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You’ve got to be carefully taught

Two Bartlesville residents talk race in public

Tom O’Connor and David Lewis Jr.

Greg Bollinger

You could hear the microphone humming after he mentioned Colin Kaepernick. The mostly-white crowd was all ears.

On a cool November weeknight, in front of more than a hundred people gathered at the Bartlesville Tri County Technology Center, David Lewis Jr. sat on a stool next to his friend Tom O’Connor. It seemed, to me, an odd place to hold an event titled “A Conversation about Race.”

But there we were, listening to Lewis, a 27-year-old black man, and O’Connor, a 76-year-old white man, discuss the ways in which race and racial identity have formed and deformed America. It was their first public event.

“This is gonna be uncomfortable,” Lewis said.

Both bald as turtles, irresistibly likable, and in possession of arguably unnecessary microphones, they told us first about their friendship.

United by their involvement in community service, the two would often get together and discuss current events. But last year, Lewis said, after four years of friendship (and after the presidential election), O’Connor came to him with an admission.

“‘Dave, you’ve known me for a while,’” he recalled O’Connor saying. “‘But there are some things you don’t know about me. In my younger days, you and I wouldn’t have been friends, wouldn’t have broken bread. Because I didn’t like black people. I was a white supremacist.’”

O’Connor grew up in Queens, where gang violence was drawn across racial lines.

“All the white guys gathered in one place, and all the black guys gathered in another,” O’Connor said. “And we were supposed to come at each other with clubs, knives, chains, whatever.”

The death of a friend in a gang fight spurred his racism.

“The best way for me to express it is from the Broadway play, ‘South Pacific.’ There’s a song in that play called ‘You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.’ I’d sing it for you, but I don’t want to clear out the room:

“You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught from year to year,
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

“You’ve got to be taught to be afraid,
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a different shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

“You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six, or seven, or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.”

“To me,” O’Connor said, “this is absolutely right, and it’s something white people don’t realize. If we think about where racism originates, it originates with white men. We perpetuate this in ways that are so subtle, and often we don’t even mean to do it. But sometimes when people do it, it’s not subtle; it’s blatant. And they’re getting away with it, because nobody wants to speak up.”

Perhaps people don’t speak up, they suggested, because they see the consequences of doing so in today’s media.

“When people criticize Colin Kaepernick for kneeling because it’s unpatriotic,” Lewis said, “I think about how this country was founded. It was founded out of a revolution. It was founded off of some ‘unpatriotic’ behavior. And then I think about why he was kneeling: unarmed African-Americans being killed by the people who are supposed to be defending them. To me, that is, in fact, the ultimate sign of patriotism: to take a knee.”

After the conversation, when the duo asked if the crowd had any questions or comments, hands flew up. Multiple people visibly flinched when someone asked Lewis to give the crowd examples of racism he had personally experienced.

“Take your time, brother,” said a man in the front.

But for the most part, the crowd wasn’t there to pick fights. White people spoke about feeling powerless. Black people spoke about feeling alienated. The common thread among them was a simple statement: Racism still exists, and we want to do more about it.

There’s no automatic cure for a societal ill. The road of progress is littered not with miracles, but with rooms full of people united by common cause, being vulnerable with each other for the sake of community.

“Tell your readers to continue the conversation on race and racism in America,” Lewis said to me. “Encourage them to educate themselves on American history told through the lens of the African-American experience.”

If you missed the event, there will be another opportunity to engage in the dialogue soon—Lewis and O’Connor are planning another conversation for February

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