The Tennessean: Encourage victims of racism to share their stories and more white Americans to adjust our attitude
Posted on June 10, 2020
Op-ed by: U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander
June 10, 2020
United States Sen. Tim Scott, who is an African American Republican senator from South Carolina, once told our Bible study that police in his hometown stopped him several times for being a “black man in the wrong place,” even though at the time he was serving as Chairman of the Charleston County Council.
During these last few days, I’ve been thinking a lot about what Tim Scott told us. And I wondered, how many white Americans know that things like that happen, white Americans like me? And I wondered how I would feel if I were stopped for being a white man in the wrong place in my hometown, especially if most of the people in the town were black?
Would I feel hurt? Scared? Disillusioned? Angry? Wary? Disappointed? Intimidated? Probably all of those things.
One result of George Floyd’s killing is that black Americans are telling more stories like Tim Scott’s.
DeWayne Stallworth, an American Baptist College professor of religious studies in Nashville wrote in The Tennessean, that he carries a licensed firearm with him when he goes for a run. One of my friends in Memphis, who is now vice president of one of Memphis' largest hospitals, told me that when he went to Memphis State in the 1960's, it was clear to him that almost everyone thought that he didn't belong there.
Racial attitudes have evolved over the decades
During my lifetime, I’ve seen profound changes in racial attitudes.
In 1958, when I enrolled at Vanderbilt University, I had no black classmates. African Americans couldn't sit at lunch counters in Nashville. Black Americans driving across Tennessee couldn't stay in most hotels, eat at most restaurants or ride at the front of most public buses. Then in 1962, the Vanderbilt University Board of Trustees changed its policy and admitted black undergraduate students.
In August of 1963, when I was a summer intern in the U.S. Department of Justice, I remember hearing a booming voice, which was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, voice, saying “I Have a Dream.”
In 1968, as a Senate aid, I watched Sen. Everett Dirksen and President Lyndon Johnson work together to enact a Civil Rights Act.
During the 1980s, I saw Tennessee adopt a Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday, swear in its first black Supreme Court justice. In the 1980s, the University of Tennessee hired its first black vice presidents and its first black basketball coach – who as a teenager once sat in the “colored section” at UT football games.
I saw the Voting Rights Act help to elect thousands of African American public officials, including President Barack Obama and Senator Tim Scott.
A U.S. senator was stopped by police for being a black man in his hometown
Last week, I asked Senator Scott if I can tell the story that he told us privately in the Bible study. He said, “Sure, it happened again just last month.” So, despite a half century of profound change, an African American United States senator is stopped again by police for being a black man in the wrong place in his hometown.
So, what do we do now? Bringing those who killed George Floyd to justice will help. Dealing firmly with looters who hijack peaceful protests will help. Some new laws and government actions will help, such as criminal justice reform and permanent funding for historically black colleges, both which became law in this Congress.
It would also help to open schools and colleges in August and to open them safely because a good education is the surest ticket to a better future for minority students, and those students will suffer more from schools being closed.
Benjamin Hooks, the late president of the NAACP from Memphis, said, “America is a work in progress. We've come a long way, but we have a long way to go.”
That long way to go, I would say, will not be as easy as passing laws. It will take changing behavior. One way to do that could be last week's peaceful protests organized by Nashville teenagers, which was a textbook example of First Amendment citizenship.
And it hopefully will encourage more victims of racism to tell their stories and more white Americans to adjust our attitudes.
I’m grateful that Tim Scott gave me permission to tell his story. And perhaps a good first step to changing attitudes toward racial discrimination would be for each of us who are white to ask ourselves this question: How would I feel if police in my hometown repeatedly stopped me for being a white man or a white woman in the wrong place, especially if most of the other people in the town were black?
Lamar Alexander, R-Maryville, is Tennessee's senior U.S. Senator. He was elected in 2002.