Is anyone noticing the remarkable journey Chris Matthews (host of MSNBC’s Hardball) is on? Now, I’ve never met Chris Matthews, although I would like to, especially as he takes a journey in the wake of the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin death and George Zimmerman trial. I write this not to embarrass him, but to honor him.
On Thursday evening, July 18, right before our very eyes, we witness a transformation about race going on in the mind and heart of an already-liberal, racially-accepting human being. Throughout this evening’s edition of Hardball, Matthews appears genuinely disturbed. In an effort to better understand what happened to Trayvon Martin and why, he interviews Val Nicholas (Vice President of NBC News) and Michael Steele (former chair of the Republican National Committee), both African-American professionals. He can’t believe what he’s hearing. He struggles to listen to their truth about what it’s like to grow up and live as a black man in America.
Nicholas describes finding himself twice staring down the barrel of a gun pointed at him by police – having no reason for suspicion and confrontation other than the black color of his skin. Mr. Steele nods knowingly, and then offers his own experiences of being targeted because of his race alone. They both laugh about the “five block follow” in which a police cruiser follows them in their cars for five or so blocks, just because the color of their skin makes them suspicious. Matthews listens in stunned disbelief, knowing that he has never had such experiences, and the discomfort in his face worsens as he tastes his own white privilege.
White privilege is the new (actually not new at all!) reality of prejudice in this country. (See Peggy McIntosh’s classic discussion of white privilege written 25 years ago.) Modern racism seldom involves using the “n word” or obvious prejudice anymore. It is the systemic racism that is set up by the society to benefit white people at the expense of people of color. I remember being told in anti-racism training 20+ years ago that “getting white people to understand white privilege is like getting fish to understand the concept of water.” It’s simply the water that we swim in, buoys us up, and sustains us at the expense of those who don’t reap the benefits of being white – and it’s hard for white people to get far enough away from it to actually see it. Like going into a retail store and not expecting to be followed, like driving our cars and not assuming we will be targeted by state police, like being stopped by the police and feeling like we have every right to argue with them. Most black and brown people don’t feel that way.
And in the wake of the Zimmerman trial verdict, we have heard many black men (including the Attorney General of the United States) recounting about how, when they were young, their fathers had conversations with them about how to navigate such pervasive racial bias, and how these black men, now fathers themselves, are having these same conversations with their sons. Recalling the warnings from his dad, Nicholas recounts that his father told him that arguing with police will land him in jail, the hospital, or the morgue – not because of what he has or has not done, but because of the color of his skin. Steele adds that it’s not “if” they get stopped, but “when.”
This is not news to black men. But it is news to those of us who are white in this society and have never known such systemic racism. And what is remarkable, as Chris Matthews tries to absorb this subtle and endemic racism from which he unwittingly benefits, is his willingness to allow us, the viewers, to witness the dawning of knowledge and the change that is going on in his consciousness and understanding.
Matthews’ public journey is modeling for white America how we can all learn from the tragedy of Trayvon Martin’s death. Look at what he’s doing, and see in it a way forward for greater racial understanding in this country: 1. He is willing to talk about race, to talk openly about what he knows (and what he does NOT know) about how race works in America. 2. He asks questions of people of color who do know about the experience of racism (without being embarrassed by his need to ask) – and then he listens to them and believes their truth, shaking his head in acknowledgement of the fact that all of this has been going on under his own white radar screen. 3. He begins to make connections and analyze situations he once thought he understood. 4. And then, seemingly coming to the end of what he can absorb, he vulnerably and almost naively, mutters “All I can say right now is, I am so sorry.” 5. And then he says, in a way that makes you think he means it, “We have to keep talking about this, publicly and on TV. I want to have those conversations.”
Chris Matthews has modeled for us the way to bring redemption and healing from the disease and sin of racism highlighted by the Trayvon Martin killing. We can’t bring Trayvon back from the dead. But those of us who are white can begin to have these conversations with people of color about what life is like in “colored” America. And it is profoundly relevant as we consider immigration reform, limits on voter rights, and relentless attempts to balance our budgets on the backs of the most vulnerable – all of which have subtexts of systemic racism.
We don’t often think of political pundits as leading the way in moral behavior. But Chris Matthews, in his vulnerable act of allowing us to witness his own personal journey, is doing just that. It’s a journey toward a more just America. It’s a journey I want to be on with him. Don’t you?
[Watch this segment of Hardball]
Image courtesy of Brian Stansberry.