Guest columnist Jim Cahilane: Waking to white privilege

  • In this April 9, 2014, file photo, Basketball Hall of Famer Bill Russell takes part in the “Sports and Race: Leveling the Playing Field” panel during the Civil Rights Summit in Austin, Texas. AP

  • Jim Cahillane outside his barracks at RAF Fairford, which is where he met Bill Parker, an African American from Chicago in the 1950s. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • A sketch of Jim Cahillane taken in the post exchange on the day he became a staff sergeant in the U.S. Air Force. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Published: 6/29/2020 10:30:05 AM

In February 1995 I wrote a Gazette opinion column headlined: “Why can’t we all just get along?” All of my readers were familiar with the question posed by African American Rodney King following his nationally televised beating by a posse of cops in Los Angeles.

My column began with a word no longer seen in the Gazette or any newspaper that respects American history: “N-word lover! I stood fairly accused of being friends with Bill Parker of Chicago. Bill was a tall drink-of-water with high intelligence; brains tainted by the realities of growing up black in America.” We were fellow Airmen. It was 1954.

Forty-one years had passed since my face-to-face argument with a redneck calling me the harshest names in his vocabulary. He hated my nonchalance about race. I was equally ignorant about our three different upbringings. My red-faced challenger’s Jim Crow South was all he knew. Bill Parker’s Chicago South Side was tough then, tougher now. My lilly-white city of Northampton was “The Paradise of America.”

I had grown up surrounded and formed by blissful ignorance. None of my fellow white citizens have that excuse today. In this viral age, we’ve all seen beatings at Selma, Alabama, and more unjustified murders than we can count.

Leaders like JFK, MLK and RFK. Men like Medgar Evers, boys like Trayvon Martin and women like Viola Liuzzo. In the 1960s, I read Alex Haley’s ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X” for a night course. I so identified with the book’s whites versus blacks message that I closed with, “I am Black!” My professor graded the paper then added a comment — “I think not!”

Of course, he was right, not even close.

That column is now 25 years old, adding up to 65 opportunities for America to get its racial act together and yet we have not. Nationwide riots followed acquittal of the police involved in Rodney King’s savage beating. Afterward, not much changed. President Bill Clinton’s answer was 100,000 more cops on the beat. Many were assigned to “protect” minority neighborhoods. It was good politics, but poor policy.

In 1954, the military had only been integrated for six years. My firsthand experience with Truman’s folly: i.e., envisioning Black and white soldiers living and serving together. Bill Parker knew and I learned that the time wasn’t ripe for two-tone barrack pals to become true friends.

Celtic basketball great Bill Russell is an idol of mine. At first it was for his impressive skills on the court, but later for his bravery when he called out the city of Boston for its bigotry. Many Boston Celtic fans had their assumptions dented when Bill pointed out what was obvious to him, but invisible to cheering fans. Here’s why: American whites and Blacks inhabit separate and unequal worlds.

Now 86, Bill wrote in The Boston Globe on June 16: “I’ve been waiting my whole life for America to live up to its unfulfilled promise, because our lives depend on it.”

That’s not news to anyone with eyes to see and a brain to think. At any rate, during my two-thirds of the 20th century, plus 20 in the 21st, whites have been kidding themselves that the descendants of former slaves and slave masters had reached a covenant. President Lincoln had done his part by freeing the slaves. Therefore, you and your people are as free as we are to go forth and pursue happiness.

In Boston, there’s a statue of Lincoln holding a freeing hand above a kneeling former slave; his chains lie broken. Abe’s grand gesture of emancipation isn’t viewed the same by everyone. Critically, in 2020, our African American compatriots see a groveling freedman. They ask, if he’s truly free, why isn’t he standing tall?

Did I mention freedom’s caveats? (1) You people will have to get along without decent schools. Separate but equal was white folks’ little joke. (2) Jobs and careers will depend on your education level. (See #1). (3) If things are bad down South, factory jobs were waiting up North. Trade unions, though, were restricted to whites until a war came along and we needed you. (4) At the movies we saw white actors prosper, with Blacks in servile roles. Strangely, few took notice for half a century. (5) World Wars I and II forced America to look at its treatment of its African American citizens.

My racial education began in January 1951 when I joined the United States Air Force. Our troop-train left Springfield on a 10-day trip to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. My first shock was African American hovels lining the tracks outside Philadelphia.

“White” and “Colored” water fountains awaited us in Texas.

I’ve come full circle to confess my blindness. Sharing white privilege reminds me of my Irish dad’s FDR Depression-inspired gas station slogan: “A square deal every time.”

Isn’t that what we all want? It’s long past time to end that journey.

Veteran columnist Jim Cahillane lives in Williamsburg. He can be contacted at

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