Assets of Age

We’ve experienced

what younger generations

can only read about

The older you get, the more personal your connection with history. Kids read history in books; we of a certain age have lived it.

Last week I heard a college student say that he’s too young to remember 9/11. But that was so recent, I inwardly objected. Even though I can’t remember what I ate for lunch yesterday, I remember every moment of Sept. 11, 2001; my husband and I watched, galvanized, as the story unfolded on our television screen.

A while back a younger friend observed with incredulity that her mother could still remember exactly where she was and what she’d been doing the day President Kennedy was assassinated. November 22, 1963. Anyone born in the 1950s or earlier could remember that day with clarity. As a college student, I was on my way to a music theory class when I learned of the shooting. Stunned and confused, we students clustered in the classroom. The professor arrived, canceled class, and invited us to his office, where we huddled around his radio.

Because of radio and TV, and now internet, you don’t have to be at the location for an event to seize your soul and never let go. I remember watching Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, delivered Aug. 28, 1963, on the National Mall.

I’d visited Washington, D.C., the previous summer, and attended an open-air production of a Shakespeare play on the mall. As I watched TV coverage of the massive crowd that had gathered, I felt an odd sense of connection. I’d been there. I could imagine being part of the crowd. Yet I was on the other side of the country, in the family room of my parents’ home, ironing. I’d occasionally look up from the ironing board at a tiny black and white TV screen as speakers spoke, singers sang, and preachers prayed.  And then MLK. I put the iron down. To this day, my heart churns when I see replays of that speech.

Before his assassination, King had expanded his efforts beyond civil rights to the intertwined, deeply rooted issue of poverty. He was organizing and promoting the upcoming Poor People’s March on Washington when he was assassinated. The Poor People’s Campaign persisted, setting up a 3,000-person protest camp on the Washington Mall, staying for six weeks in the spring of 1968. Some of you may remember that. Most Americans now are too young. Reading about it in a history book is not the same.

_poster_werisetogetherWhich is why an event coming up Saturday, June 20, is so vital. More than fifty years later, we have a new version of the Poor People’s Campaign. There won’t be a massive march and encampment on the National Mall, but as these times would have it, a “digital justice gathering” nationwide. It’s a “moral march” on Washington, say organizers, who hope to attract tens of thousands of people online. Details are at

Cynics might say, “Why bother? Nothing has changed.” I’m old enough to argue that plenty has changed––just not enough, especially in the area of wealth distribution. We march because we can; we protest because we must. We’ll continue (a) until we don’t need to any longer, or (b) because we can’t.

I prefer option (a).

Inherently Privileged

It has taken me a lifetime to recognize, much less reckon with, my white privilege. It’s not that I’ve been oblivious to racism. I met Jim Crow head-on while traveling through the South in 1962. I was eighteen years old, appalled by racism but clueless about my own white privilege.

Infant Mary
Yup. It’s me, inherently privileged.

White privilege begins, obviously, at birth. Through no effort on my part, I was born to parents of European descent. Their forebears emigrated here because they wanted to, not because they were captured and sold into slavery.

In my experience, white privilege is childhood in a two-parent home; parents not rich by any means, but they didn’t have to struggle to feed us and put a roof over our heads.

White privilege is attending generally all-white schools. Well-funded schools where we learned what the state wanted us to learn: little or nothing about the evils of Manifest Destiny or the recognition that this nation’s economy was built on the backs of slaves.

White privilege is being able to live wherever I choose to live, though I seem to choose places that are pretty much white like me, where amenities like clean water are taken for granted.

White privilege is access to critical medical care if needed and lifelong preventive health care.

White privilege is seeing police on the street, in my neighborhood, and feeling safe, not afraid.

White privilege is registering to vote with no stumbling blocks and then voting without threats or chicanery.

White privilege is freedom. Freedom from and freedom to. Freedom from stereotypical judgments, harassment, disdain, dismissal. Freedom to move about, to live pretty much as I want––within the constraints of society, the system.

When we talk about “systemic” racism, we’re recognizing that racism has been consciously built into our systems: educational, health care, economic, criminal justice, even religious systems. Just as racist policies are intricately interwoven into those systems, so is white privilege. The systems are gamed.

White privilege doesn’t mean all whites have it easy. Eight percent of white Americans (that’s 15.7 million people) live below the poverty line. White people struggle too, observes black journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. It’s like we’re all swimming in a stream, but whites are swimming with the current and blacks are swimming against it. The system is designed to move whites forward and designed to push blacks back. That’s just one morsel among many in Oprah Winfrey’s provocative, two-hour documentary, “Where Do We Go From Here?” , available for viewing on YouTube.

I’ve never thought of myself as privileged. Blessed, yes. Richly blessed. Now as I look back on my seventy-six years, the privilege that moved me along life’s current is as glaring as neon signs on the Las Vegas Strip. I’ve been complicit in a system whose inequities are being laid bare by Covid-19 deaths, disproportionately high among people of color; inequities laid bare by videos of racist brutality.

That’s a harsh word: complicit. Yet acknowledging white privilege doesn’t require taking on a heap of guilty despair.  I won’t be defeated by my lack of color any more than I want to see others defeated by their color. So where do we go from here? To the streets? Maybe. To social media? Possibly. To the voting booth? For sure. To a place of deeper understanding, a place of compassion? Let’s hope.