Upstanders: A Racist’s Rehabilitation
Editor’s note: This is one of the episodes in the second season of Upstanders, a collection of short stories that asks what it means to have courage in today’s America. Produced by Howard Schultz and Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Upstanders help inspire us to be better citizens.
In August 2016, Heather McGhee appeared on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, a morning call-in show for political junkies. Little did she know that in doing so she would change two lives.
Though the show is far from the most popular fare on morning television, she agreed to travel from her home in New York City to Washington, D.C., to participate because it would give her a chance to speak about her work. As the leader of a public policy organization called Demos, McGhee has dedicated herself to promoting greater equality in the American economy and political system.
The first several Washington Journal callers wanted to yammer about the upcoming presidential election, which was less than three months away. McGhee didn’t mind. Sitting in front of a window overlooking the Capitol, she spoke passionately about the need for progressive political reform.
About halfway through the show, the host opened the line to “Garry in Fletcher, North Carolina. An independent.”
“I was hoping your guest can help me change my mind about a couple of things,” Garry said hesitantly. “I’m a white male, and I am prejudiced.”
Oh, boy, thought McGhee, who is black. What kind of racist rant is coming at me now?
But she also had a spark of hope. I’m glad that he’s admitting it.
When he read newspapers or watched television, Garry continued, “I get very discouraged at what young black males are doing to each other…. I have these different fears, and I don’t want my fears to come true.”
He closed not with invective but with a plaintive request: “What can I do to change — to be a better American?”
McGhee closed her eyes for a second to think about a response. It takes a lot of courage, she thought, to pick up the phone and say on national television that you’re prejudiced.
She felt no hostility toward Garry. Instead, she decided to reach for the hand he was extending through the scratchy phone connection.
“Thank you so much for being honest and, um, for opening up this conversation,” she began. “Because it’s simply one of the most important ones we have to have in this country.”
She praised him for his openness. “Asking the question you asked — ‘How do I get over my fears and my prejudices?’ — is the question that all of us should ask.”
Then she gave him a to-do list.
“Get to know black families. Who are not all — not even in any majority — involved in crime and gangs,” she said. “Turn off the news at night … because we know the nightly news over-represents black crime and underrepresents crimes that happen by white people.”
She urged him to join a church with a black or interracial congregation, and start to read about the history of African Americans. “Foster conversation in your family and your neighborhood,” she urged. “We have to get to know who one another actually is.”
And then it was on to the next caller, a Trump supporter from Alabama.
A few days later, Demos posted a video clip of the call with Garry on Facebook. Perhaps because it was such a respectful exchange about a controversial issue at a moment when everyone’s social-media feeds seemed filled with political vitriol, the video went viral. It was viewed more than a million times within 48 hours.
McGhee was surprised — and thrilled. She also was left wondering. Will Garry do what I suggested?
Probably not, she figured.
But maybe it will inspire someone.
The next week, Garry Civitello had his living room television tuned to CNN. He was in the kitchen when he heard McGhee’s voice. He hurried back to stand in front of the screen.
“There’s the girl I was talking to,” he exclaimed out loud, though nobody else was in the house except his dog.
He had missed the beginning of the interview. By the time he heard her, McGhee was describing a video of a conversation she’d had on television the week before that had been viewed more than four million times.
I wonder if they’re talking about my conversation, he thought.
Garry had never intended to become an Internet sensation. He had been vacationing in Tennessee when he saw McGhee on his hotel television. He had felt that she was speaking to him, so he’d called to ask for advice in addressing prejudice, never planning to bare his soul.
“I don’t know why it rolled off my tongue,” he says. “It was just something I needed to get off my chest. I guess I felt like part of the problem.”
But then he worried. “There’s usually negative consequences when people find out you’re prejudiced,” he says. “It scares people to come out and start the discussion.”
Civitello, who is 58, lives alone in a hilly, rural area south of Asheville. Though he had served in the Navy with African Americans during the 1980s, he hadn’t had a substantive conversation with someone who was black in years. He was injured during his military service and subsisted on government disability benefits. He spent most of his time at home, watching television.
When Civitello caught McGhee on CNN, he noticed her Twitter handle on the screen under her name. He wrote it down.
He had never used Twitter before, but later that evening, he signed up and sent his first tweet: “How does this thing work?”
Then he tweeted a note to McGhee, who responded in a private message with her phone number. He called her.
“Hello,” he said haltingly. “Is this Heather?”
“Is this Garry?”
He said he planned to take some of the steps she suggested. Then he thanked her.
“It was like you wiped the dirt away from a window and let the light in,” he told her.
A few days later, he went to a local bookstore. He filled his arms with books about African-American history and social justice issues. He brought the stack to the cashier.
She looked at him quizzically.
“I’m working on not being prejudiced,” he said.
He devoured the books, underlining passages and scribbling notes in the margins. His copy of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow is now held together with duct tape.
Other changes McGhee had suggested were harder. He didn’t want to turn off his television, but he began to watch different programs. Less local news. Fewer crime shows and reality programs that focused on people fighting with one another.
Her encouragement to get to know blacks in his community was the toughest advice to follow. How do I approach someone I don’t know? he wondered. What do I say to them?
“Everything she suggested sounded easy, but I don’t know if she realized that it’s very difficult,” he says. “I live in an isolated place in the South. Segregation was almost yesterday over here.”
He started by approaching a fellow veteran at the local Veterans Affairs hospital after a medical appointment. Their exchange was cringeworthy.
In describing it, Civitello struggled for the right words. “The poor fellow didn’t know where I was coming from or why I was bothering him,” he recalls. Finally, Civitello owned up. “I’m on a little bit of a personal quest here. I struggled with prejudice and racism.”
“Well, that’s good, man,” the veteran said awkwardly. “I hope you work out with that.”
Civitello didn’t give up. On his next visit to the VA, he engaged another black veteran in conversation. It proceeded far more smoothly.
Soon, he was looking for any opportunity to start talking to black people. At the bus stop. In stores. On streets in downtown Asheville.
“You can’t snap your fingers and do this,” he says. “It actually takes a little work.”
He began to refer to his journey of learning and engagement as his “walk.” And every now and then, he’d call McGhee to update her on his progress.
“Getting to know Garry on his walk, on this journey to integrate his life and eliminate his bias, has taught me a lot about who we are as humans and our capacity to change,” she says. “It feels to me that if this country is to succeed, we’ve all — and I don’t just mean white folks — we’ve all got to do a little bit of what Garry is doing.”
Nine months after their on-air conversation, McGhee traveled to Asheville to see Civitello. She wanted to learn more about his walk. She also wanted to visit someone she now counted as a friend.
“That’s the last thing I thought would happen when I walked off the set after answering his question,” she says.
In her think-tank work and her New York life, she didn’t run into many middle-aged white males who live in rural America. Men deeply worried about the pace of social change and economic transformation. Men who were among the tens of millions of her fellow countrymen who voted for Donald Trump.
“I didn’t know that I would find someone who was so thoughtful and compassionate, and would make it so easy for me, who is a younger African-American woman originally from Chicago, to have a legitimate friendship with an older white male from the South,” she says. “Garry and I have a lot in common, oddly, in the way that we process information, in the way that we are curious about people.”
One afternoon, she drove up to his modest house at the end of a winding road. He opened the door and gave her a bouquet of flowers. They embraced.
When they sat on his sofa, she reached into her bag and pulled out a gift for him: an anthology titled Everyday White People Confront Racial and Social Injustice. It would join a stack of well-thumbed volumes next to his fireplace. By then, his collection had grown to include works by the scholars Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson, as well as a copy of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to African-American History.
“Garry, it’s been my honor to talk with you through this,” she said.
He told her that his reading had led him to try, for a day, to put himself in the shoes of a poor black man. To combat his perception that people who don’t work are lazy, he decided to leave his house and take the bus to downtown Asheville, where he would look for a business that was hiring.
“I thought about how long it’s going to take to save for a car when you’re making minimum wage,” he told her. “Are you gonna have child-support payments? Are you going to get taxed?”
His attempt to walk the 45 minutes from his house to the nearest bus stop bushed him. “I gave up,” he admitted. But he went back home and filled a page in a notebook with observations on the experiment.
“I’m trying to understand,” he told her. “I’m in the early stages.”
The day after McGhee arrived, he took her to Triangle Park, a quiet patch of grass a few blocks from Asheville’s downtown shopping district. A concrete embankment along two sides had been painted with vivid murals depicting the area’s African-American history, beginning with the arrival of slaves.
As they gazed upon the scenes and discussed the area’s past, Garry noticed a black man sitting by himself on a picnic table. The old Garry would have been scared. The old Garry would have assumed the man was a drug dealer. But the new Garry walked up to the stranger with a broad smile and introduced himself.
“I’m Terry,” the man replied.
With Heather looking on, the two men chatted about the neighborhood, which had long been the city’s black quarter. Garry said he had rarely ventured there until recently.
Terry asked Garry if he had been to the Orange Peel, a recently restored music venue in the neighborhood that had attracted top black performers in the 1960s and ’70s — before the area began decaying. “The Commodores were there,” Terry said. “The O’Jays came through.”
Garry shook his head in regret. He noted that the venue had been closed when he moved to Asheville. He hadn’t realized it had reopened. That led to a conversation about the changes that were occurring in their town: Once-blighted buildings were giving way to new developments. Rents were rising to the point of unaffordability for longtime residents. “They call it progress,” Terry sighed.
“I appreciate you sharing that, man,” Garry replied. “Because I’m actually trying to learn about that. I’m really fascinated.”
“This is where I grew up,” Terry said. “I come from this ’hood.”
“Hey, if I see you out, I’m gonna come up and say ‘hey’ to you.”
“I’ll be around.”
“OK,” Garry said. “It was great to meet you.”
Civitello admitted to McGhee that his walk has come at a price. A few of his longtime friends, people with whom he shared racist jokes, have pulled away. “It doesn’t bother me too much,” he said. “My life is so much better now.”
He believes his health — and certainly his confidence — has improved since commencing his walk.
“I have no regrets,” he said with a smile.
McGhee grinned back at him. “It’s been so wonderful to have this voice in my ear telling me what are the questions that are still on your mind, reminding me of the work that we still need to do, but also inspiring me about how easy it could be if we just decide that we want to take that walk,” she replied. “The country needs to see ordinary people doing extraordinary things right now. And that’s exactly what you’ve done.”