Waking up in the White Garden


I‘ve been on the front lines of the War on Drugs for about 15 years as a defense attorney and as a human being. I am led, as a white Quaker, to try to talk about what we need to do in our spiritual, emotional, and mental lives to be in a position to become better friends with people of different races. I must show up, listen, help, and suffer with my community of color so I can learn what must be done about racism within me and in the world. I cannot learn these things from white people, because they haven’t directly experienced racism.

I teach at North Carolina Central University, a historically black university in an area with a high level of law enforcement, but I take my morning walks in the Duke Gardens across town. Lately, I’ve been walking through one section of Duke Gardens where all the flowers are white. It’s called the Page-Rollins White Garden. The first time I walked through the White Garden, I thought that this was the kind of place where my daughter could get married. How beautiful! But after a few days, I realized that there was something deeply wrong with the garden. Who thought it was a good idea to plant a garden of white-only flowers in Southern soil once tilled by slaves?

I look around this gathering of Quakers, and I see a mostly white garden. It’s a beautiful garden; we truly are lovely flowers. While we have to be gentle with ourselves and each other, we also have to admit that we are mainly a white garden.

Being a white garden means that we hold the accumulation of centuries of wealth, power, and privilege. Some of us may come with personal trauma or gender, sexuality, or class struggles. However, race is the number one predictor of housing values, health outcomes, employment, educational success, and incarceration. We are the inheritors of tremendous power and privilege just because of our white garden-ness. Once we acknowledge this, many of our first feelings may be guilt, followed by shame, anger, and fear. To change we need to do the hard spiritual work of leaning into those uncomfortable feelings. These emotions are our tools. They are the hoe, shovel, and rake we need to clear out the unhealthy aspects of our privileged identities rooted in white supremacy and begin to replant a healthier garden. I thank God that my Friends of color put up with my racial ignorance and arrogance. As a community, we are not going to grow a more inclusive garden by sitting around in silence, waiting for more African Americans to walk in the doors of our meetinghouses.

We are segregated in our hearts, minds, and souls. We can’t stop with guilt, anger, and fear. To do that would be debilitating. We have to hold these feelings with love, gentleness, and kindness. We have to use the energy of these feelings to remove the weeds of racism from our own minds and our communities. I’m the flower I was made to be. And I’m flawed and stupid. I have the racial arrogance to walk into a group of folks and say insulting and stupid things.

I was a public defender right out of school and had clerked at the court of appeals before coming to the public defender’s office. At my first staff meeting, I was in a room full of African American lawyers who had devoted themselves to defending people who were poor—predominantly people of color. I had never seen the developing world poverty in Durham. I had read about race and studied the Civil Rights Movement, and I knew the numbers about racial disparities, but I had not seen black flesh in chains and orange suits. I had not talked with them and learned about their lives. I was losing my cases and I was in way over my head. So I wasn’t doing so well.

One of my colleagues asked me how my first week had felt. I replied, “It’s kind of like out of the ivory tower and into the jungle.” Yes. To my shame, that’s exactly what I said. I look back at the moment, and I see all the racial arrogance: the entitlement of belonging, full of myself as the golden child who deserved all of the benefits and opportunities I had been given. I thought that I lived in a meritocracy of roughly equal opportunity, that I was the self-reliant, rugged individual from a family where my grandfather pulled himself up by his bootstraps. These are all dangerous lies.

My self-narrative arose from the bubble of white supremacy in which I was raised. A good friend came into my office a few minutes later and shut the door. “I don’t know what you meant by that statement, but you just offended everybody in the office.” I could see immediately he was right. I was ashamed and uncomfortable. I wanted to forget I had said that. I wanted to rely on the fact that I was a good person and I didn’t mean any offense. I wanted everybody to look past this offensive thing that I said and instead judge me for the otherwise good person that I am. I wanted to do anything but own that I had messed up, sit with that discomfort, and hold myself accountable. But I understood that I must own my mistake. And so I went to every person in the office and apologized. I asked them to forgive me for my stupidity.

It’s still a continual daily effort to uproot the racism in my mind and heart. It is like being an addict. It is like waking up in the white garden every morning and forgetting about the suffering of our racially divided world and and not even noticing what is wrong. It is a deep and fundamental carelessness to the suffering of my brothers and sisters.

My role as the trial lawyer is to do battle, to seek out conflict, to fight for justice, and to demand inclusion and protection of vulnerable members of my community. That’s what I’m for. One day I got a call from my good friend Daryl Atkinson, an attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. “There’s a black man on the corner of your university who got stopped for running a red light on a bicycle.” He was arrested for running a red light on his bicycle and resisting arrest. Now, I know they’re not arresting students at Duke for bicycle violations. Within 50 seconds of the stop, the white officer pushed the African American man’s face into the concrete. The officer busted his head and broke his arm.

I got the case, went to court, and met with the district attorney. “Is it true that they stopped my guy for running a red light on a bicycle?” I asked. “Yes. And we have videos.” We watched it together. I saw my client, John Hill, who had no record. He is a burn victim with scars all over his body; he is a divinity school graduate. You could see him in the video pointing at the light and saying, “I didn’t run the light! I’m just trying to get to work.” The white officer was yelling at him. “Get down; get down; get down.” Then on the video, the officer grabbed John and slammed him into the ground. Another white officer rolled up, and this recording had better sound. I could hear John pleading, “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” (This was before the hashtag based on Eric Garner’s death, #ICantBreathe.) I was watching this video with the prosecutors and was getting angrier and angrier. I looked at the video and saw the abuse of authority repeating racialized patterns that go back centuries. The prosecutors looked at the same video but saw evidence of guilt, of someone obstructing a police officer.

But I know the history here: the Equal Justice Initiative has documented 3,959 lynchings in the U.S. South between 1877 and 1950. I know that in 1898, the white folks in Wilmington, North Carolina, rose up and forced the African American middle class out of their own businesses at gunpoint. The Cape Fear River was red with the blood of people of color. That campaign of violence launched a new wave of white supremacy and Jim Crow across North Carolina. It’s no accident that we found a white officer pushing black flesh on the asphalt on the corner of North Carolina Central University. We have a long racial history of the police and the privileged terrorizing people of color

We went to trial, where the judge was outraged and threw out the case. I took the video of the arrest and gave it to Daryl, whose organization turned that video into an advocacy tool. We used the video to help persuade our city council to require police to get written consent when conducting searches at traffic stops.

I am just a part of this effort fighting injustice. We have people who crunch numbers, people who do battle in court, and people who can go to the city council. We have organizers, teachers, and speakers. We are all part of a team to challenge injustice, make it visible, and offer a new path.

This is deeply spiritual work. We’re clearing away parts of our identity. We are holding ourselves in the Light and letting go of all those parts of ourselves that are not truly loving. We’re letting them be pulled away from us, so we can clear them out.

After the eulogies of each successive racial tragedy are over, we cannot simply go back to our comfortable silence. We need to examine our own personal family histories. We need to ask why the federal housing authority has made our houses worth more than somebody else’s. We need to acknowledge when our grandparents or parents got a scholarship on the G.I. Bill when somebody else didn’t. We need to look at the reasons why some students get only reprimanded while others get suspended. We need to see how government policies and cultural practices conferred and concentrated wealth and power in our white family histories while simultaneously denying that power to families of color. There’s a great discomfort to pulling those strands away. We should embrace that.

When you get home, get thee to an anti-racist activist community! The issue doesn’t necessarily have to be the justice system; it can be the housing authority, healthcare, or the schools. We must bring our work and our learning under the care of people directly affected by the trauma of our tragic racial history. Living in authentic community with people of color, we will become more sensitive and aware to the racial consequences of broad policy decisions.

Where were Friends when the politicians declared a “War on Drugs”? When our leaders start talking about war, we’re usually the first people on the corner with peace signs. Where were we when they declared a war on drugs? The answer is: we didn’t know who we were fighting. We did not see the racial dimensions of this war or experience its consequences for poor and vulnerable communities of color. We didn’t understand that it was a real war—on people of color, who are dying in prison, doing life without parole on drug charges. Our police are now militarized; our prisons are now industrialized. The same triplets that Martin Luther King Jr. warned us about—materialism, militarism, and racism—are present in our local police department. They have SWAT teams, humvee vehicles, automatic weapons, even bayonets. Police force the people they arrest to civilly forfeit money. We have a multi-billion dollar prison industry.

Those same triplets oppress our schools. School resource officers are turning our kids into criminals. We have to apply our peace testimony to more than wars in foreign nations. It’s the war in the east side of Durham, too. And the police are soldiers.

To change these structures we will have to feel and deepen our connections across difference. We will have to develop a fierce and committed urgency for change. This fierce urgency arose for me more than ten years ago when one of my clients faced a serious charge. I worked hard for a deal, so he didn’t go to prison. He promised me he would never spend another night in jail. “That’s great. That’s awesome,” I replied. He was attending church, coaching kids on the basketball team. I got letters from his preacher, his mama, his grandmama, and his teachers. It seemed like this kid was on the right track. It was devastating to me when I got a call that he had committed suicide in jail. He had been picked up on a very old, outstanding warrant that was issued before he had turned his life around. When he got to jail, he kept his promise in a way I would have never imagined.

I went to the jail and talked to the people there. They allowed me to interview the detention officers who had found him. I felt it was important to learn what had happened, so I could tell the family; they weren’t going to trust the whitewashed version.

A detention officer drove me to the medical examiner’s officer in Chapel Hill, where I watched them carve up my client and weigh every organ. I looked into his lifeless eyes. The medical examiner could tell from his eyes that he had slowly choked himself to death. He had wrapped a bed sheet around a door handle, and choked himself to death on his knees. This was a “self-lynching.”

From that moment on, when something happened to somebody in my community, it was like it was happening to me. These were my kids being pushed into the ground; my arrested panhandlers; my incarcerated, mentally ill people. I was connected.

The question for us is not how to become more connected, because we are already connected. The question is how do we fully live out, improve, and deepen the connection.

We are more and more aware of the great disparities of harm the War on Drugs is inflicting upon people of color. I believe the restorative justice movement offers a nonviolent community based form of resistance and reform to our broken system of mass incarceration. Restorative justice is to mass incarceration what nonviolent resistance was to segregation. It is the best method of resistance and reform.

As a people, Quakers are prepared for promoting the kind of restorative justice needed to end the War on Drugs. We circle around a problem better than anybody on earth! We can bring a potluck and restorative circle around this problem of injustice and hold it in the Light until it burns away.

The tools that we have are the same tools that can keep a kid out of prison or help prisoners as they come out of incarceration. We can do our restorative circles at every stage of the justice process: pre-arrest, sentencing, prison, re-entry. We can do restorative justice wherever there are conflicts embedded with racial disparities: at schools, at the housing authority, in our segregated neighborhoods. The bubble of white supremacy that I live in (and pop every morning only to see it come back) is similar to the bubble present for me in other areas of privilege and oppression: disability and able-bodiness, sexual orientation and gender. Any area where people are excluded from our communities for some arbitrary reason is a place where there are whole systems and intersections of power and privilege. Our work is great. The place for us to begin is in our silence, but it cannot be a comfortable silence.

Scott Holmes

Scott Holmes is a member of Durham (N.C.) Meeting and a member of North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative). He is currently a professor of law at North Carolina Central University's School of Law where he supervises a legal aid clinic.

3 thoughts on “Waking up in the White Garden

  1. Thank you Scott Holmes! ” Waking up in the White Garden” speaks my mind & heart! Thank you for this beautiful mediation on courage, restorative justice, & repair, in the face of our collective & culturally shared Caucasian
    brokeness & white fragility.

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