My White Privileged Life
Luke 6:27-31; Matt. 7:10-12; Matt. 22:39-40
Our scriptures this morning in the teaching of Jesus are said to be found in every major faith tradition. It would come as no surprise that some formulation of the “Golden Rule” would come from Christianity since Judaism is a faith that was first given to slaves in Egypt who were seeking to find their own independence and freedom, their own place at God’s table. And we read them again today, on Martin Luther King Day, to remind us of the higher vision that we have in the United States to open the playing field to all of our citizens and keep that playing field even that all of us might realize the potential that is within us.
It hasn’t been that way for the majority of our history as I was reminded again this week. On the day before the national college championship football game, the New York Times had the obituary for Willie Evans. When Willie was in college at the University of Buffalo back in 1958, he was an outstanding halfback that led his little college to an 8-1 record for the year, demolishing Harvard and Bucknell in the last two games of the season so that they got a bid to the Tangerine Bowl in Orlando, Florida.
The stadium where they held the Tangerine Bowl was actually administered by the Orlando High School Athletic Association and they had a rule that prohibited black and white players from playing together, so the Tangerine Bowl committee wrote the coach at Buffalo that their star player, Willie Evans, would not be allowed to play in the Tangerine Bowl.
At the time, the team made news by boycotting the Tangerine Bowl in solidarity with Willie.
The next night, we all watched the national championship game where the Clemson Tigers beat the favorite Alabama Crimson Tide in a spectacular last minute play. At any given time during that game, probably 18 of the 22 players on the field were black, a testament to what our world can look like if we just give all people access to the field to show what they can do.
I was an infant when Willie was denied his day just for being black, but I remember that world, because my people were the tail lights of history on basic civil rights. We were pulled forward, our heels digging into the soil of the past, recalcitrant, unbending.
I’m amused reading these articles and books, written by graduates of Wellesley and Bowdoin college, that discover, much to their amazement, that their life has actually been quite a life of privilege simply because they were born white.
In the deep South, in Mississippi, Louisiana where my ancestors were from, in Memphis where my grandparents live, in Little Rock, Arkansas where I went to elementary school, you lived white privilege every day, several times a day. It was not subtle, even as it was being legally dismantled and culturally transcended.
I was born into a world that had a two-tiered class system. You had white society and the help who worked for them. And it was to be ever thus, even as it was legally coming to an end. So my childhood was William Faulkner meets Rod Serling from the “Twilight Zone”, an echo of an earlier time that had outlived itself and everyone knew it but us.
It started before you were old enough to be aware of it. Our maid growing up didn’t usually refer to me as ‘Chuck’. I can’t remember when but early enough, she would refer to me as “Mr. Chuck” in front of other adults. So did the maids that worked for my grandmothers and it continued for that generation through the end of the 60’s.
There were lots of daily interactions between blacks and whites that pointed up this deference, from the fact that maids wore uniforms and we wore whatever we wanted to wear, to the way that grown black men looked at the ground when they were being challenged by a white man, lots of these mannerly ways of interacting between the races in this inequitable system. So manners kind of took the place of morals.
We never questioned that whites and blacks lived in two different realities. White people had cars. Black people took the bus. White people lived in the City Center. Black people lived in shanty towns outside the city.
I remember them from my childhood, driving from Little Rock to Memphis. The white towns were right on the two lane highway, with electric lights, gas stations, and a diner that was open. Kinda like Mayberry with Sherrif Andy Taylor.
Then you’d go through cotton fields that lined the Mississippi river on the flat lands of the upper delta. And you would see black towns that were usually off the highway a bit, with no lights- usually just a single light, no gas stations, no commerce that was visible from the road of any kind really, rural, houses that weren’t painted. And the thing I remember the most as a kid is that some of them had no screens to speak of. The bugs in this area are formidable. I always wondered how they slept without screens or electric fans. People walked. Occasionally a man would have a very old truck. Dogs without collars.
I remember some of the houses didn’t have grass. No outdoor faucets, no suburban hoses. No indoor plumbing either. So the grass couldn’t grow. So some of them would rake the dirt in front of their shanties in these lovely patterns that were pleasing to the eye.
Wretched poverty. As a child, peering out the window in the sweltering humid air in the middle of the summer, you knew it wasn’t right. But I never remember hearing any white adults saying anything about it at all.
I saw the movie, “The Help”. It was hard to watch but they depict the way the deep South went through the 60’s like the rest of the country, suddenly developing these modern suburban homes with air-conditioning, manicured lawns, and the weekend parties with high-balls and suits. It was the Madmen era for White people in the South.
But the premise of the movie I found incredulous. If white women had been able to identify with the plight of black women in the early 60’s, there would have been no need for the Civil Rights movement. I just don’t remember any examples of empathy.
Black people were just supposed to know their place and accept that, of course, they would only ever earn a third of what white people made, that they would only live where most banks would not lend, so their property was worth a third of what suburban property was worth, so their schools were perpetually inferior, so very few attended college and those that did were only eligible to attend black state schools or historically black colleges if they were exceptional students.
This started to change in 1965 but it was really slow to change because there were precious few economic opportunities for self-development for black people in the rural South. Corporate America had a minimal imprint. Today, Memphis is the hub for Fed Ex.
But in the 60’s, I remember driving with my uncle in his truck. He was my only relative that didn’t go to college and he was only 12 or 15 years older than me, so it was very cool to be with him. He worked at a warehouse, a huge plant, right on the Mississippi river. He was a foreman, even though he was only in his early twenties, and there were dozens of middle aged black men that worked for him because the company wouldn’t allow black men in management positions, no matter what experience or education they had.
When Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, he was there because the sanitation workers were on strike. They were on strike because they were paid abysmally low wages. All the drivers of trucks in Memphis were white. All the guys that actually picked up the trash were black. And one of the main arguments that Mayor Loeb of Memphis used for not paying the black trash collectors more money is that one of the perq’s of their job was they got to salvage anything in the trash that they picked up that effectively supplemented the small wage that they City of Memphis was paying them. That was a serious argument and black people ought to know that we aren’t about to pay them what we would pay white people.
I just want to point out that this was 1968. This is not ancient history. It is within the lifetime of quite a few of us gathered here today. The history books remember Mayor Loeb as a throw-back Southern racist for his orders of police brutality during that strike and his over segregationist policies.
But it was more complex than that. Mayor Loeb was born Jewish, graduated from Phillips Academy in Massachusetts and then to the Ivy league at Brown University in Rhode Island. He converted to the Episcopal church after he became Mayor. It is a plot line you might read in Robert Penn Warren’s All The King’s Men. I don’t have any sympathy for Mayor Loeb, but he wasn’t a figure that was as far away from our people or as long, long ago as we might think.
My family fled the South. My Dad went to work for I.B.M. and sold computers in the early 60’s. Ross Perot said that selling computers to companies in the early 60’s was like selling umbrellas in a rainstorm, everybody wanted one.
I once asked my father why he did that because he knew that IBM stood for “I’ve Been Moved”. He said, “In the South I always would have been someone’s boy”. He meant by that, there was a fairly strict social order and family name really determined your destiny economically and socially in the South. There was very little mobility.
We moved to Arlington Heights, then an all white suburb of Chicago on the north side, then to South Bend, Indiana, another all white suburban development, and then to Fairfield County in Connecticut (Weston and Westport). My high school had one black student who was from Bridgeport (then nearly all black) on a gifted and talented program, where he lived with a white family during the week I believe.
We left behind the crude mores of the South that were based on white privilege. Our richest guy in the deep South was Sam Walton of Walmart, simple world, simple product. I had no idea of how sophisticated privilege could be.
Big houses on plots of several acres, surrounded by stone walls, little hidden driveways that are a quarter mile long, lined with primrose. I remember asking my girlfriend (at 15) what her family was doing for Christmas. They were going skiing in Val D’Isere. I had no idea what she meant, not even how to spell it. I finally tracked it down in the library. They went skiing in the French Alps.
My grandparents had never been to Europe, let alone fly us all over for a few days of skiing over Christmas. I had no idea there was a Westport Commuter Club, with their own train car, where men could play bridge and sip scotch on the way home.
William Paley, the President of CBS, lived near us. Sometimes you would see his helicopter pick him up for work, flying right over head. Now that is how you commute to work. I’d never known anyone that had a limo driver. I had no idea that some people went to private school their entire lives and then to the Ivy league and then get networked into investment banks like Goldman Sachs.
I had never seen grandmother’s on the upper East side that had the concierge make dinner reservations for their family at exclusive clubs when they rotated between their properties in Bermuda, Manhattan, and Nantucket. The Metropolitan Opera Club, fundraisers for MOMA, the Hampton’s. Wow, this is sophisticated privilege. The sum total of what I didn’t know.
45 years later… I take it for granted in the sense that it is just part of our world. If New Yorker’s have a common commitment to any one thing, it would be privilege. We believe in it in the sense that this is how we live our lives week in and week out. We work hard for perq’s and we measure things in terms of perq’s.
We don’t have racial privilege exactly. We believe in economic privilege but it has a strong racial cast as it must because a lot of us here didn’t really have access to the playing field until the last generation.
Princeton University didn’t accept women until 1969. Before that, for a short 200 years, our top institutions of higher learning were almost exclusively open only to white men. Wake Forest didn’t admit a black student until 1964 and he wasn’t African-American. He was an aristocrat from Ghana, who had probably been educated in the British system.
It is true that the University of Chicago, Columbia University, Harvard University accepted some blacks, and a decent number of women but they were the exceptions that proved the rule. It was an all white guys society for the most part.
Even when I graduated from Divinity school in the 80’s we had like two black guys, 5 Asians, no Hispanics, and two women. When I finished my PhD we had one woman, one African-American (who went on to be the Dean at the National Cathedral in Washington). That was 1990.
Why? Because their families were educated and encouraged them to become educated. They went to the best schools because their parents went to the best schools because their parents did too. We had a short 250 year head start when the playing field was effectively limited to just one segment of the American population and it tilted the playing field considerably.
When I first moved to Summit and spent the morning down on the trading floor with the bond traders at Merril Lynch, it looked like the Princeton lacrosse team with ties, yelling orders for multiple millions of dollars. And it looked that way because it was largely the Princeton lacrosse team with ties on. Today, you walk around the trading floor at Morgan Stanley, it is so quiet, you could be in a library, everyone on their multiple screens like the ICU at a hospital. And the floor is littered with the Valedictorians from high schools all over the globe. It is amazing. But it only started in the 80’s and got going in the 90’s.
We are proud of that. We should be. It is why almost all of us moved here. We want to compete with the very best. “If you can make it here, you’ll make it anywhere.” I once asked my father why he moved to New York in the 70’s. He said simply, “There was nowhere else in the world that you could bring a good idea together with people that would fund it.” And that is true.
We have people that can make three-four generations of wealth in one generation now and largely make the world a better place at the same time. It is amazing.
The challenge for us is to open the playing field for everyone. We want everyone to realize their potential. It may not be possible but that is our goal. I couldn’t help but think about that watching Clemson beat Alabama in that incredible game.
When I was a kid, that game would have had 18 white guys and 3 black players. That night, the field had 19 black guys and 2 white guys. I was looking at the faces of those African-American boys, thumping their chests in victory, feeling the adrenaline rush that comes from being on TV in front of the whole country and playing the game of their lives. 2017.
It brought back to mind another scene from my past from 1977. I was in college and we went back to Memphis to visit my grandparents for the holidays. My grandmother, now aged, wanted to surprise my brothers and sisters by having the maid that we grew up with visit. Only my grandmother and her maid, were caught in the mores of their generation.
She asked me to go pick up Mary across town. I agreed. By then, over half of the white people had left downtown Memphis and fled to the suburbs of Germantown, really building a whole new city, and African-Americans populated the downtown.
I got to Mary’s place and she was dressed in her uniform. My grandmother wouldn’t have her just to visit and she wouldn’t have felt comfortable coming in any other way. I’d become a sophisticated East Coaster and I had forgotten or I just didn’t think about how their generation hadn’t changed.
I bounced out of the car and hugged Mary. She almost broke my ribs. I forgot how tight her hugs were when we were kids. We got into the car and Mary got in the back seat. I said something like “Mary hop in the front seat so we can talk.”
She said, “I’m fine right here Mr. Chuck”
I said, “Mary, come on hop in the front seat.”
She said, “I’m not getting in the front seat Mr. Chuck.”
I realized I was about to accidentally be a complete jerk, so I dropped it, and made polite conversation with her. She was aged now too.
It was a “Driving Ms. Daisy” moment, laden with the pathos of frustration, self-deprecation. Proud, strong willed, just like my grandmother, following cultural mores because that is the way things were done. But I don’t know which was worse, the fact that she had internalized a self image of subservience or that my extended family and my wider cultural home had consistently formed it for her.
I was watching the end of an era, one that I was glad to be done with morally.
It wasn’t so great back then if you were black… or gay- and Hispanics or Asians were barely on our social radar.
We are far better off with a rich diversity of people that can bring what they uniquely bring to our complex society. We are far better off where everyone is included and out and open to live their lives in freedom. And we will be far better off when we level the playing field so that everyone can participate competitively.
We have these discussions so that we can remember our common history and think about ways that we can include more of our citizens for whom the American dream is elusive. How do you make a meaningful recompense for the generations of oppression that afflicted slaves, their children’s children for 250 years?
How do we honor the real sacrifice they had to make? What should this generation do to right the ills of previous generations? Liberals and conservatives will have different answers to those questions.
But we are united that we want to live in a society that is open to all, where everyone has access to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as Jefferson put it in those great ideals.
And we at Christ Church want to intentionally live as a pluralistic, multi-cultural congregation, pulled together by the Spirit of love and empathy, embodied in the Golden rule, a love that is profound enough that we can, in the words of St. Paul, transcend “Slave and free, Male and Female, Jew and Gentile”- and if Paul was living today he would add “Straight and Gay”.
St. Paul hoped we would ‘heal up the broken of spirit, be understanding and compassionate towards one another, and put on love which blends all things towards harmony that we might live in peace. I hope you will join us for the dialogues that we will have and form friendships with people not like you. And may we all grow and become better for knowing each other. May our children live and thrive in hope and promise because of what we create together on our watch, in our time to set a new direction. Amen.