What are we missing when we talk about George Colby and racism?

| Letter to the editor from Thomas Jordan |

The town of New Gloucester has suddenly found itself at the center of a difficult conversation about racism and individual liberty. Our town is not the first to be in this kind of situation, and this conversation has proven to be bitter and divisive in other communities across America. In order to avoid the mistakes of others, we need to be honest, respectful, and seek to understand those we disagree with. I am writing today because I have heard from people I disagree with, and there seems to be a great deal of misunderstanding between the two sides of this conversation.

The biggest point of misunderstanding is the question: what is racism? In the simplest meaning of the word, “racism” is a way of understanding the world that relies on considering people’s race. This definition is neither good or evil. It is sometimes good to take race into account, for example to detect racially motivated injustice. The Black Lives Matter movement is focusing on race to call attention to injustice that many white people have failed to notice. However, the problem is that race also has a very long history of being used for oppression, including whites’ efforts to justify white supremacy and slavery.

Harmful assumptions and prejudice are what some people mean when the say “racism.” At the same time, there are some of us who think that something must be violent and hateful to be called racist. Unfortunately, so many of us (on both sides) are making assumptions about the words people are using and missing out on what people mean to say. We need to talk to each other about what we think our words mean so that we can understand each other. I think that it is painfully obvious that few of us have much experience talking about race. I urge you to have patience and respect for your neighbors while we all try to do better.

We all also need to understand that the recall effort against George Colby has nothing to do with the First Amendment. Although I strongly disapprove of Mr. Colby’s comment, in one sense I am glad that he said what he did. I think that we should all speak the words that are in our hearts, especially those who have been trusted to be our leaders. Mr. Colby has spoken his mind and, in my opinion, no one should be trying to gag him for it. If he is not honest in expressing himself, then how could voters possibly judge his ability to represent our town?

While the First Amendment does grant certain rights, we also need to understand what it does not do. The First Amendment does not shield us from the consequences of what we say. Mr. Colby does not have a right to be on our Board of Selectmen. In truth, he only has the right to ask voters for the privilege of serving on the board, and it is the right of the voters to recall Mr. Colby if they choose. If you do not agree that Mr. Colby should be recalled, then it is your undeniable right to vote against the recall.

The last aspect of this moment that I want to address involves misconceptions about current efforts for racial justice. There are many white people who either feel that they are being accused of something they did not do, or that people of color are seeking to take away the things they have worked hard for. I understand why so many people feel threatened. I am a middle-class white man. I grew up thinking that in order to be not racist I needed to be “color blind.” I took for granted that the American Dream would always be available to me and anyone else who did things “the right way.” I seemed to get every opportunity I interviewed for, which I attributed to my “professionalism.” If I noticed an example of police brutality against a black man, I thought, “if they didn’t want to be shot, then they should stop acting like gangsters and stop antagonizing the police.” 

The truth of the matter is that this was something I didn’t need to think much about. I am white. Nearly all of the people around me are white. I wasn’t doing anything to hurt anybody. If racism came up, then I assumed that by being “color blind,” I was leading by example. As it turns out, my wife is not “color blind,” and I mean that in a good way. We had many heated conversations about race, policing, poverty, and opportunity. I was often wrong, but it still took me years to shift my way of thinking. To be honest, it is because I would always feel threatened every time my wife and I talked about race. What was I supposed to do? Admit I’m a racist when I haven’t tried to harm anyone? I finally realized that many parts of our society and culture were set up long ago, and the sins of the past were built in, hidden, and many endure today. The dark parts of this country’s history are not our fault, but we also need to stop denying that our nation is flawed. Black people have been trying to tell us what’s wrong all along, but we the white people haven’t been listening. Now they are frustrated, and they have every right to be. We whites should not feel threatened. They are not trying to steal from us. The only thing they want is what they were promised, and what the rest of us already have: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Thomas Jordan

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