06/25/2015 02:27 pm ET Updated Jun 25, 2016

Beyond That Flag: A Southerner's Apology

Twenty years ago, I waved the rebel flag as a student at University of Mississippi football games.

I wish I could take it back.

Although on a guttural level, I agreed with the school's policy against it, the fact remains that I waved it. I did not question critically whether it was appropriate. Had I been rigorously honest and put myself in another person's shoes, I would have realized, "Hey, this IS like waving a swastika." Of course that isn't the southern heritage I wish to perpetuate. Yet, I did, and did so in error.

Playwright Donnetta Grays recently posted on Facebook: "being southern is complicated y'all." Ain't that the truth. Like Faulkner's ghosts, we can't seem to leave our history in the past, perhaps because many of us drag it along like toilet paper stuck to the bottom of our shoes. I cringe every time I hear some southerner drawl out "the South will rise again." Exactly what do you want to rise?

My first job after law school was as a law clerk for the Honorable Wendell Griffen on the Arkansas Court of Appeals. During the interview, Judge Griffen, who is African-American, asked me: "Have you ever worked for a black man?" I felt dumb-struck. What an odd question, I thought, until I realized his subtle point. I was a southern white male leaving a private East Coast law school to work in Arkansas for an African-American judge, and I had, until then, perhaps, always worked for other white men (sadly, he was correct). As far as I know, Judge Griffen wasn't insinuating active prejudice, simply that segregation permeates our culture in ways infinitely more subtle than a "whites only" water fountain. The historic racism of our forefathers left a blood red stain on the carpet that we're still trying to clean with an ice cube. Implicit prejudice is still a form of prejudice.

I did not grow up in the 1960s -- an era that sounded light-years removed from my Mississippi childhood raised by university faculty parents. Still, it's ludicrously naive to think that 350 years of institutionalized racial discrimination will disappear overnight because slavery ended. Or because of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Or because of desegregation. Or because we can identify examples when a minority is recognized for an achievement. One might as well believe the world is flat. Four centuries of a race-based class structure has infiltrated our culture like a virus and it will take hard work and honesty to expel completely.

This is my start.

During law school, a classmate told me that as an African-American female, she would never set foot in Mississippi.

"It's different," I argued. "I can show you."

Without blinking, she said, "You may think so, but you have the benefit of being white."

I heard, but didn't understand. Still, her words stayed with me.

Years later, I helped my mother take coffee to a neighboring 90-year-old widower. During the course of our morning, he made reference to an African-American man and said, "He's a good man. Too bad he isn't white."

I clenched my fists on the arms of the chair, unable to speak. My mom nervously looked at me and then calmly said what would have included an expletive had it come from my mouth: "We're all the same on the inside."

I left immediately and never set foot in his house again. I still question whether that was the best action I could have taken. Even if I believed he would not have changed his mind, there is a chance I was mistaken.

That hesitation must stop. Real change often demands those of us with a privilege or position of power to use that position to take responsibility. Keeping the peace by keeping silent often condones abuse. Silence is not always right.

It was morally wrong for my ancestors to own other people. Although slavery as it existed then is over, its effects linger 150 years later. That is absurd. Coming to terms with that fact may shatter our romanticized, Gone With the Wind view of the past, but it must be addressed rather than ignored like the ugly sweater in the closet. It's an unfairness that I didn't create, but my silence about its lingering effects merely perpetuates the unfairness. Changing the past is impossible, but I can help redress it by turning the wheel so the future is different.

How do we turn the wheel? Engage in the conversation. Recognize that our heritage IS intertwined with hate, and we must let go of some things to expel the dark. Understand subtle ways that bias has continued, from the misappropriation of music in the 1960s, to the modern segregation of Sundays and school districts. Recognize that equality is more than having black friends. Admit that equity is still required, perhaps in a form we have not considered. Until we know which form is most effective, support organizations that fight for justice on multiple levels, like the Southern Poverty Law Center, the ACLU, or Southern Coalition for Social Justice.

As for me, I should have known better than to wave that damn flag. I wish I had spoken out when that neighbor made his racist remark. There are no doubt other things I will realize that I could have done.

It's more than talk. It's a walk. It's calling out close friends. It's conversations with children. It's asking for diversity, whether in the PTA, the neighborhood association, our church, or the afternoon cook-out. Stop reminiscing the antebellum south in "spring pilgrimages" with women in hoop skirts and men in grey uniforms, where no one talks about the beatings and the blood that built those homes.

Learn to listen and listen to learn from minority experiences. Because the terrorism in Charleston happened and we can't afford a world where anyone is executed because of the color of their skin.

We can't afford silence.

We can't afford that flag.