Whites must face hard truths of history if America is to make good on its promise of equality

Photo by Nick Shandra via Unsplash

The truth is, there are happier stories in my notebook. I just don’t feel like telling them right now. I feel like talking about anything other than the racism being confronted in our nation is tantamount to capitulation.

I’m an anxiety-riddled, middle-aged white man who desperately wants the world to calm down. But I hear my fellow humans’ outcry. And I worry that when I say I want things to settle, that I’m being heard as saying that their cause is less important than my comfort.

White silence is white violence, goes one chant.

I am not remaining silent. I just don’t know what to say or do.

I feel like everything I might say will come off as a white guy trying to make it about himself.

That’s how I felt about a group of celebrities who circulated a black-and-white video talking about how they won’t tolerate racism anymore. They meant well. Their cause was just. But they looked silly. The whole thing felt, at best, overacted and, at worst, attention-seeking.

Gee, Kristen Bell, I never once thought you were a Confederate Battle Flag waving member of the KKK even though you are a white woman who is a successful actress.

I kid, but I’m sympathetic to a point. For whites in America at the moment, it’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t. The white privilege here being, of course, that for too many black and brown Americans, it’s too often just damned.

I believe it’s good that white people are uncomfortable. Black and brown people are uncomfortable all the time.

When I was a freshman at Drake University, my roommate was a black guy from Milwaukee. He came from urban-Midwest. I came from small- and midsize-Midwest. Our perspectives were very different.

The Drake men’s basketball team got into trouble for paying for a recruit to stay in a hotel off campus. The recruit was black. An assistant coach, also black, got fired. I was a newsman in training. I thought it was a story about corruption in basketball recruiting.

My roommate thought it was about a poor kid who didn’t have the grades to get into Drake and an assistant coach trying to make sure he had lodging and food.

I think we were both right, but it always bothered me that I never thought about the recruit, a guy the same age as my roommate and I, not having food or a place to stay. I wish I could say that the lesson my roommate taught me stuck and informed my reporting for the rest of my career, but it didn’t.

Journalism is a blood sport and the lust to chase a story and beat the competition often overwhelms even the most disciplined practitioners of the trade. There’s a sign in the newsroom of my former employer that reads “Every second counts.”

There’s probably some truth to that in the digital world, but these days we should all take a few seconds to infuse what we do with more empathy.

I learned a lot from my roommate that freshman year. He was the barber in his group of friends. Often our room had four or five black students hanging out and talking while they waited for my roommate’s clippers. I played video games, mostly Madden football, with the guys. We were friendly.

I was fool enough to think I was “down” with black people because we’d played some video games and shared a few pops.

But one day at lunch, I decided to sit at the table with some of the guys who played video games in our room. Things got quiet. Nobody said I couldn’t sit there, but clearly my presence screwed up the vibe. I realized this was a time and space where black students felt they could unwind and be themselves.

I may be a guy they’d play video games with, but I was still white. I did not understand their path through this world. And me being there was taking away one of the few spaces they had to let loose on a mostly white campus in the middle of a mostly white town in a mostly white state.

I remember supervising interns at my previous employer. One was a Drake student who said he wanted to go to a black barbershop near campus on a dare before he graduated. I asked him why. He said he thought it would be funny.

I didn’t think it would be funny. The barber would welcome the business, but my roommate had taught me that the barbershop plays a different role in the black community than it does in the white community. I told the intern my story about sitting with the black guys I knew from Madden. I suggested maybe it was OK that black people had something to call their own in a country where few venues allowed such things.

I thought about calling up my old roommate. I haven’t talked to him in a good 15 years. There’s no hard feelings there. He went back to Milwaukee. I stayed in Des Moines. People grow. They drift apart.

But I asked myself why I was calling. I didn’t like the answer. I think I was calling him because I wanted him to absolve me from being a racist. I wanted him to tell me that I wasn’t a part of the problem. I wanted to be certified as a good guy.

But he can’t do that. No one can do that.

The hardest part of Black Lives Matter for white Americans, I think, is that we’ve read history books and seen stories that present us, meaning whites, as the heroes. We’ve seen images of our heroics so much, it’s easy to believe we are the greatest people who ever lived.

We won World War II. (We didn’t, actually. It was a team effort, but all that Russian blood spilled on the Eastern front didn’t fit our Cold War narrative that the commies were in every corner.)

We learned history through the lens of white colonialists. Columbus, they told us, discovered America. How one discovers something that has been there since continents divided and already had a people and a culture was not discussed, nor were the various atrocities committed by Columbus and his crew against natives.

For centuries, white people have travelled the globe, showed up in someone else’s land and said, “All this stuff is ours now. You will worship our God and work for us or we will kill you.”

And many times the white people killed a lot of the native people anyway, sometimes all of them.

There’s a pretty good case to be made that white people, as a race, are among the greatest villains in history.

Am I saying you, as an individual, dear reader, are a racist villain?

No, I am not. Neither are the people who support Black Lives Matter.

What they are saying is things are fouled up and they have been fouled up for a long time.

At the risk of trivializing this with a nerdy pop culture reference, white people are the Empire from the “Star Wars” universe.

We are at the moment in “The Empire Strikes Back” where Luke learns his father is Darth Vader, the most evil man in the galaxy — a man who murdered children and played enforcer for a brutal dictator.

Vader revealed his parentage to Luke and offered him a place by his side. Luke rejected it.

Will white Americans accept the sins of our Founding Fathers and choose to reject the racism that is built into the fabric of the country?

It starts simply enough. Acknowledge and accept history. White people weren’t always good guys.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t be and do good now. To risk another pop culture references by amending my favorite Billy Joel song: “We didn’t start the fire, but we can fight it.”

Daniel P. Finney, independent journalist

Cut loose and cashiered by corporate media, lone paragraph stacker Daniel P. Finney makes his way telling stories about his city, state and nation. No more metrics or Google trends, he writes stories about people and life ignored by the oligarchy.

ParagraphStacker.com is free, reader-supported media. Please consider donating to help me cover personal expenses as I launch this new venture continuing the journalism you’ve demanded. Visit paypal.me/paragraphstacker.

Sunday Thoughts: Kirk Ferentz learns the perils of the woke walk

Photo by Leonardo Marchini via PixBay

Beware the woke wave. White folks may think they can surf it, but it is just as likely to crash them into the reef and leave them bloodied and broken.

Review the long weekend of University of Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz. Iowa posted a video of their top Hawk talking about listening, learning and growing on the issue of racism that has again gripped national discourse in the wake of a Minneapolis police officer’s killing of George Floyd.

Ferentz went on SportsCenter with Scott Van Pelt to talk about an open and productive team meeting that included the subject. 

Ferentz came across as earnest both in the video and in the interview. I don’t know Ferentz, but I’ve no reason to doubt his sincerity. 

But before any white person cuts a video like that, they should ask themselves an important question: How clean is my house?

Ferentz soon learned his house was just as messy as any American institution. Former Hawkeye players came forward on social media with allegations of racist talk and behavior by the team’s strength and conditioning coach and his own son, Brian Ferentz, the team’s offensive coordinator. Others said adapting to the “Iowa Culture” caused anxiety and failure to do so would be costly.

Ferentz quickly regrouped. The strength and conditioning coach is on leave pending an investigation. (That coach denies racism. Brian Ferentz remains on the job.) Iowa will form an advisory committee chaired by a former player.

Ferentz cut a new video and shouldered the responsibility. He choked up talking about the allegations of racism in meeting with reporters Sunday afternoon. Again, Ferentz seemed earnest and his actions seem like more than just reactionary pandering.

Coaches, teams and schools all over the country have posted videos and text messages similar to Ferentz’s. They pledge to listen, learn and grow together.

I want to believe them, yet I am cynical enough to be wary of college coaches gesticulating their concern over racism after Floyd’s killing. 

Few institutions reap as much one-way benefit from the talents of African Americans as NCAA college football and men’s college basketball. It benefits coaches to come out and say, “Hey, we support African Americans here. We’re behind you.”

I wonder what percentage, even if it’s a sliver, of these messages are motivated by marketing and recruiting concerns. Did your school tweet that black lives matter? No? Then maybe a prized African-American recruit goes somewhere that did.

But it’s kind of a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation.

If you don’t, then your program will be labeled racist. If you do — and you don’t know or are willfully ignorant of racial issues in your program — then you will be beset with racial allegations anyway.

Lost in all this is any ability to gauge sincerity. 

Like I said, Ferentz seemed earnest. I tend to believe both his videos. Many coaches from across the NCAA and into pro sports posted similar videos or text messages in support of the movement for equality and against racism.

I want to believe them all. I choose to believe them because I want to believe the people I love and celebrate are good and decent and real.

But life is more complicated than that. About 20 years ago, I moved from Des Moines to Omaha for a job. I thought Omaha, about twice the size of Des Moines, to be much more openly racist than Des Moines. 

I read a column by a former editor of mine who works in Omaha now. He said he heard the most overt racism in his career in Des Moines. He’s worked in Texas and Detroit, among other stops.

I don’t doubt my former editor’s experience just as he didn’t doubt mine. I believe we see what we want to, especially when it’s our hometown and our home teams.

We are willing to accept information that supports our belief that we don’t do the bad things that happen in other places as if we are somehow exempt from the indecencies and inhuman treatment that plague every other place.

That’s called confirmation bias and I am as guilty of it as anyone.

I made that mistake earlier this month in these paragraphs. I suggested protestors go to Minneapolis where Floyd was killed rather than protest good, hard-working cops in Des Moines.

That was naive on my part, maybe outright ignorant. 

Racism isn’t limited to one city, state or nation. They’re protesting in England, France and Germany, too. White people have been terrible toward black and brown people for centuries.

Study colonialism. For centuries, white people showed up in other nations, killed some (or a lot) of the natives and said, “All this is ours now and you’re now ruled by us.”

Ferentz handled his situation with class and dignity, but how it shakes out for the Hawkeyes going forward will be interesting and important.

As for me, well, allow me to come clean: I’m dirty. We are all sinners.

I truly, absolutely and without hesitation do not believe that I am superior to anyone because of the color of my skin.

But I have had racist thoughts. I have laughed at and told racist jokes. And I’ve benefited from a society designed by rich white men to benefit other white men.

I don’t cut myself a break because I was born a ward of the state. I was a white baby boy. I was adopted quickly, though the results of that pairing were mixed at best.

Still, I don’t know how many African-American babies were in the county hospital the same day I was that ended up in foster care and never knew a permanent, stable home.

Racism is a virus in which all white Americans are carriers. The debate is how active it is in our thoughts, actions and deeds.

I have no idea what the solution is. If I did, I probably wouldn’t be unemployed. 

All I can say is this, which I repeat often: We are all children of God, created in His image and deserve love, dignity and respect.

Act as if this is true and we will make it true.

Daniel P. Finney, independent journalist

Cut loose and cashiered by corporate media, lone paragraph stacker Daniel P. Finney makes his way telling stories about his city, state and nation. No more metrics or Google trends, he writes stories about people and life ignored by the oligarchy.

ParagraphStacker.com is free, reader-supported media. Please consider donating to help me cover personal expenses as I launch this new venture continuing the journalism you’ve demanded. Visit paypal.me/paragraphstacker.

America in the age of permanent unease

Photo by nikko macaspac via Unsplash.

Everything feels wrong. The pandemic. Quarantine. Economic collapse. Unemployment. Racism. Violence by police. Violence against police. Outside agitators. Vandalism. Destruction. Theft. Curfew.

Hell, even Lady Gaga’s album is only so-so.

I live with chronic depression and acute anxiety.

And, friends, I’m cracking.

This shit is getting to me.

I’ve sworn off the news. Me. A 27-year newsman. I once got beat up in a Des Moines park after hours while covering violence in the park after hours. I wasn’t trying to be ironic. It just worked out there.

That was me.

Today, in a mess of free-flowing tear gas and pepper spray?

Hard pass.

Admitting that to myself makes me feel … lesser.

I’ve no call to be there. I’m still doing my journalism, but I’m independent now.

If you’re going to get mixed up with cops, protesters and rioters, you better have a good brand name with access to lawyers.

I don’t.

So, I’m sidelined like an everyday citizen.

These distress the big chuck of me that fears missing out, that wants to be in the thick of it and wants to lead from the front.

Yet a sizable chunk of me feels relief that I’m out of the game.

Just typing that sentence forces me to choke down bile. It disgusts me that I’ve lost whatever it was that sent me running toward the fray with a police scanner on my belt and my Blackberry (yeah, I’m that old) Twitter feed open.

But now?

Now I’m just a morbidly obese unemployed guy desperately seeking jobs along with 10 million of my fellow Americans.

If I’m not a newsman, what I am?

The confusion of self-worth and employment is an ugly side effect of capitalism on personal psychology.

We all more than our jobs. Yet, we spent a lot of damn time on those jobs. What value do I have if I’m not producing anything?

If I’m not making money, then I must be a lowlife skimming off the bottom of society, getting by on government subsidies.

I want to contribute. But Wall Street told me to take a hike because after 22 years full-time, I made a salary just big enough to be too big for an industry burning to the ground before our eyes.

I struggle to sleep. More accurately, I struggle to get to sleep. Around 7 p.m., I start getting so edgy you could cut cheese on my raw nerves.

I know in a few hours the city will shut down. The quarantine gave way to the curfew.

There was a time I would be headed out to sling sentences and stack paragraphs. But I’m sidelined, probably permanently.

And that hurts.

I can’t go to the bar. It’s closed. Hell, I can’t even order a pizza.

I try to give my life some purpose. I make daily contact with my friends. I check in with my parents a couple times a week.

I’ve asked my friend Paul to call me when he leaves home for work in Memphis.

I’ll get up at the same time and start my day. I look for jobs, set up interviews for future columns and maybe write something that is less whiny than this.

Yes, I could set an alarm. But I will ignore that alarm. When my friend calls, I’ve made a commitment to another person to participate in the day despite my desperate desire just to check out.

Even with my buddy’s help, I just can’t seem to settle in. I feel like a house cat that sees some ghost on the spectral plain and then randomly sprints out of the room.

Except I don’t run and even if I did, I don’t know where I’d go.

I try escapism, my drug of choice. I put on some of the new Looney Tunes cartoons on the HBOMax streaming service last night.

They echoed the classics I watched as a kid, but they weren’t the same. They felt more frenetic and neutered at the same time.

Yosemite Sam doesn’t use guns anymore because of course not. Yet, poor Sylvester the cat was skinned and had his muscles peeled down to the bone in the kind of gross-out comedy I would expect from Ren and Stimpy.

But I will never be able to watch and enjoy new cartoons the way I did the ones I saw when I was a kid.

That’s because when I was a kid, my responsibility was to have pants and a shirt on, eat a bowl of cereal, generally be quiet in the early morning and not make a mess in the kitchen.

It was just me, my dad’s Navy cap from World War II and my Pink Panther doll, who was my very best friend.

To a 5-year-old, that’s all there is to the world: Saturday morning cartoons and peanut butter and grape jelly sandwiches.

Growing up brings responsibility. Rent. Mortgages. Car payments. Insurance. Bills. Still, even with that responsibility, there’s a rhythm.

These days, everything is out of step and unpredictable.

Unpredictable, like spontaneity, is overrated. Give me consistency and calm. I am 45 and I long for slow news days.

Mostly I just worry. I worry I’m not going to make it. All these years into adulthood and I’ve never felt closer to failure.

People have been generous supporting this blog and every little bit helps.

I’ve picked up one or two freelance jobs, but not enough to make monthly expenses once my severance dries up.

Unemployment is increased at least through July. There may be more stimulus. There may be expanded unemployment.

The coronavirus may peak. The racial unrest may settle.

I remember the words of wise, old Randy Evans when I used the word “may” in a news story many years ago.

“Finney, do you know what the problem with the word ‘may’ is?” he said. “You could just as easily say ‘may not.’”

Daniel P. Finney, independent journalist

Cut loose and cashiered by corporate media, lone paragraph stacker Daniel P. Finney makes his way telling stories about his city, state and nation. No more metrics or Google trends, he writes stories about people and life ignored by the oligarchy.

ParagraphStacker.com is reader-supported media. Please consider donating at paypal.me/paragraphstacker.