Whites Should Learn Our History to Understand Our Pain

Your Take: Exposing more whites to the historical narrative of brutality and mistreatment would engender more compassion and understanding of racial perspectives.

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A family on Aug. 25, 2014, visits the memorial set up for Michael Brown on the spot he was shot in Ferguson, Mo.  

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

When I was a very young boy, I decided that it would be fun to draw swastika images on various objects that I owned. My parents were outraged and made me remove every one. Realizing that I had no idea what I had done wrong, my dad sat me down and explained that Adolf Hitler and the Nazis had used the swastika as a symbol of their murderous party, which had perpetrated one of the most brutal, state-sponsored, inhumane schemes ever imagined against Jewish people: the Holocaust. He wanted me to understand that the mere use of that symbol created pain for Jewish people, and it could actually represent an endorsement and celebration of Nazism and anti-Semitic brutality. I never forgot what my father taught me.

Without those early instructions from my dad, my ignorance might have persisted into adulthood and I could have become an anti-Semite without knowing it.

Just as swastikas remind Jews of the Holocaust, African Americans recognize symbols that linger from the inhumane era of slavery and the humiliating days of segregation. Unfortunately, too few white parents are sitting down with their children and helping them understand the black American experience in the manner that my black dad sat me down and explained the nature of the Jewish experience. And it certainly is not taught in schools.

This is one of the significant ongoing misses that causes blacks and whites to see so many social realities so very differently in this country. It is this gap in knowledge that is revealed whenever we have an incident such as the death of young Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. When blacks describe distrust of police, when blacks are skeptical of investigations involving police shootings of blacks and the potential for partiality in police prosecutions, too many whites find that critique incredible.

This incredulity is an indication that not enough white Americans have been taught about Emmett Till and Medgar Evers. Without such knowledge, they really don’t and can’t understand.

In a country where white children were once released from school early in the South to witness the lynching of a black man while refreshments were served to the audience, blacks who know that history can easily compare the dead body of Michael Brown lying, uncovered, on the ground for hours in a public display to that of a black man hanging from a tree at the end of a rope for the entertainment of white gawkers. Whites who were never taught that history could easily believe that blacks are just irrational, paranoid race-baiters.

Perhaps if more white children were exposed to this African-American narrative as I had been exposed to the Jewish narrative, more whites would be able to understand the rantings of so many blacks that may seem to be complete racial hyperbole. Perhaps if more white Americans knew the story of Birmingham, Ala., in 1963, they would realize why the presence of tanks, police dogs, tear gas and smoke bombs in Ferguson provoked such ire among blacks and concerned others.

Perhaps it would help the country if more white Americans knew that the U.S. Supreme Court once stated that black people are “beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” (Coincidentally, those words were written in the Dred Scott v. Sandford case of 1857, and Scott lived in Missouri.)

Although civil rights laws have been passed to reverse this and other anti-black Supreme Court decisions, such as Plessy v. Ferguson of 1896, the plethora of racial disparities that appear to be intractable social realities are indications to many that the dominant American belief system of black inferiority has not changed at all. I personally disagree that there is rampant hatred among whites for black people or that there is a conspiracy to destroy young black men. But I know the history, and I do understand those who truly believe that.

We are all obliged to respect the justice system in the adjudication of the Mike Brown case and to assume that Officer Darren Wilson is innocent until proved guilty. While that system does its work, we should all monitor the process to ensure fairness.

But what we must also do is expand upon efforts to share the narratives of those who are different from ourselves. When the smoke clears in Ferguson, if we have done this sharing, we may still have disagreement on strategies to ameliorate racial disparities, but we should, at the very least, have a greater understanding of racial perspectives.

The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.

DeForest B. Soaries Jr. is senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset, N.J., and author of dfree: Breaking Free From Financial Slavery. You can follow him on Twitter or read more on his website.

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