Last evening I participated in a virtual meeting of 100 white men. The topic of discussion was what we as white men could do to understand and help repair the bias, prejudice, unfair policies, actions, beliefs, and assumptions that have existed for centuries and which have adversely impacted men and women whose only difference from us is the color of their skin. As I listened to men speak of their own guilt, shame, frustration, and white privilege, tears came to my eyes. It struck me that it took the senseless killing of a black man in Minnesota, and a long line of men and women who have been murdered, beaten, and mistreated by our justice and governmental systems for a group of white men to stand up and recognize the need to do more, the need to do something. This moment in time was bitter-sweet for me. It was over 10 years ago, that I finally began to accept my share of responsibility for the historic wrongs our nation has thrust upon black and brown men and women, and for a system which seems unable and frequently unwilling to fix itself.
After twenty years as a trial lawyer, and a host of poor choices, life and justice handed me a five-year sentence in prison. Living behind the prison walls was when I first truly witnessed with my own eyes the impact of racial discrimination and oppression which has existed for hundreds of years and which was designed to disadvantage people of color. Behind the walls we were all the same. We all wore green jumpsuits, ate the same food, used the same showers, and were subjected to the painful loss of freedom. I returned to Philadelphia after serving five years away, now homeless and living in a shelter in North Philadelphia, the epicenter of over 25,000 returning citizens each year. I was blessed with the ability to teach and teaching GED math in an adult community learning center set in motion my journey as an advocate, teacher, friend, and now executive, that works day and night to help those men and women who for centuries deserved a taste of the privilege that I was given at birth.
My life’s journey has guided me to a place where not only can I work directly with men and women impacted by our criminal justice system, but I use the lessons learned behind the walls as a daily reminder that we live in an imperfect world filled with inequity, bias and prejudice. It is up to each of us to take personal responsibility for how we act towards each other, and to stand up when injustice raises its head. As I speak around the country sharing my journey, I am mindful of the reality that many listen because of the color of my skin, and many validate my words based upon where I have traveled. I am grateful that white men are finally sitting at the table and sharing their feelings, thoughts, and hopes of a better tomorrow. Yet, I am convinced that without those most impacted sitting at the same table sharing and talking, true change will remain elusive.
It’s time that we all sit down, ask the uncomfortable questions, and give the honest and truthful answers that will guide us to a better understanding of each other. With each small step we take forward there is also the hope that someday we can all see each other with consideration, compassion, and a willingness to treat each other with dignity and respect.
By: Jeffrey Abramowitz