A cherished friend—a religiously unaffiliated but morally earnest young white woman who recently completed her first year at a prestigious American university, where she majors in Astrophysics—recently wrote to me to tell me that, in light of George Floyd’s murder, she is making every effort she can to educate herself about the dynamics and the reality of racism and white privilege, so that she can do her part to effect lasting and positive change. She shared with me a list of the books she’s reading this summer, and asked me my opinion of her efforts. She even asked me to tell her of my own experiences as a black man who has grown up and grown middle-aged in America. It was not in any way an impertinent request. She and I had often enough in the past discussed, in a much more general way, how to understand our common human predicament in a properly “integral” or “holistic” way; it was always probably a natural next step for us to broach the topic of the very particular predicament that only some of us must endure.
In any event, below, in a slightly redacted form, is the letter I wrote back to her—which, with her enthusiastic permission (mindful that I would maintain her anonymity) I reproduce here. It remains very much a personal letter in tone and form, and for that I ask pardon in advance. But, for just that reason perhaps, it also says more than an impersonal essay might have done. After all, genuine friendship—one bridging differences in sex, age, race, religion, family origin, socioeconomic background, etc.—bears in itself the seed of a comprehensive solution to the problems that challenge us all today.
A few years ago, I retired from the Massachusetts criminal justice system. I had worked for twenty years, first as a courtroom clerk in criminal sessions and then, for ten years, as a prosecutor. As a white female, it was my experience that our criminal justice system was stacked against people of color. It may have been my imagination, but higher bails, longer sentences, and harsher probation terms, seemed to be the norm for non-white defendants. Although we had a few black and Asian judges and a few non-white court officers and lawyers and cops, for the most part everyone in the courtroom other than the defendants was white. If the goal is justice administered fairly, that is not a good starting point.
Because of my work history, the events in this country that followed the death of George Floyd have pained me deeply. Like all difficult things, there are many layers to this, and I have tried to sort them out. First of all, I think nearly everyone will agree on two things. One, that what the police did to George Floyd was sickening and contrary to their duty as peace officers. Second, that looting and violence is bad. (The vast majority of the protesters these past weeks have opposed looting and violence.) So, let’s look beyond those two things. Let’s look at the real issue: what can be done to bring people of color to full equality in this country?
These have been unsettling times. I have been forced by the events of the last several months to face up to several disconcerting truths. When the COVID-19 lockdown orders were issued, they had a common element. Churches were not deemed “essential.” Liquor stores, pot distributors, and lottery sales were deemed essential. Commercial air travel and protests were deemed essential, yet congregating at churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques was not. Following the murder of George Floyd, I came to the excruciating realization that the politicians were right. We are not essential.
After the killing of George Floyd, I tried to find some meaning to this hideous act and its aftermath. I am not intending to set forth the arguments regarding the law’s injustices to black Americans. Although tragic, that is far too narrow an understanding of the real issue. Here is the undeniable truth: we are the most affluent nation in the world, and yet countless millions live in squalor with no real prospects or hope for change. I am ashamed of myself; I must change. Also, as a member of the Orthodox Church in the United States, I am ashamed that our church has turned so deaf an ear and so blind an eye to this national disgrace.