The wife of an Edwardsville attorney who built tremendous wealth from the Madison County asbestos docket recently addressed a 25th class reunion at DePauw University as a frustrated “white person” with feelings of guilt for not having lived a more “inclusive” life.
Francesca Moroney Cooper, a 1992 graduate of DePauw in Greencastle,Ind., focused on race in her June 10 remarks on “inclusivity.”
“Being born with white skin into a society that gives preferential treatment to white people, not only gives us a lot of privilege, it also comes at a cost,” Moroney Cooper said. “We are expected to be complicit with this perpetuation…”
In referencing the work of black writer and social critic James Baldwin (1924-1987), Moroney Cooper self-reflected that she is “in fact, a racist.”
“What I have found over these last years of practicing Baldwin’s self-examination is that racism really is in fact everywhere,” she said. “It’s a toxic smog that we breathe, an iron clock that we wear. I now know that I am in fact a racist, and I say that not as self-deprecation, but as honest self-reflection. How can I possibly not be, when (my) entire life has led me to believe that that is actually the right way to be? “
Moroney Cooper’s husband, Jeffrey Cooper, had teamed with attorney John Simmons to form SimmonsCooper, the most prolific filer of asbestos lawsuits in what has become the nation’s busiest asbestos court in the country.
Jeffrey Cooper dropped out of the asbestos lawyering business in 2008 to lobby for a major league soccer franchise in Collinsville, an effort that did not succeed. Simmons went on to grow a firm bearing his name.
According to attorney registration records, Jeffrey Cooper is voluntarily inactive and no longer licensed to practice in Illinois.
The Coopers, who live in a home in Edwardsville that realtor.com values at in excess of $1 million, have been major campaign contributors to Illinois politicians and to former Vice President Joe Biden through the years.
They were among elite guests attending a White House state dinner for South Korea in 2011.
Moroney Cooper also was an investor in a medical marijuana venture in Nevada started by David Rosen of Chicago, a major Democrat fund-raiser, according to an article in nwi.com.
In her remarks at DePauw, she noted a discrepancy between the likelihood of her getting busted for smoking marijuana compared to her black neighbor.
“So, I live in St. Louis which is the fifth most segregated city in country, so based on this fact alone, my life expectancy, 91 years, but my black neighbor, barely 60 years,” she said. “If she and I smoke the same amounts of marijuana, equally as often, she’s 3.7 times more likely to be busted than I am. She is three times more likely to die of a stroke, three and half times more likely to be stopped by the police, and four times more likely than I am to die of pregnancy complications. So that’s kind of intense, I know. So now I get to, well what are we supposed to do with this?”
Following is a complete transcript of her remarks:
Francesca Moroney Cooper ’92 Addresses 25th Reunion Class at DePauw University:
Good morning, thank you Dan, I’m a little bit overwhelmed by how emotional this morning has been. Watching the 25th reunion class parade in was very emotional, and congratulations to all of you and thank you for coming today.
I want to talk today about inclusivity, and I think that I’m just going to dive right in. Inclusivity has to include an awareness of lots of things; race, class, sexual orientation, identity, gender, language, place of birth, physical abilities, religion, among lots of other things. But for the purposes of my talk today, I want to focus on race, primarily as a barrier, that’s partly for time constraints, but also because I think that we have a history of how we initially enslaved Africans, that has sort of impacted our whiteness throughout time. So today I am here as a white person, who is a little frustrated with the status quo, I am sick and tired of a society that forces a very narrow definition of value on its citizens, when I was a student here at DePauw, I was embarrassed that I needed financial aid and while it’s true there weren’t many poor people here, it is also true that I was guilty, am still guilty, of perpetuating a way of living that really excluded many people. Being born with white skin into a society that give preferential treatment to white people, not only, gives us a lot of privilege, it also comes at a cost. We are expected to be complicit with this perpetuation, so I was really happy to hear of an art exhibit, here at DePauw, as I understood it, the purpose of this exhibit was to highlight the disconnect that students feel, even when they live together and go to classes together, and I was really struck by the importance of our title, because, intellectually, I think all of us would agree that these walls are useless, but they are there and they are real and I’m really proud of these students for being brave enough to acknowledge these walls, they are refusing to be complicit in this system that tries to arbitrarily to divide us.
So the other day when I was at my home outside St. Louis, I was walking with a friend and we were just talking and walking and she just bent down in the middle of our walk and picked up a piece of trash, and I had noticed it, it was a candy bar wrapper, but her act of picking it up made me look down and there’s litter everywhere, it’s everywhere, it’s in the bushes, up in the trees, it’s in the puddles, then it occurred to me as we were talking, this was such a beautiful metaphor, I really think that these biases that we all carry, our discrimination, our internal messaging, all of this is just kind of cluttering up our lives, and I am hopeful that we can all start to see all of that clutter out there. I believe that white people have a responsibility to acknowledge this litter to collect it, to discard it, and I’m really pleased to see that DePauw has in fact been taking steps to acknowledge and discard this litter.
The problem is the myth of the American dream wants me not to see the litter, the American dream wants my blinders firmly in place, but I only see my life, but what that means is that if I’m white and I live in a safe community and I have a good job or other access to reliable income, if I have health insurance, I don’t have to worry about my children when they go to school, I don’t have to worry to about being stopped by police officers because of the color of my skin, then I think the status quo is working for me, and at a minimum I don’t have to worry about anyone it might not be working for. But if I’m poor, or a person of color, that same status quo is killing me, that status quo means food deserts, no grocery stores, it means underperforming schools that have fewer resources, but dole out more punishments, its means driving in fear of a court system that would put me in jail if I didn’t have the money to pay a simple traffic fine. But what is important for me to remember is that none of this is an accident, this was intentional, this is how our country has created the race barrier that exists today.
So, I live in St. Louis which is the fifth most segregated city in country, so based on this fact alone, my life expectancy, 91 years, but my black neighbor, barely 60 years. If she and I smoke the same amounts of marijuana, equally as often, she’s 3.7 times more likely to be busted than I am. She is three times more likely to die of a stroke, three and half times more likely to be stopped by the police, and four times more likely than I am to die of pregnancy complications. So that’s kind of intense, I know. So now I get to, well what are we supposed to do with this?
We are aware that these views and justices are out there, this inequality, what are we to make of it all. James Baldwin, black American writer and activist, wrote a book called ‘The Fire Next Time’ in 1964, which I believe was the same year that the class of ’67 was first coming to campus. He talks about white people’s inability to engage in critical self-examination, and he believes that is what is preventing us from solving, not only our own personal crises, but our domestic crises, our international crises, so he believes we really have to start with the self anytime that we are to undertake a discussion of race and racism. So, I’m going to start with myself.
I used to think that discrimination was certainly a shame, but it really had nothing to do with me, it was kind of happening out there. I knew we had some whitewashed history and I knew kind of intellectually there were systemic problems, I certainly knew that there was no such thing as a genetic trait for inferior. I still didn’t really see it as being about me, I never understood that discrimination works by having some people here and other people there, there’s just no way around it. I also felt pretty strongly that racist was just an adjective and you either were or you weren’t a racist, it was kind of a one of the other, so I either tell bigoted jokes or I don’t, I either support Black Lives Matter or I don’t, I either fly the Confederate Flag, or support a Muslims ban, or build a wall in Mexico or I don’t. I was also raised, as I think many of us were, to believe that talking about race was itself maybe racist, and it was bad manners to acknowledge different skin colors and so I was raised to be color blind, but the problem is that I never saw color, to the contrary, I was all too aware of how segregated my hometown was, Chicago.
I was raised in a suburb that was lauded for its commitment to diversity and integration, but I attended and all white school, my parent had few interracial friendship and I was surrounded by a lot of people who just looked a lot like me, lots of Irish American, middle class folks. So, it was normal in my family, in my community to compartmentalize reading about a black person dying, it was expected that we would hold our purses closer when we walked at night, or sit in groups on the L, but really that was all ridiculous, it was an illusion of some sort of safety from a made-up danger, it only injured me, my emotional poverty as James Baldwin calls it, it was fierce. These manifestations of my internalized racial messaging hurt me, they limited my humanity, limited, not just my understanding of their people, but my understanding of my own self.
My 16 year old is on Twitter as I’m sure some of children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews might be, and he told me about a tweet he saw, that said ‘Racism is not something we are born with, it is a learned belief and response’ and the image accompanying that was a children’s book, an actual children’s book and it was about a white family, and the dad in the family was a white man, and there was a cook and the cook was a black woman, she cooked for the family and then there was a black janitor and the family as well.
As a I nodded in dismayed empathy as my son tells me the story and I’m seeing the pain in his eyes of this realization, he says to me ‘Mom that’s aimed at children, it’s going to imprint on their brains and once it’s there you can get rid of it’. What I have found over these last years of practicing Baldwin’s self-examination is that racism really is in fact everywhere. It’s a toxic smog that we breath, an iron clock that we wear. I now know that I am in fact a racist, and I say that not as self-deprecation, but as honest self-reflection. How can I possibly not be, when entire life has led me to believe that that is actually the right way to be?
This recognition has carried with it an enormous burden of sadness and guilt, yes, but it has also afforded me a freedom I never would have expected. Today when I drive through Chicago I understand that my own ideas about social service and diversity are not enough to combat the way skin colour continues to divide and separate us. Today when I observe my children interracial friendships, I’m so happy for them, but also regretful for experiences that I never had. Today when I read about the enormity of white people’s complicity, when I read writers of color discussion their oppression, I feel outrage and pain and frustration. I feel a lot of disappointment for myself for all the ways that I have failed, but in addition to my pain, in addition to my frustration, I am encouraged by the fact that the DePauw that I attended, the one that was almost 97% white, is not the same as the DePauw of today. Today’s students of color make up of almost 30% of the student body. I am encouraged by the support and leadership of Justin Christian from the class of 1995, whose generous donation will support improvement to the building for the association of African-American students, as well as inclusivity and diversity programming.
So, as DePauw has demanded change in inclusivity, we too must demand these changes from ourselves, from our peers, from all of our institutions. Our new shared approach must not only recognize the mistakes of the past, but must also work to intentionally break down these remaining invisible walls, when we acknowledge these walls, when we see that for what they are, for the traumas and the pain and the tragedies they have cause, then it opens up the parts of ourselves that we have hidden for far too long, it opens up our innate desire for empathy and understanding, I feel strongly that these conversations are incredibly important and I implore DePauw for having this conversation on campus with its members and I hope that all of us are doing the same.
As for me, I certainly do not have all the answers, I must look to people of color, to white people from marginalized groups, and yes even to privileged white people, people who have taken up this mantel of anti-discrimination, anti-racism work, long before me, my friends and colleagues, writers and researchers and activists, not to ask them to solve my problems and certainly not to assuage my guilt, but to hear their stories to amplify their voices and to learn for their wisdom.
So, I will close today, by asking you to consider how you might currently feel about racism, other kinds of discrimination, are you curious about these feelings? Do you have a desire to see what that curiosity might be trying to tell you? Do you wonder how much better we might be as individuals, as societies, if we could finally fix these injustices, how much we could be physically, ethically and fiscally.
Certainly I believe DePauw both nurtured this kind of curiosity, inspired us, I encourage all of you as graduates of this wonderful institution of higher learning, to use these skills, critical thinking and electoral curiosity to see what kinds of solutions we can come up with, and I hope we can all work together towards the day where students around the country, not just here in Greencastle, but at every campus, everywhere, will be inspired, supported and encouraged, not because of their differences, I’m sorry, I just got that line wrong (laughter). Not in spite of their difference, but because of their differences, thank you.