Scott Lingamfelter

by Scott Lingamfelter

The recent and tragic death of George Floyd, a black man, by a white police officer in Minnesota is the latest in a series of controversies concerning race and law enforcement in America. Floyd has now become a poignant symbol of what people say is “systemic racism” in America. So, is racism truly systemic? Is it a matter of fixing a system as one would repair a leaky faucet or a fire hydrant knocked from its foundation by an uncontrolled vehicle? Or is it deeper than that?

When I was young, I was raised in the Capital of the “Old South,” Richmond, Virginia, where my white church-going parents who brought me into this world taught me right from wrong. They taught me racism was wrong. But the racial contrast was stark in my Richmond neighborhood.

My father, a dermatologist, had his office on Monument Avenue where Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s statue towered above a grassy circle adjacent to the Lee Medical Building. And not far from the long shadow it cast over gentrified homes nearby, there stood another neighborhood. That one housed impoverished black people who lived in a world of separate water fountains, seats in the back of the bus, and no stools for them in the local restaurants that we enjoyed. Their world was not my world. Mine was one of freedom and opportunity. Theirs was dominated by “Jim Crow” laws that treated blacks as second-class citizens.

My parents were mindful of those unjust conditions. Indeed, my father refused to segregate the waiting room of his dermatology practice, once reminding me “Son, an itch is an itch” and that a black person with psoriasis is just as tormented as any person of another color who has psoriasis also. My mother, having struggled in the same poverty of the Great Depression that my father experienced, was sympathetic to the economic misfortune of blacks, impressing on me that poverty knows no color.

Yet despite my parents’ good intentions, racism inevitably crept into my life in the environment where others who were unsympathetic to the plight of blacks influenced me. Racism was not resolved by the Civil War, the reconstruction era that followed, well-intended laws, or massive expenditures on social programs. Racism persisted. It does to this day.

When I recall the racist attitudes and insensitivities of my youth I regret them. They are a stain on my past. But I was fortunate to enter a U.S. Army in 1973 that was determined—even then—to tackle the racial strife that erupted in the 1960s and found its way into every aspect of our lives and institutions, including the Army. To its credit, the Army met the challenge head on and I—along with many other officers and soldiers—became more aware of the nature of racism through the Army’s race relations awareness training. It helped. But it was largely cognitive, and it didn’t change my heart.

True enough, I became committed to the fair treatment of all soldiers and equal opportunity for everyone. But I would be profoundly tested in defending four black soldiers under my command who were accused of raping a German white woman. After bringing formal charges, I wasn’t convinced they had committed the crime. But I was browbeaten for that belief by my superiors that included the Provost Marshall who, ironically, was black himself. They were all certain my solders were “guilty as sin.” They weren’t. A month later, other soldiers in Frankfort confessed to the crime and my view was vindicated. Sadly, I’m still haunted by the words of one of my exonerated soldiers who asked me. “Sir, what will I say to my people back home?” I was at a complete loss for words.

That was a significant awakening for me, even though I believed they were innocent. But my attitude about racism changed when my heart, not just my brain, changed. That occurred when I committed my life to Jesus some years later. There are some things in life that must be settled by means other than those of the intellect. And that posture is not sitting in a race relations class or behind a commander’s desk. It’s on one’s knees.

Some insist that racism in America is systemic and a result of broken systems. In fact racism is actually endemic in humanity and the result of broken hearts, regardless of race. Racism hides and grows in all broken hearts. It’s sin. Period. And it will be with us as long as sin is part of this fallen world. So the solution is to repent of it, not appropriate it for cynical and partisan political purposes. And the politicians and pundits who profess they stand for racial reconciliation—even as they politically exploit the sin of racism—are truly “guilty as sin.”

Scott Lingamfelter, a former member of the House of Delegates, is the author of “Desert Redleg: Artillery Warfare in the First Gulf War,” This column is republished with permission from his newsletter, “Copy Book Warriors.”

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3 responses to “Guilty As Sin”

  1. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    Racial tolerance is a virtue to which some are born, others achieve, and then there are those who must have it thrust upon them.

  2. John Harvie Avatar
    John Harvie

    Well written and from the heart. I grew up around the corner on Lombardy and experienced both racism and religious bias in my family, primarily by my father an executive in city government. The Italians he met in WWI Europe were “Ratalians”. His Richmond Greys and BPOE were lily white.

    I always hid the fact that two of my best friends in elementary school were Jewish. My dad was shocked when I, an Episcopalian invited a Boston Catholic girl to a W&M prom. My dad hated the fact our maid/cook, Frances Stevens was a fine Black lady whose husband was the personal chauffer of the Thalhimers, owners of the department stores.

    My mother, an English teacher at Binford JHS also was guilty, in a lesser way. Once when I referred to Frances as a lady, she suggested I should use “woman” instead when referring to “Negroes”.

    These memories are somewhat troubling to this day.

  3. Agreed, JH, “well written and from the heart.” I lived on West Ave., then Hanover Ave, in both cases only a couple of blocks from General Lee. I still remember watching the construction of Lee Medical — the first time I had ever seen hot riveting, where the red-hots were tossing and caught as casually as baseballs and punched into place in one swift motion, then hammered flat at the other end.

    The travesty that Monument Avenue became last year was unfortunate, and probably unnecessary, but let us hope it proves cathartic nonetheless. I would have preferred Catesby Leigh’s solution — let Kehinde Wiley’s knock-off of the J. E. B. Stuart equestrian, “Rumors of War,” and an exhibit or three for context at the Branch Museum provide the context for the Avenue’s portrayal of the Lost Cause ethos [BR, Age of the Woke, 04/12/21], but as DJR and others have said here, Richmond missed its chance many years ago to asssert history and architecture (and tourist attraction) as justification for preservation of the Avenue intact.

    There was a world of difference in the old suburbs of Richmond below the Boulevard, the difference between where the black domestics lived and where they worked, between south of Cary and north of Main. The latter, now so grandly named the Fan District (for the streets ‘fanning’ off Park Avenue at the series of little parks lately denuded of their lesser Confederate memorials), or its extension the Museum District (named after the institutions now occupying the grounds of the Confederate Old Soldiers Home, VMFA yes, but also ‘Battle Abbey’ and the UDC Headquarters, and Lee Chapel).

    But this is 2021, and after the past two years of turmoil over Monument Avenue I am surprised that SL’s heartfelt observations have only attracted a handful of comments here. Perhaps that is a sign of our collective exhaustion, for many reasons, but particularly on this topic. Race relations must be re-defined in this country, and it ought to be for cities like Richmond to take the lead, not to be defined by paralysis and the same sense of tragedy that brought us the Lost Cause in the first place.

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