My precocious, mixed-race 5-year-old asked if he could choose to be black or white. Stopped dead in my tracks, I was not prepared to have this conversation at his young age.
Cautiously I asked him, what makes you ask, son?
“If I can choose, I want to be white, because they get more nice stuff.”
I found myself completely beset. How could I explain to such a young, hopeful child that the immediate reactions to his skin will be chosen for him, not the other way around?
My son will not be raised to “play the race card.” We teach him that if he wants to become something he must do it on the content of his character and his own credibility, which must and will be earned.
Our nation, through much struggle, evolved to realize that because of the invidious and often hidden realities of racial discrimination, laws must be enacted prohibiting discrimination to allow people of color and other protected classes equality of opportunity. The intent of these laws was clear: If you work hard, your race should never be an obstacle to what you can achieve.
Missouri’s own legislature realized that discrimination is difficult to prove, and because it felt discrimination was such a pervasive evil, it made it easier under Missouri law to prove unlawful discrimination.
But Gov. Eric Greitens, a privileged white man, decided discrimination is no longer a pervasive evil. He clearly doesn’t understand race cannot be hidden. He signed into law Senate Bill 43, a bill making it easier and less costly for businesses to unlawfully discriminate against protected classes in the workplace.
How can I, in good faith, tell my son he can be proud of his heritage and all he needs to do is work hard to make his way, when I know it’s easier now for his employer to discriminate against him at work because of that very heritage?
Greitens and I are both veterans. I’m a proud United States Marine. I returned — from a traumatic, violent war in Iraq — as I left, a black man in America. And I found our nation’s attitudes toward people of color are unchanged.
In our nation, as overseas, one cannot hide the color of his skin or pretend to be a race or color he is not. Yet in Iraq and elsewhere, our enemies discriminated against me and my brothers in arms not because of the color of my skin, but because of the colors we carried: red, white and blue.
Greitens and I understand that in combat, you must take and execute orders — often against your own judgment — for the good of the mission and the soldiers under your command.
We were both honorably discharged from the armed services, yet he governs as if he were still under someone’s command, inflexible to all reason or compassion but the dictates of the orders given to him.
Who gave Greitens the order to make easier and lawful those acts of discrimination our state has fought to prevent? It was not the people of Missouri who, represented only in our juries, have stood strongly against immoral practices of workplace discrimination.
As one of Missouri’s few black attorneys (one of about only 1,480 statewide), I am hopeful that our juries will continue to represent the will of the people and stand against workplace discrimination, even if our governor continues to represent only the will of dark money interests in politics.
I am hopeful Missourians will show Greitens what discrimination feels like when they choose to elect a representative who truly supports equality of opportunity for all, and not just a few.
Malik James is a partner at James & Noland, LLC, where he practices in the areas of employment discrimination, personal injury and consumer protection.