White Chattanooga, I know so many of you. Love so many of you.
And you know me: my shortcomings, my hypocrisies.
This is not a lecture.
It is a plea.
Because this may be our last chance.
If we do not listen to the roaring cries of our young black protesters marching through these streets, if we continue to stay asleep and turn away, I fear there will be a fracture so deep that the racial soul of this city, already troubled, may be lost for good.
We're not listening.
The protests? The marches? The property damage? The rage?
They are the fire alarm, the siren, the warning bell.
It must be loud. It must be jarring.
Otherwise, we won't listen.
Report after report. Black poverty at twice the rate of white poverty. Black life expectancy falling as white life expectancy rises. A displaced black population, pushed out of our gentrifying downtown.
Few, if any, policy changes.
Few, if any, policy changes.
So don't chide these young folks on how to protest or what to damage. Don't only now rise from slumber to quote King to them.
Or admonish them to protest peacefully.
Yet many white Chattanoogans are listening.
These protests? Often, half the marchers are young white men and women. They are your children. Your grandchildren.
Many white people I know are unsettled, distraught, questioning.
Many have been working against racism for years.
"You can't only love us when we are running fast or catching a ball," cried Kristen Warren. "Would you have cared if this was Bo Jackson who got shot by the police? Would you have cared if this was Jalen Hurts? Would you have cared if this was your favorite basketball player?"
Last week, Warren — a Girls Preparatory School grad who now lives and works in Atlanta — posted a powerful testimony.
"This week has probably been one of the hardest of my life," she said. "I have cried in some capacity every day, if not multiple times a day."
White sisters and brothers, we do not have the authority to tell black folks how to respond to this.
To say that it's no big deal.
That they should just get over it.
"You do not get to tell a black woman how she's supposed to feel or grieve or heal from this," she said.
Every time there is a shooting death, Warren gasps, aches, grieves and fears; it could be her friend, uncle, father.
"There is only so much praying you can do before you have to say there is something wrong in this country where black men are seen as a threat at every turn," she said.
Look at the George Floyd video.
There are three types of people involved.
The aggressor. The cop with his knee lethally against Floyd's neck.
The bystanders. The other cops, watching, silent and complicit.
The interrupters. Citizens filming from cell phones, bearing witness, shouting for it to stop.
We must ask ourselves: Who am I?
What type of white man or woman am I?
For years, I was both aggressor and bystander. Never violent, but I did use the power of my whiteness, leveraging it downward against others. I would strut. I would sleepwalk.
I needed to wake up.
Today, I like to see myself as an interrupter, but often, I am a bystander. I am silent and comfortable when I am called to be loud or uncomfortable.
To become the interrupter does not mean we say the perfect words. The work is messy. Difficult.
No black woman or man ever asked me to be perfect.
There are so many ways to serve, so many ways to fight.
Donate, march, volunteer, support, fast, read, write, study, educate yourself.
Look at your own life. Your family. Workplace. Church.
How can you work against racism there?
Vow not to stay silent when someone makes a racist comment.
Practice meditation. (The Center for Mindful Living's introductory course in mindfulness begins Tuesday evening.)
Don't see this as an attack on you. None of this means you didn't work hard.
Just step a little closer. Open your heart a little more.
Yes, it will hurt. It will be confusing and uncomfortable.
It must be.
Waking up is never easy.
Racism begins in the mind with the thoughts we think.
What do you think when you see a black man or woman?
What did your grandparents teach you about black folks? Your parents? Your pastor?
Every inch of this city has a racial story. To live here is to be conditioned into racism, to be born into the mess. It is a 400-year-old story. Do you honestly think somehow your heart and mind are immune to racism? That somehow, you are removed and pure?
Don't feel guilty.
White Chattanooga, I know and love so many of you.
The fight is ours.
Racism in Chattanooga is ours to end.
David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.