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Liberal, Conservative Find Common Ground on Racial Injustice

Headshots of a woman and a man
Pam Smith (left) and Tim Perry Sr. (right); screenshot taken by producer Diana Williams

VPM is one of six stations across the United States partnering with StoryCorps for “One Small Step,” a nationwide initiative that brings together people with opposing political beliefs to have open, respectful conversations. In many instances, the participants discover they have more in common than they thought.

Growing up, Tim Perry Sr. learned that hard work is the way to succeed in life. “If you could work, you're a good guy, but if you were lazy you weren’t,” said Perry, a father of two. However, Pam Smith notes that is not always the case for Black people, saying society makes it seem that Black people are lazy. “That has always really really offended me when I hear it...the labor that was stolen from Black people in this country, unpaid labor, for centuries, and all of that came from hard work,” said Smith, a historian. Smith and Perry spoke about America’s past and racial injustice.

While Perry is empathetic to what Smith is feeling and understands people benefited from stolen labor, he mentions how he was never a slave owner. He believes people should be careful not to indict each other for the country’s past based on how a person looks. “I think we always have to each other based on what our circumstances are and not make each other own everything...the mistakes people made,” said Perry.

Smith appreciates his honesty and understands how the weight of history can feel unfair on a person’s life. Smith’s father was in the military for around 11 years and was a member of the integrated ground troops in World War II. However, at the end of the war, her father didn’t return to a hero’s welcome nor receive the benefits that others did. “My younger years were characterized by a lot of lack of opportunity within our family,” said Smith, who works at Richmond Hill.

In her first year of college, Smith remembers walking down the street when a group of white men drove by in a convertible, throwing ice balls at her while shouting "n*** get out of our town." “I had bruises on me for days,” said Smith.

Even though Perry did not actually participate in any of those events, Smith notes how the past helped shape society in a way that benefits certain people like him. “How many young black men have to walk through life every day of their life, how many black mothers have to worry every time their child leaves the house,” said Smith. “It’s like to not have that burden, to not have that worry every day is a form of privilege.”

During the summer, racial justice protests erupted in U.S. cities, like Richmond, following the killing of George Floyd. Perry believes conservatives should respect and support the protests. “We should be in front of that, we should be leading that, we should be down there,” said Perry. He sees the protesters as taxpayers who are angry with their government and deserve to have a say in how law enforcement acts and what they do.

Smith knows police brutality is a problem that needs to be taken care of and get under control. “Some of those government workers are killing Black people every day,” said Smith. She recognizes violence sometimes erupted during the summer protests but emphasizes how Black Lives Matter is a non-violent organization and people attending those protests may not always follow BLM’s lead.

For Perry, automatically supporting law enforcement, which he often refers to as government workers, does not honor conservative values. He wants to draw attention and encourage conservatives to stand up against police brutality. For example, he wrote about the killing of Breonna Taylor in an NRA magazine.

Without including any personal details like race or names, Perry wrote about the government busting into a home of a legally armed citizen, who grabs his gun and hits one of the government workers in the leg. Then those workers fire back, killing a woman who lived in the home. “Evaluate that in terms of the Second Amendment, right to bear arms, evaluate that search and seizure, and evaluate that with the Fourteenth Amendment which is due process,” said Perry. “Before you weren't honestly applying conservative values to that situation, you know that it was based on who the people were.”

To Smith, Breonna Taylor is an example of how messed up the system is, saying people are treated differently based on the way they look or their background. “People should be treated equally not just interpersonally but in terms of the systems and structures of our institutions and our government and our country,” said Smith. She hopes to live in a country where people respect one another and recognize each other’s humanity.

Perry agrees and believes people need to start hearing each other and seeing each other’s feelings as legitimate to solve racial injustice issues. For instance, Perry said if someone said their arm hurt, he wouldn’t tell them to “suck it up and get over it.” He thinks people should come together and find solutions. “Start listening to what’s being said, not to stereotypes you’re being fed,” said Perry.

Both Perry and Smith want every individual to have equal opportunities and be treated fairly, but believe America needs to reconcile with its past to move forward for a better future. “It's what African American people are trying to recover from and not just African Americans, I believe both sides were affected negatively,” said Smith. The two agree that government and institutional systems should be altered, such as making college more affordable, to empower every individual, as the individual is the one who can make the country better.

StoryCorps’ One Small Step is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.