David Cook: Personal responsibility and a continuing nightmare in a conversation with a reader

·4 min read

Jun. 5—There was a shooting Wednesday night. According to local media, both victim and suspect were children.

A 13-year-old. And a 14-year-old.

Later, a reader emailed.

"David, who are you going to blame for this continuing nightmare?" he wrote. "Systemic racism and our white privilege? School system? Society in general? Or perhaps Mother? Father, if known? Grandmother, if available? Pastor? Black community leaders?"

"Please tell me if personal responsibility, caring about your Family and the nuclear Black Family are a thing of the past and we just accept these tragedies as a part of the woke modern world," he continued. "God help us all."

The reader is an older white male. I'll call him Will. Well-known, he's emailed before, calling my column unfair for criticizing institutional racism — which he calls "a great crutch" — while remaining silent about personal responsibility. He says Black leaders should lead their own communities instead of "whining about social injustice."

Here is my response.

Dear Will,

Your words are hurtful in ways I doubt you realize, but, at least you wrote. Some folks? They never lift a finger.

But you? My inbox shows you've emailed nine times, all about race.

That tells me you're interested.

"I would appreciate a thoughtful, unemotional response," you've written.

Thoughtful? Hopefully.

But not unemotional.

This can't be an intellectual debate.

This must happen in the heart.

The white heart.

My heart? It recoiled at your email. At your assumptions.

How dare you, Will.

How dare you write as if you care more about Black suffering, loss and death than Black people.

How many stop-the-violence rallies have you attended?

How many Black teenagers have you listened to, laughed with, learned from, wept for?

And buried?

What do you know of Black trauma?

Is your Jesus white?

Or Black?

How many Black people do you admire? And cherish?

Have you ever joined a gang to survive? Or to eat?

How affected are you by mass incarceration?

Have you ever been denied work five, six, seven times because of a prior felony?

Have you ever been followed? Profiled? Talked over? Ignored? Do women clutch their purse when you walk by? Do people look at you and assume ... criminality?

Do you love Black people, Will?

Or just want to judge them?

I notice what you don't write about.

You don't email me to condemn and mourn white violence. The white suicide rate. Or the white divorce rate and the disintegration of the nuclear white family.

No emails about white mass shooters. Or white supremacist groups. Or the white opioid crisis.

Only emails about Black people.

You write of "this continuing nightmare."

Whose nightmare? Yours? What of the nightmare of whiteness? White America maimed, disfigured, sold mother west and child east, bombed, harassed, redlined, burned down, strung up, silenced, stolen and segregated?

And you want to talk about personal responsibility?

"There is a great deception in this. To yell 'black-on-black crime' is to shoot a man and then shame him for bleeding," writes Ta-Nehisi Coates.

The news about Wednesday's shooting? It never mentioned race.

You assumed shooter and victim were Black.

Sure, the shooting was in Alton Park, a Black neighborhood. So it's an understandable assumption.

Yet why don't you also assume Black resiliency, brilliance and beauty?

Why don't you also assume Black tenderness, generosity and creativity?

Email me about Black entrepreneurs, Black valedictorians, Black reformed felons, Black scientists and saints, Black teachers, Black intellectuals, inventors and artists. Email me about the backbone of Black men and the endurance of Black women, who hold so much together.

Many of the bravest, most loving and selfless Chattanoogans I know? They are Black.

All of them talk of personal responsibility.

But they do so with love.

And grace.

And out of earshot of you and me. Because when the white mind hears this, we misunderstand it as absolution. Their problem, not ours.

I would know.

For too long, I was steeped in racism. My mind confused, my heart lost.

I am still learning, still repenting.

I don't write this to battle. I know of your nonprofit work. Your community involvement. I believe you care about those Alton Park children.

Take one step closer.

Let's help pay for any medical bills. Or physical therapy. Or counseling. Or legal fees, so the suspect ends up in rehabilitative therapy, not lock-up. Let's hire tutors. Or fund a college tour. Or scholarship.

Not to be responsible. Or out of pity.

But to love.

For them.

Will, for us.

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfreepress.com.