Following the death of George Floyd and the ensuing protests, I’m left simply grieving for our nation, asking, “Can we be better?”

Can we fulfill the vision of America where all people are created equal and treated equally under the law?

Can our leaders call for calm, peace, healing and understanding — while also standing up to bullies and terrorists?

Can we get out of our comfort zones to listen to other perspectives, seeking to understand our fellow citizens? Are our own views so fragile that we can’t even listen to what others are saying?

There is so much we have to learn from each other, but we are all in our bunkers, watching protests, riots, looting, and violence — and drawing different conclusions.

I was born and raised in the South, but somehow escaped the raw emotions of race. Once I asked my dad, who grew up in rural Tennessee, about race. He just shrugged and said he played baseball with black boys and they were good boys. That was about it, so I grew up with that perspective — that skin color was just a physical attribute. “Content of character” was what mattered.

That is not to say I am not guilty of ignoring the issues and unspeakable challenges faced by those with different skin color — I am. It is just to say I did not have the context to understand, and sometimes it takes personal experience to shock us into listening.

A few years ago, I took my wife to Tuscaloosa where I went to college just to get away for the weekend. School was out for the summer and it was a fun, quiet, kid-free road trip.

After dinner, we drove by the football stadium on campus. With no one around we parked and walked around the broad pavilion where statues of coaches and athletes from Alabama’s legendary football program stood larger than life.

One other family was there too, so we stopped to talk to them. They were from Atlanta and their son had been accepted to a summer football camp, so they brought him over and were staying in town for the week. The father was a football coach at a Christian school, their daughter was a soccer player. We found out we were staying at the same hotel and had a lot in common.

Until we didn’t.

As we talked, out of the corner of my eye I saw headlights come around the corner. I turned and saw a university police car driving by. To me it was no big deal, he’s just making his rounds, so I turned back to the conversation. What happened next will stay with me for the rest of my life.

The father, husband, coach at a Christian school we had been talking to had also turned when he saw the headlights, but he did not look away. His face was like stone as he stared at the patrol car as if watching an approaching predator. He made no sound, no expression, no movement until he watched the police car drive away and turn out of view.

You see, our new friends from Atlanta were black.

What life experience made this man — a good coach, father, leader — see a benign university cop so differently than I did? Why was he immediately ripped from a quiet summer night to some place much darker, much more violent?

As I watched the awful, painful, enraging video of George Floyd slowly die as Derek Chauvin sat on his neck, I immediately thought back to that summer night, when I saw a searing, painful reminder that life is not the same for our fellow humans with different skin color.

I understand the role of protests, even violent protests, in achieving political change. I’m also aware, having worked in politics for 20 years, that activists are opportunists, and we will have to parse through the deluge of demands to find policies that will actually help lift up minority communities in America.

We will be called to support a full spectrum of solutions — some will honor George Floyd’s memory and push towards real equality in America, some will not. We can pour good, effective resources into communities that need them without giving into policies that are thin veils for greed.

I won’t get into policy here, because I don’t have all the answers. It’s my turn to listen, and try to be better.

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