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A Plea to White People

As a teenager growing up in Detroit, Michigan, I watched Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. march in Selma. I saw his “I have a dream speech” in Washington, live, in black and white. I watched President Lyndon Johnson sign the historic Civil Rights Act.

The year before Detroit celebrated its first World Series victory in 23 years, I watched my mother weep and my father scoff as rioters burned down the city of Detroit and forever changed the city’s landscape. I remember asking my father “why” and him chastising the rioters for burning down their own city rather than answering my question.

Like most White people who lived in Detroit in 1967, we picked up and moved to the suburbs. As a college student, I watched others, mostly minorities and less fortunate people, get drafted and suffer or die in Viet Nam. I participated in peace and protest marches, vilified the government, and watched that same government put Mohammed Ali on trial for draft dodging because he had the audacity to say “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong” and “no Viet Cong ever called me a nigger.”

I didn’t know it at the time, but Ali’s quote summarized in two sentences what caused the 1967 Detroit riots. Ali correctly believed that a disproportionate number of African Americans were being drafted to fight the wrong war against the wrong people. Oppression of America’s Black citizens was not occurring in the rice paddies of Viet Nam; it was occurring in neighborhoods, schools, colleges, stores, and banks right here in America.

Blacks were oppressed by their fellow White citizens, state, local, and federal governments, the military, college admissions officials, bankers, shop-owners, and countless others. Their fight was with America, not with Viet Nam. In a unanimous 9-0 decision, something almost unheard of in today’s divided America, the United States Supreme Court overturned Ali’s conviction for “draft-dodging” and agreed that he was a conscientious objector.

I finished college and law school (with my mostly White classmates) and became a lawyer. I decided to practice law in the criminal and civil justice arenas, hoping to right as many wrongs as I could. I quickly realized that most of the victims I represented were Black, most of the law enforcement officials who arrested or abused them were White, and most of the judges who heard their cases were also White. I learned that the civil and criminal justice for the Black community was an uphill battle, one I could never turn my back on.

In the 1990’s, I remember Rodney King mercilessly and senselessly beaten by Los Angeles police officers and how shocking the incident was to ordinary White citizens. Black citizens were not shocked by the cops’ behavior, nor were lawyers, like me, who saw this behavior happen more often than it should, especially in Black communities, by White cops.

Following the acquittal of the guilty officers who beat Mr. King, it was déjà vu all over again, as angry protestors of the unjust verdict rioted in Los Angeles and burned down sections of the city. Detroit history repeated itself in L.A. To Rodney King’s eternal credit, he tried to calm that city with his now famous statement: “Can’t we all get along?” I constantly repeat these words today.

I was appalled at the verdict and others like it. I knew Rodney King would pursue a successful civil case and obtain significant damages. But he and the families of George Floyd, Brionna Taylor, Philando Castile, Freddy Gray, and countless others will tell you that civil damage awards do not equal justice in these cases or in a divided America.

I reached out to friends and colleagues in the Black community. “What can I do to change the status quo?” I asked. “How can I help make things better.” Almost every person I spoke to told me the same thing: “Mark, you are talking to the wrong community. Talk to family members, synagogue members; talk to your White friends and neighbors. TALK TO WHITE PEOPLE. Don’t talk to the oppressed; talk to the oppressor.

I’ve never forgotten these life-altering experiences. They have driven my career choices and impacted my writing career. They have prompted me to write this blog, not to shame my White brothers and sisters, not to attack those who disagree with me, but, hopefully, to start a dialogue among us White folks.

It is not enough, not nearly enough for any of us to simply decry racist behaviors or tendencies. It is not enough to publicly condemn these attitudes. Talk is cheap, my friends; we need to do more. I write these words understanding that the same problems exist in our White communities. There are poor Whites, middle class Whites, wealthy Whites, mega-wealthy Whites, different religions, different life circumstances. However, one thing we all share is that we are White.

Influence of Heritage

My parents were wonderful people, but they grew up at a time when Black people were considered inferior to White people. My parents were not well off; my father suffered two business failures and worked his entire life to make ends meet. He was a wonderful and decent man, an outstanding father, and a great role model. But it never once occurred to him that he might be “inferior” to a more successful Black person.

We are Jewish, and Jews know something about bigotry, oppression, and discrimination. One would think that being Jewish would create some form of brotherhood between the Black and Jewish communities, and, to a degree, such a bond exists. But my father’s generation never considered the Black community “equal” or entitled to the same treatment he expected.

Dad’s greatest quality was his love of his family. No one made me feel more loved than my dad, not even my mother. He taught me how to love. As a father, now as a grandfather, I feel his presence in my life, every single day. Family is everything to me; I love my family with all my heart. Dad was human, however, and wasn’t perfect. He was a child of a different time, but, yes, he and most men and women of his generation were certainly racist.

It might come as a shock to you that a Jewish person, someone who has experienced oppression or bigotry, firsthand, could be even a little racist. Again, we must look at his behavior in context—racism, prior to the civil rights movement, was almost an accepted norm in this country. My father did not express racist views or utter racist epithets like others of his generation. In a sense, he spared me the pain of having to challenge him or disapprove of him because of his bigotry. I would not have been silent if provided an opportunity to change his mind on these issues.

Why do I bring up my father and my heritage in the context of a blog about race? Because I am convinced that our heritage of racist behaviors and attitudes still drives our country’s division and politics today. Racism did not end with my father’s generation; it lives on in mine and, to a lesser degree in my children’s.

Part of the reason is cultural; part is that we are taught the history. We tend to live in segregated communities, perhaps not deliberately or by design, but people tend to migrate to communities within their comfort zone. I’m not a sociologist; I don’t know the reasons for it, but, like the Bill Maher bit says, “I just know it’s true”. We have not only inherited the histories of our parents—we have also inherited their segregationist patterns and cultures. We inherited a country that once considered a black person a quarter of a human being, enslaved Blacks, practiced Jim Crow, lynched, freely discriminated, and brutalized Black people. It is not a proud history.

I used the term “inherited” on purpose. None of us remember slavery, few people alive today remember lynching, cross burning, or KKK members in white hoods burning crosses on lawns. Most people living today do not embrace the concept that one race is any better than another. Still, we do not live in a post-racial society. We still live in a society where we are often judged by the color of our skin. Would Derek Chauvin have knelt on the neck of a White man for nine minutes and 29 seconds?

I’ve been driving for 53 years (do the math). While I am one of a few White people who has been the victim of police brutality, I have never looked in my rear-view mirror, saw a police officer, lights flashing, sirens wailing, trying to pull me over, and feared for my life. My father and I never had to have “the talk” thatBlack fathers must have with their sons and daughters. White drivers are treated differently by the police than Black drivers. We are, unfortunately and constantly, judged by the color of our skin. And, as a White guy, I know that this judgment invariably works in my favor.

We do not fear death from a routine traffic stop. We are not viewed suspiciously when we walk into a store or down the street. We have not been denied the opportunity to do something or buy something or go somewhere because of the color of our skin.

Don’t believe me? Try this experiment. Walk into a posh hotel in your neck of the woods and try to use the bathroom in the lobby. Wait a few days and send a Black friend into the same hotel for the same reason. Let me know what happens. We are, to this day, constantly judged by the color of our skin, despite our overwhelming social attitude that this behavior is wrong.

So what?

Some of you might say: “I’ve faced adversity in my life. I’ve experienced hardship. Why are racial issues more pressing than any other kind?” Good question. Here’s one for you: Have you ever been denied something you absolutely deserve because of the color of your skin? Black people are denied access to wealth because of the color of their skin. The poverty rate in America is almost three times greater for Blacks than for Whites. They have more dangerous jobs and more work-related injuries and deaths. They are several times more likely to be incarcerated or killed by police.

We must have the courage and the conviction to change our dialogue and our behavior. Can you think of an incident where you engaged in or witnessed racist behavior? What should you or another have done differently? If you have read this post to the end, expecting some ingenious solution to a centuries old problem, I am sorry to disappoint you.

I suggest we talk about these issues, ask questions, challenge people when we witness deplorable conduct, use common sense. I have tried to do this with my social justice legal thrillers, articles, and blogs. But more important than talking about racism, listen to those who have experienced it first-hand. This is a powerful tool for gaining insight into a problem.

We can and should do better. Perhaps we can all resolve to do one thing to improve race relations. What one thing? I will leave that to you, along with this quote from President Barack Obama:

“The real test is not whether you avoid this failure, because you won’t. It’s whether you let it harden or shame you into inaction, or whether you learn from it; whether you choose to persevere.”

Mark M. Bello, a trial lawyer, is the author of “Betrayal in Black" and other ‘ripped from the headlines’ Zachary Blake Social Justice Legal Thrillers available on and other online booksellers. For more information, please visit Mark also is co-host of the new podcast, Justice Counts, now streaming.

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