By BEN R. WILLIAMS
Back in 2001 when I was 16 years old, I bought my first car.
My favorite toy when I was a little kid was my beloved Ghostbusters Ecto-1, the 1959 Cadillac ambulance that the team used on their ghostbusting adventures. I credit and/or blame that car with instilling a love for old Cadillacs in my malleable brain, and I knew I wanted my first car to be an old Cadillac.
I saw the car while riding somewhere with my mom: a 1968 Cadillac Sedan Deville, a 20-foot beast powered by a gas-guzzling, stump-pulling 472 cubic inch V8. To paraphrase “The Big Lebowski,” it was bright blue with some brown rust coloration. The car was parked in front of a house, a “FOR SALE” sign resting on the windshield. I wasn’t certain, but I thought it might just be within my extremely pathetic price range.
My mom stopped at the house and I knocked on the front door. An old man came out and I told him I was interested in the Cadillac. I didn’t have my license quite yet, I explained, but I was wondering if he could take me for a test drive.
The old man said that would be just fine and he showed me how to start the car. He popped the hood, sprayed about half a can of starter fluid into the air intake, pumped the gas pedal once, waited about ten seconds, and then turned the key. The engine belched to life, and I became ever more certain that this car was going to be within my price range.
We took the land yacht for a test drive and despite the seat spring that was venturing northward, I fell in love. I had to have the car. When the test drive concluded, I summoned up all my haggling abilities and we started talking price.
The old man informed me that he was hoping to get $750 for the car. I countered with $550, my reasoning being that all I had was $550. He considered this, squinting at the car and then squinting at me, and finally he stuck out his hand. He’d sell me the Cadillac for $550.
And then the old man said something to me that I’ve never forgotten.
“There’s a black guy up the street who’s been trying to buy this car off me at $750 for a year,” he said, “but I’d rather sell it to you.”
I’d like to think that if this situation happened to me today, I’d tell the old man that I’d changed my mind and I was going to have to pass on the car. Of course, 16-year-old me didn’t do that; 16-year-old me just awkwardly gave him the money.
That moment obviously wasn’t the first time I’d witnessed racism in action, but it was the first time I felt like I’d been party to racism.
Part of me thought the guy was a sucker for selling me the car instead of the unnamed guy up the street; he lost out on $200. He also clearly loved the car and wanted it to go to a good home, and considering the fact that $550 represented my entire life savings at the time, I can guarantee that I was not the better option when it came to making sure the Cadillac got the TLC it needed.
I know I’ve evolved as a person since I was 16, and I hope I’m a better person in another 20 years than I am now, but I’ve never considered myself a racist. I was taught from an early age that everyone is equal regardless of race, creed, or color, and it was a lesson I took to heart.
Still, I had found myself in a situation where I had received a unique benefit over a person of color based solely on the fact that I was white. If I hadn’t been white, the old man wouldn’t have sold me that car at a $200 discount. He might not have even opened the front door when I came knocking.
I share this story for a reason.
Right now, there’s a new boogeyman in the news. Its name is Critical Race Theory.
There are a whole lot of people up in arms over CRT. They say that it’s designed to make white people feel guilty for being white, or that it states that all white people are racist.
That simply isn’t true. The basic idea behind CRT is that institutions themselves can be racist even if the individuals within the institution are not necessarily racist. It states that white people can benefit from systems they didn’t create in ways that people of color cannot.
As my above story illustrates, I understand that this can be an uncomfortable idea for a lot of folks, especially people who feel like they haven’t been given any advantages in life. I understand that it can be painful to examine the opportunities we’ve received and realize those privileges were based not on who we are, but who we aren’t. It ain’t fun.
But I think CRT is an important concept to examine. I think it’s important to understand that certain systems need to be re-evaluated to make sure they’re equitable for everyone. CRT isn’t something to be afraid of; it’s a response to the thing we should be afraid of.
What bothers me about my Cadillac story isn’t that I received a privilege, no matter how small, because of my race. What bothers me is that I don’t know how many times in my life I’ve received similar privileges without even realizing it. At least the old man with the Cadillac was honest about it.