The embarrassment of racism

Gathering with extended family or old friends often seems to churn up different versions of the same story. 

From the vantage point of the distant northern suburbs, our conversation dips down into Philadelphia: who lives there now, where someone else used to live, how this neighborhood has changed, how that neighborhood has changed back. “We grew up near Olney,” we say, “but we don’t think of driving through there today.” 

It’s never a sustained or deliberate treatise about American cities—just casual conversation—and later, someone happens to share an anecdote from Baltimore: “Camden Yards is beautiful, but after the game, we tried to get out of that city as soon as possible.” 

Or the scope shifts north to Newark, New Jersey, where my wife and I live. Newark’s reputation earns an “Ohhhhh, Newark…wow, how’s that?” Or, even an, “Ewww, Newark.” I too easily succumb to the expectations of the conversation: “Well, we live in this great part…it’s the old Portuguese neighborhood.” 

This story carries with it the same implied yet unstated subjects: black people. In post-Freddie Gray Baltimore, we mean recently angry black people. In Newark, we mean historically angry black people. And when I qualify our particular neighborhood, I mean to say, “Don’t worry, fewer angry black people.” This conversation recycles, sometimes with different cities or neighborhoods. On the tip of my tongue sit my ready rebuttals: history; segregation; white flight; redlining; deindustrialization; economy… racism. I rarely contribute or rebut, however, and instead just wish for the discussion to pass.

This conversation has swirled for a long time. Recently, though, it has grated on me in a particular way, and I now realize it is because those comments—with their laden assumptions, vantage point of privilege, and ultimate indifference—are me. I am part of this legacy of separation, distance, and ignorance-at-best. I am prejudiced, I am racist, and it is embarrassing.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great rabbi and social critic of the 20th century, writes, "The cure of the soul begins with a sense of embarrassment—embarrassment at our pettiness, prejudices, envy, and conceit…I am afraid of people who are never embarrassed.” 

Having been raised in the distant suburbs and having graduated from a homogenous Catholic prep school and then from Notre Dame, I didn’t know many black people growing up. Thus, for the most part, most of the black people I encountered were on television: athletes; entertainers; or more insidiously, night after night, black faces as criminal suspects on the local news. I also encountered black people—a disproportionate number of them—asking for help outside the train stations or the stadiums when we attempted to skirt back to our suburban refuge after a game or a concert in the city.

As much as I have attempted to repress it over the years, this combination of distance and prejudice flows in my blood. It is not only in South Carolina. It is in me. And, it is embarrassing.

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Originally published by the Alumni Association at