It was years into their relationship before a conversation that took a young black man aback, finding out his white friend had grown up a racist. Now, the two want to get others to open up about their different experiences and backgrounds with the goal of coming together.
Tom O’Connor, a 76-year-old white man who is an admitted former racist, and David Lewis, a 27-year-old black University of Oklahoma graduate, plan to share their stories as they attempt to “unpack” institutional racism.
“We’ve both been sort of waiting for this quote-unquote national conversation for race to start, and everybody keeps avoiding the subject,” O’Connor said. “So we decided to take it upon ourselves to hold a public forum and see if we can’t spark a national conversation about race.”
A high school dropout, O’Connor said his family life growing up was plagued by alcohol and drugs. He described his poor, white neighborhood as being on the “other side of the tracks in New York City,” with violence and hatred of minorities being commonplace.
“I was a gang kid,” he said. “I believed if you were black you couldn’t come out of the projects, and if you were white you couldn’t go into the projects. We enforced that for a very long time.”
That toxic mindset stayed with him for the first 30 years of his life. It began to fade after he joined the New York Society for Ethical Culture.
O’Connor became involved in the organization’s Prison Reform Task Force and was tasked with referring people to different services offered by the city of New York.
The job introduced him to countless minorities who were denied the same services offered to white people.
“Ultimately what it came down to was they weren’t the right color,” he said. “I could see that. They were being discriminated against left and right, and suddenly I realized they’re no different than I was as a kid.
“During that period of my life, all of my attitudes — not just toward blacks, but all the people who were different than I am — changed. And they changed dramatically.”
O’Connor eventually started a market research company and moved his business to Oklahoma, where he settled down in Bartlesville and is now retired.
Lewis moved to Bartlesville in 2012 after graduating from OU and met O’Connor while attending a fundraising event at his home. He said the two hit it off instantly as they talked about life and current events.
“If you don’t know Tom, one of the things that you’ll quickly find out is he’s very much a what-you-see-is-what-you-get type of guy,” Lewis said. “His transparency, his openness, his willingness to have a dialogue is really what attracted me to him.”
Their relationship evolved after O’Connor invited Lewis to grab a bite to eat with him and his wife. Five years later, Lewis considers him one of his closest friends.
The revelation of O’Connor’s dark past didn’t surface until last year during a conversation about the presidential election.
Learning his good friend used to be racist took Lewis aback but ended up strengthening their bond.
“You think you know someone over a course of time, but as we’ve grown closer he’s opened up about that situation,” Lewis said. “Him being able to critically think about it and say that wasn’t the right lifestyle to be living and the right way to be thinking about people, that actually drew me to him.”
One of Lewis’ biggest hopes for next week’s conversation is for people to walk away with a willingness to listen to those with different backgrounds and privileges. He said the racial dialogue happening on social media is hampered by the absence of in-person contact.
He said his goal is to sit people down face-to-face in an effort to reconcile the racial indifference affecting the nation.
“We’re not trying to bring the whole country to a Kumbaya-type moment. That’s a tall order,” Lewis said. “We’re just trying to do our part and say that at least we’re able to sit down and listen to the other. If I model that behavior for somebody else, they might do the same.”
As for O’Connor, he said he is not afraid of exposing himself by sharing his story with the world.
“That’s not difficult at all,” he said. “The truth is the truth, and I can’t change that. I was who I was, and I am who I am.”
The event is set for 7-9 p.m. Tuesday at Bartlesville’s Tri County Technology Center, 6101 Nowata Road. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.