Philip L. Lee
President, Clear Impact, LLC
Remarks for April 4th National Council of Churches
ACT Now! Rally to End Racism
My name is Phil Lee and I am a business owner.
In recent years, my company’s clients have been focusing more and more on racial disparities in their work to improve outcomes for children, families, and communities. And so, a little over a year ago, my company decided that we needed to better understand racial disparities.
That decision began a personal journey for me because my family has been in this country since the early 1600s. Richard Henry Lee, my great, great, great, great-grandfather, signed the Declaration of Independence.
I would like to share with you what I didn’t know.
I knew that Richard Henry Lee, when he served in the Virginia legislature, spoke against the slave trade, which he called a “disgraceful traffic.” I also knew that he had inherited slaves: 43 human souls.
Here’s what I didn’t know: That when cash was tight, Richard Henry Lee engaged in that “disgraceful traffic” — selling his slaves.
When criticized by his brother for doing so, he responded in a letter saying that, yes, he had always thought that the slave trade was a bad thing but that since it was going to be carried on anyway, he did not see, and I quote: “[H]ow I could injustice to my family refuse any advantage that might arise from the selling of them.”
That was a long time ago, however, so I looked into my grandfather.
I knew that my grandfather was a progressive who, in the first half of the 20th Century, modernized much of our local government in Montgomery County, Maryland; that he founded a land use planning agency that became a national model; and that he built some of the first “suburbs” to Washington, D.C.
Here’s what I didn’t know: my Grandfather included in every subdivision he built covenants against selling houses to blacks or Jews.
That’s some family history. What about me?
Here’s what I knew:
My company has a racially diverse staff and has done much good for communities of color; I attended an integrated high school and dated across the race line, and two of my four adopted children are black.
Here’s what I didn’t know:
That despite having advanced degrees in law and public policy and having majored in American Studies in college, I did not know my own history and the history of my country.
I did not even know that the whole concept of a “white race” did not exist before it was invented in America in the 1600s to justify slavery. It never occurred to me that it’s all man made – an ideology that has no basis in science and yet has been used to justify American genocide, apartheid, and countless other sins.
I certainly did not know that this racial ideology – this notion of white supremacy – adapts as needed with each generation to justify those who qualify as white taking the advantages that, in justice to our families, we could not refuse, always at the expense of those who do not qualify as being white.
I did not know that the reason we have done such a masterful job of not knowing our own history is because if we knew our own history then the only place whites could look to understand racial disparities is in the mirror.
And now, when I look in the mirror, what do I see?
I see the problem and I see the hope.
A colleague said to me recently, the best way for white men to perpetuate racism is to keep doing exactly what they’re doing, myself included.
Reaping the benefits of an inherently racist system without doing anything to change that system is itself racist.
I have no illusions. I know that there can be no reconciliation or even an apology until we set things right.
And I certainly know that merely implementing “colorblind” policies today will not overcome the 350-year head start given to whites in all the advantages society had to offer for wealth accumulation.
But I have also realized that if this idea of a white race that is so ingrained in our hearts and minds is, in fact, manmade, then we can unmake it.
If laws and policies and narratives have been the vehicles for this profound evil – then they can also be the vehicles for reconciliation and reparations.
If whites have been the architects of structural racism, then we can be the architects of its demise.
What am I going to do?
I am going to continue learning so that I can help to change the pervasive narrative in our country that allows white men in good conscience to keep doing exactly what they’re doing.
I am making available in my community and to my staff workshops that have taught me the history that I never learned in school.
And, because much of my own work concerns healthcare and biomedical research, I am joining in the movement to eliminate health disparities in my community and nationally.
Finally, I am going to encourage other white men to share their stories.
For me, it’s a chance to regain some humanity, for myself and on behalf of my family.
And maybe, in time, we really can make America great!