The eulogies are finished … for now. The President has spoken in his customary way of the pain of millions at the problem of racial conflict that is at heart of the shootings of black men by police and the retaliatory murders of police by black men. That is not to say that there are no police shootings of white men. There certainly are. But the data showing endemic racial profiling of black men (and women) appear incontrovertible.
The data cannot be explained away by arguing that since black men commit more crimes, it is only natural that they would be stopped, frisked, arrested and, yes, shot, disproportionately to their presence in the population. The excessive stopping, physical assaulting and shooting do not always take place in crime-ridden poor black neighborhoods. Day after day, black men of substantial roles in communities across the country — black doctors, black lawyers, black pastors and black businessmen — recount stories of traffic stops and hostile and threatening police interrogations, often covering spans of many years. No, the data cannot be explained away with “what do you expect from “people like that?”
It is a form of collective and deliberate blindness to reality to deny the facts showing discrimination in our law enforcement and judicial systems. It is also evident in many of the videos that circulate after each episode that people sometimes react verbally in challenging ways that in turn lead to strong physical reactions from police. There is plenty of “blame” and “fault” to go around.
This is not a problem that just happened in the past few years. It has been with us since the founding of the country. Tolerance is a great American virtue but we as a society have tolerated evil actions that have repressed massive numbers of Americans for a very long time.
Where did all this begin? You can trace the tribalism of the population back the era of the “divine right of kings” or beyond, if you like. For our purposes, though, perhaps the colonization of America is as good a starting place as any. The original settlers came to this country to escape religious persecution and immediately set up their own systems of discrimination. In the beginning, not everyone was equal. And it has been ever thus.
The men who rebelled against the British Crown and led the way to the creation of the United States were mostly white aristocrats and intellectuals. They had no intention of giving the vote to women, for example. Enslavement of black people from Africa under the most barbaric conditions became a central timber holding up the economy of the country, especially in the “south.” And despite the horrors of the Civil War, , Reconstruction and Jim Crow laws, it was not until 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, that the Supreme Court of the United States could get its collective mind around the idea that “separate but equal” education was unconstitutional. In my junior high history class in 1950s Memphis, the Civil War was still taught as “not about slavery;” slavery could not even be discussed in class.
Desegregation of the schools “with all deliberate speed,” turned out to be a long term intractable problem over much of the United States. For those who want a “Cliff Notes” style refresher on the aftermath, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brown_v._Board_of_Education, which is a decent summary.
The Brown decision was followed by, among many other signs of white resistance to equalization of educational opportunity, the rejection of the law of the land by the then governor of Alabama, declaring in his 1963 inauguration speech the following words:
“Today I have stood, where once Jefferson Davis stood, and took an oath to my people. It is very appropriate then that from this Cradle of the Confederacy, this very Heart of the Great Anglo-Saxon Southland, that today we sound the drum for freedom as have our generations of forebears before us done, time and time again through history. Let us rise to the call of freedom- loving blood that is in us and send our answer to the tyranny that clanks its chains upon the South. In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny . . . and I say . . . segregation today . . . segregation tomorrow . . . segregation forever.” [emphasis added]
The speech is all the more astonishing because of its blatant appropriation and reversal of the very symbols of slavery in phrases like: “tyranny that clanks its chains upon the South.” Governor Wallace was not interested in a serious discussion of whose chains were clanking on whom. Additional parts of the address may be seen at http://www.blackpast.org/1963-george-wallace-segregation-now-segregation-forever. Governor Wallace had many supporters for his racist creed within, and far from, Alabama. Many Americans still believe in it, though most will likely deny it if asked directly.
The difficulty of bringing America into a post-racial status is illustrated by the fact that, after Brown, another eleven years passed before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was enacted, to, among other things, enforce the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution that had been adopted in 1870 following, by half a decade, the end of the Civil War, which, I say again, was taught in my Memphis junior high as “not about slavery.”
So, without belaboring the details, the oppression of black people in America continued apace, resulting in geographically isolated black neighborhoods, denial of access to capital, underperforming and under-resourced schools, susceptibility to drugs and all that accompanies them, including constant violence and a staggering number of broken families. When I moved to the Virginia suburbs of the nation’s capitol in the late 1960s, racial discrimination in housing was still openly practiced.
Who is responsible for this situation? I suggest the answer is: everyone. The normal post-slaughter cries for better police hiring practices, better training, more “community policing,” more “transparency and accountability” and similar palliatives are, of course, good steps to take. Each will help to some degree. But they do not go the heart of the matter, to the true roots of the racial crisis that has enveloped the United States from coast to coast, north and south, affecting every place and every citizen. Everyone who thinks about it in a reasonably deep way is concerned if not outright afraid. Until we address the root of the problem, the evil virus of racial conflict will continue to fester and grow.
To some degree, everyone who has supported, through action, word or silence the continuation of the attitudes of white racial superiority is responsible. Everyone who looked the other way in the face of blatant job discrimination all around them. As the super-rich Republican children of Donald Trump remind us, there were plenty of obstacles for the immigrant families of other ethnicities who came to this country seeking a better way of life. But it is no exaggeration to state that the obstacles placed in the path of black people, including both legal, institutional and cultural barriers, far exceeded anything, in both depth and duration, that other ethnic or racial groups faced.
And, yes, as they also remind us, there are plenty of examples of black people and other racial/ethnic minorities who were individually able to rise above the obstacles and participate in the “American dream.” But the rush to cite the examples of “my hard working immigrant parents and grandparents” is itself evidence of the racism that is eating away at the fabric of our society. The success stories are heartwarming and play well to crowds in the conventions, but as a percentage of the lives lost to race-based obstacles to personal growth and achievement, they are all but meaningless. The fact that a relative handful made it out of the swamp of educational, social and economic deprivation says nothing at all about the vastly larger number who drowned in the quicksand sucking at their lives from birth.
We are now where we are. We can continue to wish for a better tomorrow while the killing goes on, while the deprivation of opportunity and the ravages of crime and indifference to poverty continue to erode the fabric of the country. Hope, as the saying goes, springs eternal. But I suggest something more profound is required and it likely must start with a kind of overt confession of white responsibility for the history that has brought us to this state.
I have no easy answer as to how to promote culture change in these circumstances. Many billions, if not trillions, of dollars have been spent over the years by right-thinking people and organizations, including the federal government, trying to defeat the forces that drag down minority people, primarily black but also now Hispanics that have come to the U.S. seeking a better life than their failed countries can provide. Ironically, and Donald Trump notwithstanding, America is still seen as the “land of opportunity” by people who know what real lack of opportunity looks like. Perhaps the most remarkable thing is the tenacity of the idea that there is still a possibility of racial reconciliation and that truth and justice will indeed be the American way.
But if we do not start by accepting the harsh truth about ourselves and our history, we are unlikely to progress. The National Rifle Association’s mantra of “arm everyone” seems more a prescription for preparing for racial war that a solution to crimes against humanity that have led to our violent and distorted society.
The solution, if there is one, must be found in changing the arc of our history. Enthusiasts for religion should look at what their religion expects of them. I doubt they will find much support for the Republican mantra of “I will work hard, and get as much stuff for me as possible and too bad for those that can’t compete with me.” Humanists will start somewhere else but inevitably must arrive at the same place, recognizing that the educational and cultural divide in this country is not sustainable.
We are at an important crossroads in that one of the two political parties that have a chance to produce the next leader of the United States and the Free World is presenting the country with someone who, while talking much about restoring greatness, defined essentially as American superiority over everyone else, is selling an image of a bygone and unrecoverable day to people who feel threatened by the changes that technology and globalization have wrought. Most of what this candidate has presented as policy and platform is based on outright fabrications, but his followers, proponents of American Nationalism, don’t care that his public persona is often out of control, running on ego fumes and indifferent to the concerns of, I believe, a significant majority of Americans. When challenged regarding his epithetical comments about Muslims, Latinos, Blacks, disabled people, women, among others, he typically doubles down on his contempt. His “commentators” on the “news” shows like CNN, constantly rationalize, reinterpret and recast his statements to reveal the “true Trump” with fantasmagorical distortions of “what he really meant.”
Trump’s acceptance speech last week, as clearly as anything before, represents a throwing down of a gauntlet to the rest of the world – a Trump administration will put “America First” and the rest of you can take a place in the queue. That a large number of Americans appear to be believe that this is a viable approach to international affairs, and that it will be accepted by other nations who are supposedly allied with us, is perhaps testimony to the failure of education in more places than the inner cities. The essential concept behind Trump’s foreign, and domestic, policy approach is that the government of the United States will force its will on everyone else. It will wall off its southern border, forcibly deport millions of people, wipe out the armies of ISIS, add new barriers to entry into the United States, increase intelligence gathering against huge sectors of the general population while, simultaneously, allowing the states to decide their own parochial and discriminatory education policies. Trump’s legion of supporters cheer at his every off-the-wall comment, applauding his willingness to say the unspeakable while often claiming that “he really doesn’t mean it, but I love that he’s saying it when no one else will.”
If Trump is truly giving voice to a new “silent majority” who believe that the past can be restored, the United States is in a deeply perilous state. Not for the reasons Trump recited in his convention acceptance speech, but because it portends an attempt to restore a society whose foundations were rife with inequity and that will be out of touch will the major influences of a 21st century world.
Where we go from here, I am not sure. I am pretty sure that the country is in more trouble than is widely recognized. Putting aside the astounding loss of productivity that massive poverty in the black community has stripped from the country, and putting aside the unknown but certainly real losses of serious genius among the oppressed population whose young often never have a real chance to rise above their circumstances, a condition of systematic repression of a massive segment of the population cannot endure indefinitely. We would all do well to remember the words of Shakespeare, in a different context, at the end of Romeo & Juliet:
“See what a scourge is laid upon your hate,
That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love!
And I, for winking at your discords, too
Have lost a brace of kinsmen. All are punished.”