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In Laurel, Mississippi, where I grew up, there were two worlds: one black and one white, divided by train tracks. During the day, black workers crossed over the tracks to work in the homes and the businesses of the white people. By sunset, they retreated to the other side of the tracks where they lived. Without giving it much thought, I just assumed that was the way the world was.

When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated during a protest for equal pay for black city workers in Memphis, where I was in college, I began to wake up.

After more than four decades living in Japan, I've watched what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, Minneapolis and Washington with a sinking heart. How could these things still be happening? I am ashamed of what white people are doing to black people. I am ashamed to be American.

Somehow or other things were supposed to have gotten better over the past half-century. Whites began to think "I'm not racist" and think we're in a "post-racial" era. It's clear that neither of these is true.

Yes, Affirmative Action did provide some opportunities for education and jobs. There are more blacks in positions of responsibility in business, politics and the media. We even had an excellent black president who served two terms. But now we see just how little progress there has been.

If you want to know what's happening now, read Baye McNeil's Japan Times article "No justice, no peace". Learn about the civil rights movement (1954-1968). Learn about Jim Crow and lynching. Learn about slavery. Go back to 1619, when the first enslaved Africans were brought to America.

Each of us can do something, one small step at a time. People have to stand up. How we do it depends on where we are and what we can do, but we all need to do it. Now.

James Vardaman
Sendai

The opinions expressed in this letter to the editor are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of The Japan Times.