I had the distinct pleasure of welcoming two very dynamic, charismatic guests to my FaceTime podcast/videocast on May 3, Terry Murtha and Fatima Nash. Terry Murtha has been a friend of mine for about 12 or 15 years. I got to know Terry when I joined a roller hockey league and we were on the same team. We were put on a team with all of the older dudes playing. Most of the players were in their 20s and early 30s. Terry’s in his mid-40s and I’m in my mid-50s, so it was sometimes a challenge to keep up with the younger guys. (But not always! Sometimes we smoked ‘em!) Now we play pickle ball and racquetball together too. Sometimes we just take a walk like old guys and talk.
Terry is smart, funny, a really good hockey player, and a good friend. He’d be the first to tell you that he and I share different politics and backgrounds—he’s more conservative than I am, he’s more religious than I am, and he grew up vastly differently from me in that he comes from poverty, never met his father and has a history of brushes with the law. It’s great to have a friend like him to challenge assumptions that I often make about how the world works (or should work), and I like to believe I am good for him for the same reasons.
Terry listened closely to my podcast a few weeks back where I had a conversation about race and racism with Fatima Nash, and he had some questions. More than that, he said that he didn’t agree with everything Fatima said about racism, and in particular, I don’t think he agreed about systemic racism and white privilege. So he wanted to talk to Fatima and he e-mailed or texted her to try and set up a time to chat. Now, Terry is a cool guy, and Fatima wanted to talk to him, but she was a little worried about being challenged in a strongly worded way because Terry looks and sounds like a tough dude. But I reassured her that there was no way Terry Murtha would be anything but polite, even if he disagrees with her. That’s not to say that Terry and I haven’t had a few fiery arguments over the years about this and that. But the point is, you can have a disagreement without having a fistfight.
Anyway, then I got the brilliant idea (even if I do say so myself) to invite Terry and Fatima on to my show (I really love saying that, “on to my show”—I sound like Jimmy Fallon or something, haha) to have their conversation. I pitched it to them and they agreed, because they are both so cool. I especially didn’t want Terry to believe that it would be Fatima and me against him, even though he is more than capable of handling a 2 on 1 situation. I just didn’t want him to feel like we would gang up on him. But he was cool. Have I mentioned how cool Terry is? So cool. Actually, I’m kind of surprised he’s friends with a nerd like me—but here’s the thing—you always need friends who are different from you. But that’s another blog.
Anyway, so here we were. Fatima came on and Terry came on and they talked. And magic happened—they talked civilly and respectfully and courteously about things they didn’t agree on. That’s what I really learned after this conversation: we don’t always agree but we can disagree without the world ending.
I led off with a hardball to Terry, but he was a good sport. We have talked about systemic racism when we’ve played racketball together. So I asked him: What does he think systemic racism is and does it exist? He said that he does believe it exists, but that we as a society are pretty well past it. In other words, systemic, governmentally sponsored racism existed during our history, of course, but he believes that it came to end with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s. So he doesn’t believe that it is as ubiquitous as we hear about every day (pretty good SAT word, eh?). He acknowledges that he is not Black so doesn’t have the Black experience. But he doesn’t believe that all cops are out hunting for black people like LaBron James recently said. He thinks that cops are good and bad, just like everyone else.
Terry said that when he was a kid, all he wanted was be a Black kid. He didn’t really notice all the bad stuff that came with being Black when he was a kid. (Side note: Terry admits here just off the cuff that a lot of bad stuff comes along with being a Black person—interesting.) It wasn’t that Terry didn’t notice his color—it was just that Black culture was very attractive to him. The movies he watched, the music he listened to, the hip hop culture, entertainment, sports, all of those things were dominated by Black people, people that he admired. It’s hard for him to talk about systemic racism given his background, and the fact he never had a lot of advantages growing up. He came out of poverty, and described himself as a little white-trashy. His feeling is that people are always discussing systemic racism now, and he just wonders where that comes from.
Fatima says that systemic racism is alive and well. She can only tell things from her perspective as a Black woman. She believes the reason we hear so much about it now is because of video recordings and social media; we are just more aware of systemic racism as a nation now. Fatima says she’s happy about the conversations and dialogue that this has inspired. People are probably fatigued from hearing about it, but it gives her hope. When she thinks about systemic racism, she thinks about the 1940s and 50s, racist government laws, the incarceration system, the inequalities in wealth, housing, education, employment and opportunity. For her it’s about access—the system was designed by our forefathers to keep people who look different separate. Systemic racism exists because she feels it with all of her being, every day, all the time.
She doesn’t believe cops are hunting black people like deer—but she does believe that Black neighborhoods are over-policed, and that feeling has a lot of Black and Brown people feeling like they are being hunted. (BTW, she gives a shout out to LeBron James).
Terry believes that a lot of the reason that Blacks may feel like their neighborhoods are over policed is due to black on black crime. He says that Black people for a long time were requesting more policing. Charlie Rangel (a prior Black House representative from New York City) asked for the death penalty for crack cocaine crimes. That is not from the state—that is from the black community itself.
Last year says Terry there were something like 14 unarmed Black people killed by police in the US. Total unarmed people shot was something like 25, to his knowledge. If the Black neighborhoods are over-policed, and he thinks that’s true, then of course the amount of Black persons being shot or killed is going to be higher. We don’t see white people on video with whites being shot by police, but he believes it was happening and not being recorded.
(Fact check: According to the Washington Post database of fatal police shootings, there were 55 unarmed people shot and killed by police in the US in 2020; 18 of those were of Black victims. There are about 1,000 fatal shootings yearly in this nation by police, including armed or unarmed victims. Of those fatal shootings a disproportionate number are Black Americans by more than two times. https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/investigations/police-shootings-database/?itid=lk_inline_manual_13 . (Thanks Grover Wrenn!) )
Terry said that white people respect cops more than black people do, and Fatima agreed adamantly. Fatima argues that when so many Blacks live below the poverty line, they are fighting for their survival, which also accounts why many Black people are nervous about the police. They are simply looking to keep their families clothed, fed and alive. She described it like crabs in a barrel climbing on top of each other to get out. Black America needs and is begging for things like safety, good jobs, good education, begging for access to opportunities. She wants to be able to stop worrying about whether if a hiring manager looks at her resume and sees her name, they might think she’s Arabic (she’s not). If America is giving the Black community more police, it should also give them more books, more health care, more jobs, more opportunity.
Terry loves the crabs in a barrel analogy. He comes from poverty and understands that it’s all about survival mode. Can I get to work; do I have enough money for cigarettes or food, and that’s all people in poverty think about. There is no big picture when you’re poor and trying to survive. Poverty is very hard to break away from; he understands that at a basic level.
What he argues is that opportunity is now better for Blacks and other minorities because people understand that these populations have been held back, and they want to make amends in some way. He thinks we all have personal struggles that hold us down, like an overweight person, or a person with bad teeth. To zero in on color is to divide us. We ended up with a Trump because whites were sick of people telling them how horrible they were. He is not a racist; he joked that he would love to have the freedom to think that his Black neighbor is an asshole without being called racist, just the same as he thinks his white neighbor is an asshole.
Fatima says she agrees that most things are not black or white (no pun intended), that there is a lot of gray in the area of race relations. But as a Black person, if she is a diversity hire, that is something that she cannot escape. She cannot grow out of being black like white people can grow out of poverty. The poison is still in the system. Black people internalize the less-than talk and the way they have been treated. It is how her family lives their lives. What she knows about race is bone deep; it’s not something she cannot think about or only think about occasionally. That is a privilege for white people. I support Fatima on this one. When it comes to race, white folks are left with academics and theory, not real life which makes it harder for us to understand.
Terry has had experiences that were horrible also. He was assaulted by police, had ribs broken. He has had people mistreat him. He knows its true that there are white people who are scared of Black men. He has been the subject of people making assumptions about him. He asked Fatima if it is possible that her feelings are not all because she is Black but maybe because people are mean. Racial profiling exists no doubt, but we all have crosses to bear. Terry does not believe in white privilege.
Fatima says that the color of her skin just brings out a bad reaction from people. Again she feels she cannot wash away the color of her skin. She believes in white privilege. She says that Blackness is on top of all the regular stuff that people wade through when meeting others; there is an extra added tax that Black people experience.
Terry does believe the Black tax exists. He goes back and forth on white privilege. He still believes that some Black people and some white people are too hung up on skin color. He said his heart was breaking when she described her experiences, so he knows that it’s there. But we all climb out of something, so why do we always have to talk about it.
Fatima wishes for one day to happen where she is not judged by the color of her skin. Something compelling she asked Terry was, what if he had to wear a sign about his poverty or about his personality and he could never take it off. How would he ever know whether people take him at face value or are judging him or intimidated by him over his background. That’s what it’s like being Black.
The product of racism is inequity and injustice, so of course we have to focus on race, I said. The NFL is a good example, where there are not so many black coaches or quarterbacks. Same with CEOs in business.
Terry pushed back—it seems to him like the NFL numbers are consistent with it being a racial issue. But the CEO numbers he thinks is because the majority of Black people live in poverty. He says it is not systemic anymore. It was prior to the 1960s, during what he called the great apology and the civil rights movement. He does not believe that all Black suffering is because of the system.
Terry argued that it is not fair for Fatima to say I know it’s there, I can feel it, meaning systemic racisim. For him feelings aren’t knowledge. She understands his point and told a story where her biases misled her.
She had an experience at the airport with a guy who kept looking at her. She thought he was giving her the stink eye. Turned out he was gay and really liked her outfit. She admits to her own biases, but she’s had plenty of negative vibes from older white men giving her looks where she doesn’t think was a mistake in judgment on her part to avoid them.
Terry says that in a lot of cases her feelings of racism are probably true; but should every encounter with a mean white person comes down to racisim? There are a lot of asshole people out there, white and Black. Terry says he doesn’t want whites walking around feeling shame whenever they relate with Black people.
(A comment from my wife (feel free to edit out, I got on a roll)—I think that what Terry articulated above is one of the costs of racism over the years—that Black people do not have the privilege of ignoring race. When many whites see, talk to, interact with a Black person, they overlay the entirety of the Black experience onto them, such that we no longer get to interact with Fatima, the person, but with Fatima, the representative of the Black people writ large. And that’s not fair to Blacks who don’t get to reflect their personal identity in any interaction, but always have the burden of being a representative of the larger group. Whites, when we talk to whites, never think, well she is white, so she speaks for all white people. She’s allowed her individuality. But the Black person is not given the benefit of speaking as or simply being a person. Instead they are a “Person of Color.” In the US anyway, they will never be simply a “Person.” And how burdensome is that? And on the other side, how nice, how privileged, not to have that burden, to simply be a “Person.”
This overlay is also unfair to whites. I imagine that when many whites speak to Blacks, the internal monologue might go something like, well that Black person is an oppressed minority and therefore I need to make allowances, or make excuses, or feel ashamed because of that history. I, as the white person, will never be able to simply interact with that person from a place of comfort or ease. And so you get a population of white people who take those uncomfortable feelings and push them out onto the Black community and deny that white privilege exists because it’s too uncomfortable to admit. So racism of course burdens Blacks, but it also burdens whites by trapping them in a endless feedback loop of guilt and shame, which ultimately manifests as anger and denial. Terry doesn’t want to feel the guilt and shame for a historical system that he had no part in designing (and really who does?), so it plays back as, well that Black person is being too sensitive. Because that’s really what he is saying to Fatima—you are too sensitive, not everything is about race. And Fatima says, yes, you are right sometimes, but not all of the time, and it’s exhausting having to wade through it all. So we have whites in anger and denial, and Blacks eternally on edge and exhausted. A great state of affairs, eh?)
I asked Fatima if she feels like she’s oppressed? Her answer was simple. Yes. But it’s up to her to push those feelings away and keep on striving, keep on achieving. I wondered if really these small conversations will really change anything. And she said, of course they will, Brad! That even though it’s one small conversation, it’s still mighty. Change can only happen on an individual level; and when enough change occurs individually, that’s when you will have a societal change. She wants to have more of these type of conversations. People are too nervous in talking about race; they worry about how they will come across. Insecurity insecurity, insecurity, so of course these conversations don’t happen.
She is so grateful that Terry is bold and secure enough to reach out to her. But she’s glad she met Terry and that he sees things differently so she can learn from him. Hopefully he learned from her.
Well, I don’t know if the world will be changed by this one conversation, but as Fatima and Terry both said, it’s a great place to start. Each of them have a new friend and have someone they feel safe talking about race with.
I hope you’ll listen to the entire conversation because I missed a lot here, even though this blog post is so long you wouldn’t think so. See you next time smart people.