Whenever it comes up, I tell people that I grew up in Elizabethtown, North Carolina – about 50 miles from Wilmington. Technically, that is not true. I actually grew up in the Abbottsburg exchange, which was a few miles outside of town. In the country.
My house was about 8 miles from the one-room school I attended in Clarkton from first to eighth grade. My class had three kids: Woody, Edwynn and Amy. Amy was a girl. Edwynn was black. I am white.
When you are 6 years old, your best friend tends to be the boy that sits next to you in first grade. Edwynn and I were no exception, and for our elementary years were as close as two little boys growing up could be. We spent nights at each other’s home; we built forts together; went swimming in the creek; we fished; we sometimes did our homework together; and we had wood sword fights in his tobacco barn (I still have a scar on my chest evidencing Edwynn’s victory in a particularly memorial match!). It was as idyllic a friendship as one could imagine for two young boys growing up, especially in the South.
As we got older, we grew apart – not because we were no longer friends but because our lives were different in ways that I never realized as a child.
I had more opportunities than he did. I did not realize why, at the time. But as I got older, I thought a lot about “why.”
After high school, I went to college and then law school. Edwynn enlisted in the U.S. Army and honorably served our country until his retirement last month, as a Master Sergeant after 31 years of service. He lives in Hawaii with his wife and family. His mother still lives in Bladen County, and Tammie and I treasure the quilt she hand-made for our wedding, 25 years ago.
So, I had a black friend, growing up. Big deal, right?
As a young college student, my white friends chided me when I was the lone white kid who joined the black “fraternity” in college (it was a campus club, not a fraternity house).
During my junior year, I spent a winter break driving alone to Baltimore to meet with the Assistant Executive Director of the NAACP in his office, at the national headquarters, to interview him about racial and political divides I was just beginning to understand.
I did not do it for a class assignment. I was not sponsored by anyone. I went at my own expense, to learn. To understand more. To try and do something about what I was beginning to realize about inequality. This was 30 years ago.
Why did I do these things?
The only conclusion I can reach is that I did them because of Edwynn. He taught me more about race relations as a young boy than I ever realized. And as racial disparities began to show themselves to me as a young adult, instead of falling prey to prejudices against African Americans, my natural reaction was to try and do more as a white person to understand inequality and work to make things better. And that is what I have always done in my law career, in my public service as an elected official and in my private life.
This past Monday night, I voted against two agenda items supported by the local Black Lives Matter group. They did not like how I voted and have since scolded and tried to intimidate me for disagreeing with them. I am not complaining, as I have learned to handle all kinds of criticism. It comes with the territory. But I do see value in adding commentary on the issues of the day – to provide alternative points of view when there appear to be so few. So here is my view:
The underpinning of the Black Lives Matter mantra is explicit in its belief that black lives have not mattered to white people before now. But black lives have always mattered to me. I believe the same goes for the vast majority of other living white people in Wilmington and America.
No, not everyone. Not to George Floyd’s killer. Not to the three Wilmington cops that were recently fired. Not to the chronically ignorant. But to most.
What I see in the BLM movement is a political machine that unjustly, and with impunity, weaponizes the word “racist” in order to achieve immediate policy outcomes without bothering to build coalitions and consensus. They use warp speed to label – and sometimes destroy – those with whom they disagree.
They appear to care more about protesting and shouting and being rude to hard-working police officers than they do much of anything else. Changing our world for the better takes a lot more than occupying the public square and yelling into a megaphone. It certainly takes more than flipping the middle finger to a police cruiser driving by. And real change is not achievable by simply calling all white people who do not succumb to every demand of the BLM platform a “racist.”
Doing so actually sets race relations back.
Regarding Commissioner Barfield’s successful efforts to rename Hugh MacRae Park, I respect and understand his reasoning in taking action and conceptually, I supported his idea. But I voted against doing so on Monday because I felt strongly that by acting in haste, we would lose an incredible opportunity to engage each other – White people and Black people – on the much larger issues of finding common ground on our history, our progress and our path forward.
We should all work tirelessly to provide more opportunities for black children. We should all work to nourish and enrich all young minds to think in big ways – not only in racial ways. But we should be intentional about doing these things together.
So there is my point of view. I hope there is no call for me to jump off a cliff or resign my office simply because I have set my thoughts out in this article.
Thanks to Edwynn, I am as ready now as I have ever been to do something to help make the world better. Although I did not know it at the time, I now know how much I learned from Edwynn without ever talking to him about race.
I miss that kid.
Woody White sits on the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners.