly harboring hopes that America will one day become a caliphate and bring the country under sharia law. Au contraire.
In 1988, I attended a protest on St. Johns Bluff when Ronald Reagan’s former chief henchman, disgraced, convicted felon, Ollie North pulled into the Morocco Shrine Auditorium where he was to give a speech to a crowd of angry, Southern, wealthy white Republicans. It was a long time ago, but I don’t remember seeing any black faces among the protesters that day.
That same year, I was moved to tears as I sat in my living room and watched Jesse Jackson give his now famous “Keep Hope Alive,” speech at the Democratic National Convention. I wonder … if you were to ask 100 members of the Black Lives Matter movement about the speech, what percentage would have to Google it in order to know what it was?
I voted for Bill Clinton twice, Ralph Nader, John Kerry, and Barack Obama twice and, if given the chance, I would do it a third time. Because I, unlike the rest of America, including the media — and many black people, for that matter — didn’t betray him just because of the “gotcha” moment he suffered when his administration botched the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act website.
In the run up to the 2014 midterms, while Democratic candidates were doing everything they could to distance themselves from the president, I was writing letters to the editor and calling national talk radio shows and asking why? As a result, in my opinion, that tactical mistake got the Democratic Party creamed. I don’t remember a single pundit, columnist, or any other opinion-makers, white or black, defending the unfairly maligned first African-American president of these United States. And if you don’t think those midterms were relevant to the state of relations between blacks and whites, you’re wrong.
A few months ago, I participated in the Bernie Sanders campaign with a group of mostly white kids. I realize that at that point most African Americans had already made up their minds for Hillary Clinton, which is understandable, but had they done their homework, they would have discovered Sanders would have been a far better candidate because polls showed he would have creamed Trump in the general election. Instead, here we sit, two months away from the election and Hillary is in a dead heat with a cartoon character. If Donald Trump gets elected, it is the black Americans who voted for Hillary in the primaries who will have some soul-searching to do.
If all that isn’t enough to convince you of my liberal bonafides and thereby excuse me from most of the rest of the white race in their so-ordered period of atonement, here’s some more shit in my defense. My father was an outspoken and well-known member of the Communist Party right here in Jacksonville during the ’70s and ’80s. As a tenured professor of sociology at UNF, he was most certainly the most reviled man on campus to both the student body and his colleagues, who nicknamed him Tommy the Commie. Imagine the reaction of his students, whose only exposure to politics before arriving in his classroom was a high school course required at the time, “Americanism vs. Communism.” He wrote letters to the editor and publicly questioned the status quo in live TV appearances on the old Sunday morning political show on PBS, when it was simply known as Channel 7.
Most of his ancestors were Irish and French who came to this country after the peculiar institution (slavery) had already been abolished and never even set foot in the South. They migrated north and west and, while old white families were still benefitting from the labor of African Americans and/or standing idly by while Jim Crow rained hell down on them in the South, my ancestors were hacking a living out of the unforgiving wilderness of the Oregon Territory.
My mother’s people also came late to the country and were Irish, Scandinavian and German. One of them changed the spelling of his last name shortly after arrival here in the New World, from Frantz to France, to avoid the discrimination and bias prevalent at the time against Germans. And the Irish were discriminated against and made to feel unwelcome in this country all the way up until the 1920s or so. I doubt that the masses of them who were forced to live and work in places like Hell’s Kitchen knew they were the beneficiaries of white privilege.
The last of my ancestors to arrive in America hailed from Sweden and were named Hildahl. My great-grandfather was forced to go to work for the railroad when he was just 12 or 13 years old. He spent the next 60-plus years laying track throughout the northwest United States. I doubt privileged is how he felt spending more than a half-century doing backbreaking work in cold, wild places building a railroad over the Continental Divide.
I am not dumb enough to believe that I have never benefited from White Privilege. Having said that, being white is far from some sort of guarantor of success. My home is located on the edge of northwest Jacksonville, a part of town that most people, black or white, wouldn’t feel safe in at night. As of right now, I get around town on a 10-speed bike that was manufactured in 1978, or I take the bus.
So for white “conservatives” who vote for “tough on crime” Republicans every election cycle, I think some soul-searching is just what the doctor ordered. If you’re the descendant of an old Southern family whose wealth was built on the backs of African Americans or supported Jim Crow and you want to make some restitution, by all means you should do so. If you are wealthy and have benefited from the systematic exploitation of blacks as well as any other minority, then you should make haste in your penance.
But as for me, Mrs. Delegal, by virtue of my origin and actions, I am already absolved. I may have other sins to answer for, other bad Karma to work off, but as far as atonement for being white, my toll is paid, my bill is stamped in big bold letters “Paid in Full.”
Mongar lives in Jacksonville.