After decades as a progressive, I thought I understood racism pretty well. But now, as we’re hearing more stories and seeing more footage of brutality against African Americans in ways that would never happen if that person were white, I’m starting to get it. I feel sad hearing Black parents, no matter how affluent and professional, talk about having to have “the talk” at some point with their son about how to behave in the world. How to carry yourself, how to talk to a police officer (“yes, sir,” “no, sir.”) How frightened those parents are every time their son goes out for the evening. Will he come home safe? The fear of a policeman’s flashing red lights in your rear-view mirror. Will that pull-over for a broken tail light or going seven miles over the speed limit result in death? And speaking of “no matter how affluent…” etc., remember the incident in which Dr. Henry Louis Gates, who teaches at Harvard and has written books and appeared in documentaries, was arrested while entering his own house? Because it was in a nice neighborhood, and he is Black. Of course he must be a robber.

You would think after George Floyd that police officers would be cooling it, would be extra cautious, but no. Shortly after, we had Rayshard Brooks, an incident that started with his being asleep, drunk, in a Wendy’s drive-through and ended up in death. I will confess that liberal as I am, I have always been afraid of black men unless they are quite obviously non-threatening. I am afraid of black women, because I assume they resent me. But no, it’s the other way around. It is Black people who are afraid to be out in the world, and with good reason, in a world, in a country where “white” is the given standard and anything else is a noticeable deviation from that standard.

How to be an ally, or at least how not to inadvertently be a jerk? Is it simply to get out of the way? Is it, as Rev. Al Sharpton said, to just “get off our necks”? Not being able to breathe, it means not being able to live, to relax, to spread your wings, reach your potential. What is our role, or is it obnoxious to think we have one other than to stay away?

When I was in my twenties, I volunteered full-time for Cesar Chavez’ United Farm Workers. For many of us young idealistic Anglo volunteers from middle- and upper-class backgrounds, it could be awkward. What were we doing there? We could totally believe in and support the cause by boycotting lettuce and grapes. But to be out in the field organizing workers, to be doing the administrative work of the organization? Sure, it did something for me: brought meaning and vitality to my life. And what I came to see very clearly was that our best work was to pave the way for the workers themselves to run the whole show. I found that the Mexican farmworkers themselves, while sometimes puzzled, were warm and hospitable. The only place I felt I was resented was once in Denver among young Chicanos. I’m thinking now of a time I attended a foreclosure prevention meeting on Minneapolis’s north side, which is largely Black. I was one of only two, at most three, white people in the meeting, and they didn’t know me. The fellow who had organized me hadn’t been able to make it at the last minute, so I was there on my own. At the beginning of the meeting, we had to go around in turn and introduce ourselves. After that, the woman leading the meeting pointed to me — I, who was trying to unobtrusively sit in the back — and asked in front of everyone why I was there, what was my purpose. One of the more uncomfortable moments of my life. I was there trying to help, but she was suspicious. Or who knows, maybe just puzzled.

After George Floyd’s murder, I wondered whether I should post anything on Facebook. I hadn’t been active on FB for some time. But it felt too important not to say anything. And I kept seeing slogans like “Silence = Violence,” “to say nothing is to be complicit.” So I posted something. And woke in a sweat at 2 in the morning worrying about it. Had I said the right thing? Was I just trying to show off to my friends that I was “woke”? Who was I to post a call to action (“Now is the time.”) when what the hell was I doing about anything?

But here’s what I saw on the news. Here is a difference between 2020 and the 1970s that I’d experienced. Of the protestors, most were young and at least half of them were white. On the Today Show, Al Roker, who remembered the protests of the ’60s, and Craig Melvin, both of whom are Black, said that this was a great positive difference, that it gave them more hope that change would really happen. They welcomed us. And once again, young people are marching in the streets for justice. In recent decades I’ve felt sad at the passivity of the American public, especially when we’re talking about youth. People seemed to care mainly about their careers, their own prosperity and not much beyond that. I’ve read statements by people in other nations to the effect of “Why aren’t Americans marching in the streets at what goes on in your country?”

Well, now we are. Or rather they are, the young. I’ve heard the young blame the baby boomers for the messed-up world we’ve left to them, that maybe it’s fine if we do die of Covid-19. #okboomer. This hurts. We are the ones who said that very thing about our own parents, about the polluted, shallow-valued, war-mongering, racist world they gave us. So I don’t think the young are fair in saying that, or rather, generalizing about it. But maybe it’s healthy. The young should always have the fire of idealism and rebellion.