I want to tell you a story about my dad.
Mickey Melton, who died in 2010, was by no means “woke.” A Texan petroleum landman who raised shorthorn cattle, he was a church lay leader and a Republican. Dad was a sophomore in high school when my town’s public schools integrated, in 1970. There were bus bombings and police presence. When I attended the same majority-black high school in the 1990s, white kids and black kids sat on separate sides of the cafeteria.
My dad was elected to the school board, but he became frustrated when meetings broke down along racial lines. He went to black community leaders and said, “We can’t fix the schools until we address race relations. I need you to fix this.”
Mickey, they said, you organize the meeting and get your people there. Then we will participate.
Black leaders taught my dad that race relations cannot be solved by people of color. The white community, as the people who hold power and privilege, must examine the plank in its own eye first.
My East Texas childhood is different than the experience of many North Dakotans. But given the distressing events of the past two weeks -- protests and violence erupting first in Minneapolis, then across the nation -- I feel compelled to write frankly.
Most of you reading this are white. I am speaking to you, to us.
Here in North Dakota, unlike in the South, we are not used to talking about race. Yet, racism exists here just as much as in my hometown, but with a different history of Indigenous-white relations. By racism I don’t mean only overt prejudice or acts of violence. I mean any small judgment we hold in our hearts, learned from society, as well as systems that benefit me as a white person, whether through education, financial lending, legislative bodies, the criminal justice system, or simply how others treat me.
Class, gender and religion also play roles. But my white skin gives me implicit power, and I experience life differently than people of color. I was impressed by the May 28 statement of Bismarck native Carson Wentz, a white NFL player: “The institutional racism in this country breaks my heart and needs to stop. Can’t even fathom what the black community has to endure on a daily basis ... I don’t understand the society we live in that doesn’t value all human life.” Please read his statement in its entirety.
Last week seven protesters were shot in Louisville, Ky., the city where I began my career. Decades ago Thomas Merton, the white Trappist monk, had an epiphany at the corner of Louisville’s Fourth and Walnut streets -- now renamed Muhammad Ali Boulevard -- in which he realized all of humanity was one, and he devoted his life to peace, anti-racism, and social justice.
None of the men I mention are perfect. But they used their privilege to shift the balance of power.
White people, we must do better. As the pandemic threatens us, the economy is in shambles, and our leaders seem lost, all of America is suffering. But we cannot act out of fear or self-preservation. We must examine ourselves and hold space for others to speak. We must listen. We must change.
For all of its flaws, I love America. I love our founding principles of equality, liberty and justice for all. But none of us will be free until we build a community in which every voice is heard, and every life is valued equally. The survival of our democracy requires this difficult and sacred work. Will you join me?
Ann Crews Melton is a writer and editor particularly interested in religion, identity and diversity. A Texas native, she now calls Bismarck home.
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