• Christopher Heaps

Black Lives Matter

Updated: Dec 1, 2020

I grew up in the Deep South, on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, near New Orleans and Gulfport. I am a graduate, summa cum laude, of Mississippi State University. I have a PhD from the University of Tennessee. I spent the first half of my life in the South.

There are many things I love about the South. The food, music, and many other aspects of the culture are incredible. A few of my favorites are REM, the Rebirth Brass Band, the New Orleans Saints, po'boys, Barq's, and night swimming. I could go on and on. The South is and always will be a big part of me.

But in 1999, I left the South, and I knew I was not coming back. I wanted to have a professional life elsewhere. A big reason why was the absolute ignorance and intransigence of white people on the issue of race. Racism has created and helped sustain many miserable communities throughout the South. I wanted a fresh start in a more positive place. I left because I could, and I suppose that speaks to my privilege.

As a Southerner, a big part of my life experience was about race, specifically the relationship between Southern whites and blacks. And, as a white person, that means talking to lots of racist white people. Eventually, I couldn't take it anymore, because you either "went along" with the racist rhetoric or you raised the ire of the bellicose Southern male. I felt like an outsider in my own community, and that was the first time I realized that my experience must mean that it was worse for black folks. The problem seemed so much bigger than me, intractable.

As a kid attending public school in Mississippi, I had several black friends, acquaintances, and teammates over the years, though none of them were particularly close relationships. In New Orleans and rural Mississippi, I've seen some of the poorest black communities in the country. I've witnessed many instances of racist treatment of black Americans, and many more instances of white people saying and threatening truly horrible things about black people.

I suppose it would be fair to describe my upbringing as "racist." But to be clear I have never seriously harbored any belief that people are fundamentally different from one another in any way (eg, "white supremacism") or that any type of personal discrimination is justified. I'm sharing this because I think it's important for white people to talk about their experience and to address race and white racism forthrightly.

I also want you to know that my view on race and Black Lives Matter is, unlike that of many white Americans, informed by a great deal of relevant experience. So, here it is: White racism is evil and it is hurting us all. As white Americans, we must ask ourselves, as the brilliant James Baldwin urged decades ago, Why?

From my perspective as a white Southerner and a lawyer, no one will ever say it better than Dr King in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

The right to keep one's life and liberty but for due process of law is as basic as it gets. Everyone should be extremely concerned that agents of the government routinely kill black people without (or with inadequate) legal repercussions. There simply is no reason why we should suffer this deprivation of our liberty. It is racist terrorism and tyranny carried out against we, the people of the United States of America. And frankly, the zeitgeist feels like that of 1776.

No one, much less members of the government or legal profession, should speak of the United States of America as governed by the rule of law for so long as this situation continues. And if we can't say that about our country, then what can we say?

A big part of why I went to law school was to try to find a career helping to rectify social injustice. I ended up mostly trying to pay off student loans. But, to a large extent, this problem lies in the legal system, of which I am a part, and for which I am jointly responsible. I want to be part of the solution. And I've been thinking a lot about what that's going to look like.

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