The Subtle Act of the “Code Switch”
Joel Leon.
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Two days ago I posted comment suggesting this article was just a bunch of blather. Several comments on my comment suggest I am truly “just a dumb white guy”, or the hope that my comment was intended as irony; it was not.

I am an average white guy who grew up in an average Midwest community where there were few people of African heritage. I matured in the 1960s amid considerable racial strife, although it did not affect me directly until I was drafted into the service of the US Army. I would like this record to show that my closest friend in the service was a young African American man; we thought and acted alike, and we protected each other against contrary views.

My life and career were dramatically affected by a few teachers who mentored me. As a result, I was able to accomplish some degree of achievement. In my career of 40 years, I enjoyed the privilege of working with many African Americans. These people had aspirations similar to mine, had thought processes similar to mine, and they achieved considerable success because they wanted to. One of the two most intelligent people I know is an African American. Before you write me off as claiming non-racist behavior by attribution, please read on.

It was my perception that the state of African American community was improving in the 1980s and 1990s. However, around 2000 something changed. I admit to knowing little about the cause of this change, but something changed. It did not affect me directly because I lived in the safe enclave of a small Midwest town, and most of my African American friends were also affluent. Then I moved to Minneapolis, and racial dissatisfaction was suddenly right in my face. I watched and read, but it was clear that I did not understand what was happening. When the Black Lives Matter movement evolved, I was at first put off, but then learned that my African American friends supported BLM. I did not understand this, so I spent more time trying to learn about BLM, what drives the movement, and it’s goals.

As is my nature, lack of understanding lead me to discuss this with friends, read more extensively, and even to volunteer in North Minneapolis. I read detailed studies by Rolland Fryer, Andrew Gelman, Cody Ross, and commentaries by Justin Feldman, Van Jones, Jason Riley, Mitch Perlstein, James Comey, Brian Anderson, John Kass, and others; a diverse set of facts and opinions. This reading lead me to conclude that relations between whites and African Americans are extremely complex, no surprise to anyone but me.

My activities as a volunteer in North Minneapolis were also instructive. I met and worked side by side with a wide variety of people, some white, some African American, some hispanic, some of middle eastern heritage. While those community members were clearly living at a different level of affluence, they thought a bit (emphasis on “a bit”) like me, they acted a bit like me, and their aspirations were similar to mine when I was younger. It was clear to me that they hoped for a path to success and wanted their families to live a safe and productive life. While working in North Minneapolis, I also observed a different community, one that I did not interact with, one comprised of young African American men living a completely different life, one that I could not comprehend. I watched from a distance; it was clear that I did not understand what was happening. I observed hate, both for other members of the community, and for whites in general. This bears some degree of similarity to the experience of members of the American Indian community; read Justin Nerburn for more on this. That these men are demoralized by years of suppression is an over simplification. It is clear that I did not understand.

These thoughts caused me to read more, discuss more. Occasionally I come across commentaries like this one, the cry of a African American man who appears to generically attribute his unhappiness to society in general and whites in particular. I reacted. There are decades of commentaries by African American men who blame their poor outcome on whites. Is there racism, yes (read Fryer), but it is not that simple. Therefore my suggestion that this additional cry, among many thousands, is a waste of space. Why? Because we need to move past these cries to understanding, which will lead to repair. The African American community will succeed when the culture moves from a desire for retribution for past sins of the white man, to understanding, to future success.

My message: There are many like me in the white community. You do not want us to empathize, you want us to understand, and work with you toward opportunity for achievement by all. So, teach me, Teach Me, TEACH ME…for with understanding, repair is possible, and we will all get to a happier place.

When I criticize this article, it is only because it does not get us there. It may induce a bit of empathy, but that is not the solution. Understanding is the solution. TEACH ME. In the words of some fine educators, this is a teachable moment.