My white guilt died on Good Friday, April 6, 2012. That was the day my bike got stolen.
I was at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., for the Stations of the Cross — the pre-Easter Catholic ritual of recounting the events that happened to Jesus on his way to crucifixion.
It was a beautiful and sunny day, and I planned to ride my bike around the city. The bike, a sharp silver-blue hybrid from L.L. Bean, was only a year old, but had already taken on great literal and symbolic significance for me. In 2008 I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and the chemotherapy caused some nerve damage. The doctor says it will slowly go away but exercise will be a big help.
I bought a bike, and it quickly became a source of joy — and efficiency. D.C. is a car-heavy city, and the bike made getting around it a breeze. I could park on Capitol Hill, coast down Independence Avenue and take in the museums and cherry blossoms in a couple hours. The bike was a sign of strength, of determination. Of recovery. When a friend of mine, a social worker, expressed surprise that the entire time of my treatment I had never gone on disability, I couldn’t believe she would even think that I would do such a thing. One magical early spring night I rode through about half the city, going to rock clubs, coffee shops and museums, ending up on the lit hilltop at Georgetown University. Disability? Wrong answer.
But when I came back to my car after the stations, my bike, which had been locked to a bike rack on my car, was gone. I called the cops and filed a report. Then I walked around Brookland, the neighborhood around the Shrine, for an hour to see if I could spot it. I didn’t, but I did talk to some people who said there were a lot of kids around that day because the schools are out.
I went to college at Catholic University, which is right next to the National Shrine, and I know Brookland pretty well. It’s home to several Catholic religious orders (Brookland was once known as “Little Rome”). I could be pretty certain that on Good Friday a member of the Little Sisters of the Poor, which is across the street from where I was parked, had not nicked my bike. Neither had the monks at the Dominican House of Studies on the corner. The students at Catholic University were on Easter break. That left the neighborhoods around the university. Since the time I was an undergrad at Catholic University in the 1980s, most of the crime that has occurred on campus has come from those neighborhoods, which are predominately black. As sure as it took the D.C. cops forever to get to the parking lot to file a report, I knew that the odds were very high that a black person had taken my bike — maybe one of the kids that had been described.
When I got home I vented to my friends. I told them I was going to scour those neighborhoods until I found the bike. In reply, a liberal friend gave me a lecture about profiling and told me to just forget about the bike. “That person needs our prayers and help,” she said. “They haven’t had the advantages we have.”
That’s when I lost it. I had been carefully educated by liberal parents that we are all, black and white, the same. My favorite movie growing up was “In the Heat of the Night.” Yet that often meant not treating everyone the same. It meant treating blacks with a mixture of patronizing condescension and obsequious genuflecting to their Absolute Moral Authority gained from centuries of suffering. It meant not treating everyone the same.
It meant leaving valuable things like a bike in a vulnerable position in a black part of town because you didn’t want to admit that the crime is worse in poor black neighborhoods.
Hearing the kumbaya song from my liberal friend, I immediately thought of a phrase Piers Morgan had recently used when he was debating the tiresome black liberal journalist Touré about the Trayvon Martin case. Touré had accused Morgan of not “fully understanding what’s really going on here and what’s really at stake for America.” To which Morgan replied: “What a load of fatuous nonsense you speak, Touré, don’t you? You think you have the only right to speak about what’s serious in America? You think I don’t have the right as somebody from Britain who spent the last six or seven years here to address the story like this with the seriousness it deserves?”
Score one for the Queen. In that moment, I had a change of consciousness. Why was I assuming that the kid who stole my bike was acting out of some terrible pain, as if he had been directly under the lash of Bull Connor? What if he has a car, a nice apartment, a hot girlfriend and good health?
What if he is just a selfish asshole?
I decided that I’m just going to let go of my white guilt. We’re all human, we all experience pain in our lives. And black pain is no different than white pain.
It felt good to say it: Black pain is no different than white pain. I’m tired of people using the moral authority of past generations for their own personal gain and self-aggrandizement. Soledad O’Brien, a Harvard graduate, acts like she just stepped off the Amistad.
I mentioned that growing up in a good liberal household, my favorite movie was “In the Heat of the Night.” It’s the story of a brilliant black policeman who has to solve a murder in a redneck town in the South. In one scene in the movie, the policeman, played by Sidney Poitier, is convinced that a rich white man is guilty of a crime. He begins to ignore the evidence, and says he is going to “drag this cat off his hill” and prosecute him. A white sheriff looks at him in disbelief. “Man,” the sheriff says with a kind of sad realization, “you’re just like the rest of us.”
Mark Judge is the author of A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.