What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
~ Harlem, by Langston Hughes
If you believe that having a black President means we live in a post-racial society, than you are sadly deluding yourself. In truth, we are living in a time that may in fact be more dangerous for African Americans—particularly young black males. In times gone by, racism was overt and the rule of law was firmly on the side of white America. The reach of Jim Crow stretched well past the mid 20th Century, and being black simply meant you were inarguably a second-class citizen. Over the last forty years, I would argue that the concept of what it meant to be an African American has improved in the eyes of white America, but only superficially and not substantively. That means that although overt racism was more prevalent and undoubtedly harsher in the years before Civil Rights, the modern era is perhaps more deceptively deadly, because our racism is deeply inherited from centuries of stereotypes, charged negative language, and violent or unhelpful encounters, and this makes it more insidious, leading repeatedly to the same brutal confrontations.
Let us not forget that what’s happening in Ferguson is something greater than it appears, and is just the latest episode in our long and brutal history. If you do choose to forget our simmering racial past, just remember that the African American community hasn’t. The reparations that we all must make are not financial handouts, but emotional investments. It requires honesty, humility, power redistribution, trust, and working from a place of respect and assumed competency. We continue to metaphorically fight battles of the Civil War and skirmishes from Jim Crow. They are reenacted everyday in this country, and our dead bear names like Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, and now, Michael Brown. What’s happening in Ferguson is a deep mistrust between two people that has festered for decades, if not centuries, and the most important thing to remember is that although both sides share varying degrees of blame for what’s happening, ONE SIDE HAS ALL THE POWER. And that is what it all comes down to. We need to think of Ferguson as everyone’s hometown, because it holds the seeds of change, the questions of our past, and answers to our future. The seeds we sow in Ferguson can yield rich crops or wither on the vine. If Ferguson is not the place, there’ll be another battleground, but don’t be fooled that Oprah’s healed all wounds, and that the battle’s won.
We may think we’re a post-racial society, but we are one that does not fundamentally understand each other, and continues to hold on to outdated and hurtful stereotypes of the other. The deep mistrust and burning resentment of past wrongs and injustices, is only compounded and inflamed by having to witness new ones. The citizens and police of Ferguson, Missouri are brutally reenacting our Master-Slave paradigm, which dominated this country even (or especially) in the age of Capitalism. The abolition of slavery did not erase this dialectical relationship, but perhaps legitimized it and gave it a fresh veneer. After the Civil War, and slaves were liberated, Reconstruction turned out not to be a time of reconciliation and assistance, but a scurrilous chance to shame and punish the South even further. Whether intentional or not, the Union’s Reconstruction efforts irreparably injured former slaves and free men. What employment there was, often meant returning to their former plantation jobs for little more than the nothing they had earned as slaves. And why not? They were unskilled, uneducated, destitute, and had no context for freedom and pursuit of the American Dream. Whereas Reconstruction could have been a time to help mend the fierce pride of the South and transition her into a different kind of wage-earning economy, it instead devolved into a lesson in shame and payback. Similarly, the era could have anticipated future African American struggles and helped transition generations of victims, and provided more opportunities for success. Instead, a community once ‘taken care of’ by an often-punishing authoritarian master and overseer was now at the mercy of their own cleverness and ability to quickly adapt to a foreign world. Thousands of former slaves made their way North and West, and many historically black cities, became so after Reconstruction, as their numbers swelled. Cities like Chicago, Detroit, and St. Louis were popular destinations for Americans, just tasting of what that word meant for the first time. With hardly a penny to their name or the skills of a journeyman, these strangers in a strange land made their way across America—their country too—and relied on an ethic of hard work, and the strength and support of each other—survivors of this country’s worst institution.
It was roughly a century, and most certainly a rough century between liberation and vote and boycotts and marches. It began as a wave of freed slaves who little knew the taste of liberty in the air, but they soon brought forth generations born free, who had never tasted of bondage. Those hundred years were brutal and unwelcoming, and perhaps even more deadly than life on the plantation, where property was at least protected, if also abused. But these years were terrorized by the KKK and lynch mobs, and vigilante justice seemed far worse than a broken judicial system. What justice couldn’t punish, corrupt laws could prevent, and there was no man so feared as Jim Crow, who rolled back the clock of slavery and ensured America’s newest voters would always remember who was meant to hold the noose and was meant to swing from it. There was no doubt in any African American’s mind who held the noose. It was unquestionably a difficult time to be an African American, and yet, in many ways less confusing, since they nearly always knew where they stood. And it was usually at the back of the bus, or on the far side and badly served end of a lunch counter, or in some desperate cases, it was at the barrel end of a rifle with their name on it. Life was astonishingly bleak and a constant struggle, but if you played by the rules, you might just get along. Whether you merely looked at a white woman or whistled at her, moments like that could get you killed, as Emmett Till sadly learned. It was still a minefield of charges, but if you kept your head down, you might just pass. It seems that for those many years, passing was enough, and they’d come so far from where they started, it seemed silly to ask for more. Of course, that wasn’t what was in their hearts, as equality burns just as hot as freedom. Their Moses was a young man then, but was still some years off.
When Langston Hughes famously asked what happens to a dream deferred, it was 1951, and Civil Rights was in its infancy. Perhaps that question might be more apt, if asked today. Especially if that dream seems closer than perhaps it had ever been. What happens to a society that seems to have forgotten it hated you, and makes laws to protect you, and creates opportunities to promote you? It may not be a land of milk and honey quite yet, but for a land that had enslaved blacks less than a century before, this was a colossal sea change. The Civil Rights movement had brought significant strides and triumphant gains to a long-suffering people, and perhaps for the first time in this country, the African American could take pride in and even see himself benefiting from the ‘American Dream.’ Segregation and ‘separate, but equal’ were platitudes and myths perpetrated by a society fully unwilling to embrace the monumental changes imposed during Reconstruction, and the reality of a once enslaved people now free, but with few skills, resources, or opportunities. But now, there was none of that. The law books were ostensibly clean and reflected a generation of Americans who were progressively rejecting the prejudices of their ancestors and gradually accepting the place of African Americans beside them. But was forgetting, still forgetting, and you can still sit at the same table, but eat at different ends.
As is probably always the case with rapid technological innovation or radical social upheavals, there is a seismic paradigm shift in society, and the laws that govern it, but the evolution of human thought and adoption of progressive attitudes are often slow to follow. Such predictable cycles of profound societal change can be found all throughout the history of the world, and typically follows the same predictable pattern. When applied to the abolishment of slavery and assimilation of blacks into American culture, the model holds up reliably. Not surprisingly, the equation paints a vivid picture of a longstanding conflict or injury in this country, and what happens when a society’s emotional intelligence fails to catch up with its decidedly progressive and pragmatic legislative body and judiciary. As demonstrated in other historical events, the cycle begins with a major cultural event (Emancipation, Civil War & Reconstruction, for example), systemic changes in infrastructure, legislation, and enforcement are enacted (the Reconstruction Amendments—13th, 14th, & 15th), active objection and defiance of new laws which are viewed as a threat to purity and their traditional way of life (the formation of the Klu Klux Klan and spread of Jim Crow Laws), a peaceful movement to win the hearts and minds of the average citizen and gain more rights (the Civil Rights Movement), more substantial and articulated universal laws ensuring comprehensive equality and compliance (Civil Rights Act), the slow and progressive evolution of thought in the general populace, and gradual reversal/rejection of ignorant, uninformed, or morally corrupt views and prejudices (the willful and voluntary mixing of races amicably, sharing of culture, recognition and respect of each other’s cultures, and ability to view differences as culturally valid), and finally, the last and most important step, equilibrium and return to a new normal (the period after the turbulence and healing, when a paradigm has shifted, and a new world order has seamlessly replaced the old. In America’s continuing legacy of slavery, we have not arrived at this point yet).
We are in a transitional cultural period of recalcitrant prejudice and exclusion, which is at odds with progressive ideals of equity and inclusion. This can be seen in the immigration debate, the clashes over marriage equality, gender politics, and most notably, race relations (most disturbingly in the Hispanic and African American communities).
If you think that a small town white police force just went rogue on a predominantly black and effectually unarmed populace by chance, you are selectively ignoring a history of violence, distrust, abuse, and abandonment of the African American community by those whose job it is to serve and protect (everybody). I’m not suggesting that these officers deliberately chose violence and would identify as racist, but rather, they are the foot soldiers of a society still plagued by institutional racism and a language that matured in the age of slavery. Our attempts to staunch this gaping wound, have been superficial Band Aids, when in reality, a whole new innovative surgical procedure is needed. It’s akin to a Civil War surgeon crudely sawing off a soldier’s leg for torn cartilage in a knee, whereas we might use minimally invasive arthroscopic surgery to repair the wound, keep the leg, and ensure a healthy and speedy recovery. Are intentions may be good, but they’re too little and too late. As the modern doctor from the analogy above, we must use new tools to heal old wounds.
A pattern of failed or marginally successful civil rights legislation over the last 150 years has proven inconsistent and often failed to provide full equality and inclusion into American society. Not long after emancipation, the wounds of enslavement were quickly exploited by Jim Crow laws, and seemingly all of the gains African Americans had made—including holding public office—were effectively rendered obsolete, and former slaves were subjected to even harsher treatment at the hands of a cruel and bitter confederacy. Those scars from slavery were salted by Jim Crow, and mercilessly hunted and punished by those in the KKK. The wounds still bled; the pursuit of justice and punishment of lynch mobs years later nabbed only just a few. Perhaps the most disturbing thing within a lynching photograph is not the poor man hanging, but the smiling mob looking back at us—like eager grim selfies. These ordinary townspeople take delight in their strange fruit, and are complicit in their approval, but never responsible for their crimes—not murder, per se, but the even more haunting offense of apathy, lack of sympathy, bemusement, and the moral deficit to dehumanize a victim suffering so miserably. The use of lynch mobs was one of the most terrorizing methods of intimidation and vigilantism in this country. Although aligned with the government and municipalities, militarized police forces and rogue officers are not unlike an unruly lynch mob. These small town soldiers are armed not only with guns, but also with their learned prejudices and grievances against whomever. As objectively as they wish to enforce the law, they also hold the power—not only the guns—but also the weight of the law behind them, and membership to an elite, mostly white, group of individuals. And historically, one that has had a deeply antagonistic relationship with the African American community. So Jim Crow cleared the way for Southern police forces to retain their dangerous racist ways, while also allowing for lynch mobs to exact ‘justice’ on mostly innocent black men, without the interference of an approving law enforcement. Effectively, habeas corpus was suspended and for decades, blacks were the victims of inhumane mob justice.
When lynch mobs all but died, and more black men lived, those of color saw little change, as the specter of strange fruit still hung low. They years following Reconstruction, but before the Harlem Renaissance were relatively quiet, but there was still heavy rioting in the black community, primarily over housing. During those otherwise quiet years, African American culture was identified on stage, in film, and in the media as simple-minded, docile, and generally, unthreatening. During those culturally silent years, the seeds were actually being sowed for a movement larger than any other they had ever seen. Artists and intellectuals like Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Jackie Robinson, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, James Weldon Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, and Jean Toomer tended to the garden, and transformed black art and ideas like never before. The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and ‘30s exploded with art, music, literature, dance, film, theatre, and every other medium, and for the first time, provided a workable definition of what it meant to be black in America, and made strides at identifying goals, addressing grievances, and contemplated African Americans’ often troubling role in the country. Seemingly all at once, the African American movement had a voice and objective. From there, they needed the spark that would light the tinder, and start a revolution. It was still unclear if that was to be a peaceful or violent one. Opinions varied. The years of social unrest during the ’60s borrowed much from the activist social reformers and communists of the ’20s, ‘30s and ’40s. Of course, it found its spark in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, who preferred to follow in the footsteps of men like Ghandi, and exert pressure and force change through peaceful means. There were those who angrily called for more violent protest, and challenged MLK for power, such as Malcolm X. However, it quickly became clear that the non-violent approach was not only forcing policy change and overturning unjust law, but it was actually helping to change the hearts and minds of the average American, and gain powerful advocate and allies. Bitter old white men turning fire hoses on innocent and unarmed young black men was hardly justifiable, and one couldn’t help but feel for the oppressed and see how absurdly backward these white bigots looked. More than any other circumstance or tool, the chronicling of the Civil Rights movement on American television helped articulate the long overdue rights of a people still oppressed and unwanted in their own country. It also allowed viewers to be in the moment, and experience brutality at the hands of racists firsthand. Lastly, it allowed Americans to be guided by a mostly sympathetic media, and given context for certain things, while cutting back and forth between government ceremonies addressing racial strife and passing monumental civil rights legislation. Americans could witness travesties of justice, see black leaders publicly address such horrors, witness peaceful marches and boycotts in response, and then ultimately watch as the President and lawmakers passed serious social reform bills. In that moment, African Americans not only earned the legislation and fundamental backing of the federal government, more importantly, they were seen humanely by a vast American public, and were sympathetic to most. Arguably more than at any time, the African American community was seen as a part of our country, and deserving of their long overdue rights and freedoms. Naturally, this was by no means unanimous, but a general sentiment that settled over the country.
The Civil Rights movement was to be its own spark, and ignited a wave of various social movements, each advancing their own unique status. In the years the mainstream non-violent Civil Rights movement was organizing, so was a more militant and sometimes violent black power movement, called the Black Panthers. In homes and businesses alike, women known as Feminists were soon advocating for their gender, and demanding respect and equality. Many across the world had long objected to the plight of Palestinians, ejected from their land during the formation of Israel. These early years would also see the rise of the burgeoning gay movement, spontaneously and informally announcing its presence in 1969 during the Stonewall Riots. Other causes that garnered much attention, were the wounded Vietnam veterans returning from combat, the growth of environmentalism and stewardship of the earth, and the emergence and ubiquity of computers in our everyday lives.
Of all the (sometimes) competing social movements, black power seemed to grab the headlines most, and was rarely cast as peaceful protest, but sometimes painted as a group of ethnic thugs, bent on the destruction of white America. The loudest and most violent nabbed the headlines, and snatched back much of the good will blacks had earned in during the movement. Many older and more traditional people felt uneasy about race, and even those who might support the idea of equality and justice long overdue, still often wondered if we were all better off once everyone had their way. After all, if someone had to gain, someone else must have to lose. Suddenly, caring was a dirty word for sharing, and that meant the very same thing as surrendering, which everyone knows means nothing but loser. What had started as abject horror watching protests on TV had slowly turned to sympathy and wishes of success; but that soon dried up as the reality of complete and utter equality sunk in. To share their homes and workplaces and schools and businesses had to mean surrendering power and losing something that fundamentally made them who they were. Although most people couldn’t have articulated it, the Civil Rights movement was perhaps inspiring to them in the abstract, when those poor people needed a hand, but impossible in the real world, where whites already have enough competition, and they’d made a nice life for themselves, especially after the War. The African American as full-fledged citizen and equal partner was unacceptable to many people, even if they never would have said as much. It was ingrained in all of us. Blacks had once been slaves, and now were at the table. We couldn’t divorce our first impressions and the burning archetypal face of the slave from our collective unconscious. As much as African Americans had accomplished, and as many excused they had given us to like and accept them, we still had sneaky Jim Crow in the corners of our minds. Yet there was hope in the youth, and even if their parents struggled, the Civil Rights movement captured the hearts and minds of many young Americans—particularly a segment of the population who resisted and rebelled against the rigid morality of their parents and strongly protested the Draft and Vietnam. These future ‘baby boomers’ were mostly carefree and experimental, casually open-minded, not bound by any religion, thoughtful and caring, and devoted to social justice. It’s no wonder Gen-Xers were born to Boomers, for both share interest in other cultures, embrace various types of art and think deeply about what they are and what they see. The next generation of Millenials is unique in being the most accepting of diversity, and have mostly only ever known a world populated by computers and defined by the tech we use and wear every minute of our lives. For all its many flaws, technology seems to be a democratizing force. To some degree, it allows everyone the chance to create an online persona, and actively take part in contributing to the greater Internet world. For many African Americans saddled by poverty and debt, the Internet allows a place of escape, connection, education, and entertainment. As it does for everyone. It also allows us to do things like chronicle our lives—through pictures, text, videos, and more. This can be particularly important when it comes to capturing the encroachment, abuse, punishment, and crimes perpetrated by law enforcement in an area not easily accessible, dangerous, or ignored by the media and industry watchdogs. Suddenly, camera phones can transform any witness or bystander into an active participant, and they can function as a kind of civilian journalist, capturing breaking news as it happens. With so many platforms for disseminating that news, such as Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, etc, news does not need to be edited and can launch in real time, putting us ahead of even the municipal government, other law enforcement agencies, the military, and most especially, the media. This is front lines reporting, and it completely changes the game. Again. This kind of gorilla journalism has been around for years now, and we saw it most notably in the Iraq/Afghanistan wars and more recently, during the Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war.
The prevalence of the smart phone camera is arguably one of the most important game changers in the history of the world. And it’s radically changing race relations in this country. In his article, ‘Does the Second Amendment Only Apply to White People? by Keith Boykin he says, “So it was here that at least Then it hit me. Suddenly I realized it didn’t matter if he had a gun. In the eyes of America, he had something more dangerous than a gun: his black skin. Yes, Ezell Ford was suspicious, in part, because he was black. That’s why unarmed black people continue to be killed.”
Regardless of socio-economic or political affiliation, not very many white Americans can honestly claim that they carry no racial baggage or unperceivable prejudice. We are shaped by our society, our culture, our past, our mistakes, and perhaps more than anything else, the language that we use. Institutional or Systemic Racism refers to any kind of system of inequality based on race. It can occur in institutions such as public government bodies, schools and universities (both public and private), or in private business corporations—even such liberal and enlightened places as theatres and museums. It is particularly insidious because it is built into our very systems and even permeates our very own language. It is especially dangerous because it’s not easy to spot and doesn’t lend itself to public outcries—like we’d all do if the Klu Klux Klan wanted to teach in our child’s school, for example. In this case, our language and actions are not as overt as the intolerant rantings of the bigoted, but still manage to serve the same function. Such as it is, these territorial markers stand unapologetically as powerful symbols—no less meaningful than burning a cross in the front lawn. It is often the case that when a certain group is scared or feels threatened by another group, the fearful will often make the first move, and usually commit a frightening act of violence and destruction. African Americans know this fact all too well. Although they have perpetrated a number of violent crimes themselves, blacks have disproportionately been on the receiving end of serious criminal abuse. Remember the story of poor Emmett Till, who was lynched and his body desecrated, all over some perceived slight or for breaking the unspoken rules of the white man. Peaceful and innocent African Americans have suffered grossly at the hands of those in power. Those who are threatened by what the black man represents. It is a barbaric and aggressive gesture, and we’re seeing it more and more, perhaps not because it wasn’t there before, but because we now have the means to capture ongoing injustice.
Perhaps a less overt, but no less potent form of racism is embedded in the very words we use. Just as prehistoric insects from the Triassic Period have been found trapped in amber resin, language has a tendency to preserve racist epithets, and even more subtle racial subjectivity. Although language evolves and changes over time, there are words and expressions that are carried down generations, and are shadowy specters that mostly go unnoticed. Language is influenced by social values and beliefs and is reinforced through the words and images used to convey information and messages that even ‘political correctness’ alone cannot address. The language of people, media and policies perpetuates racism. Media filters to us what we hear and read and see. Presenting only one side of a story influences what we think and believe – this perpetuates racism. We need to think about what we see on television and read in the newspapers and challenge those messages that present only one side of the story. The language of racism is both overt and covert. According to Paul Kivel, in his groundbreaking book ‘Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice’ (1996), “ because concepts of whiteness and race were developed in Christian Europe, references to whiteness are imbued with Christian values. We have ended up with a set of opposing qualities or attributes which are said to define people as either white or as not white. The tendency to see the world in sets of opposites, either/or categories, is in itself a core pattern of thinking developed in elite settings in Western Europe and [North America]. Many other cultures do not divide the world into opposing camps. The English phrase “black-and-white” reflects our desire to divide things into opposites even though everyday reality is rarely clearly defined or neatly categorized.” Kivel identifies some of the good/bad set of value pairings that influence how people think and speak. “Dark” qualities compared to “White” qualities may include: superstitious/scientific, tainted/pure, abnormal/normal, evil/benign (p.20). Kivel also notes that racism is imbedded in our everyday language. A ‘white lie’ has a much different meaning than a ‘black deed’ and in this case, color is the primary indicator of degree of wrongness. “Good Guys wear white hats and ride white horses and the bad guys wear black, the same racially tainted values are passed on and the development of images of darkness to convey danger and to provoke white fear.” (pp.26-27). All throughout our language, we find color qualifiers, and unconsciously make associations based on color. When we see a black man on TV or in the street, whether we want to or not, we may assign a value and assumption about who that person is. There are a few things working against us. The first problem might be the language we use, as indicated above. Although subtle and seemingly unimportant nuances in language may not sound like much, when they are all added together and combined with other factors, it is easy to see why we conjure such images in our minds. So we may associate the color black with bad, deceitful, untrustworthy, etc.
Beyond the subtle value judgments that our language imposes on our collective subconscious, our society has also been extensively exposed to television that has historically depicted people of color in negative and degrading ways. We may remember deadly black gang members, simple and obsequious kitchen maids, sassy talking unintelligent blowhards, pimps and thugs, etc. For every fifty negative stereotypes, we have one show like The Cosby Show that portray positive black American family life. However, The Cosby Show does not conform to our standards, and is not representative of the black culture we think we know. The characters are deemed white-friendly and watered down, and therefore somehow rendered ‘not really black’ or rare examples of ‘the good blacks.’ We once again reformat our minds to accept the Cosby’s as outliers, while tightly holding onto our comfortable impression of what true black life must be like. Things get uglier when we look for blacks in the media and other parts of TV. We see ghetto neighborhoods overrun by crack cocaine, we see the mayor of Washington DC smoking crack and engaging in other unlawful behavior, as well as arrests, race riots, domestic violence, and scandalous life stories of soul singers. Finally, we cross-reference our actual personal encounters with African Americans. Some might have been positive, but all too often, it’s the negative experience that we remember the most, and the one we assign meaning to. We base impressions and draw conclusions about an entire race, based on a single or multiple encounters with those of the same background. If we have had no perceivable slights or negative confrontations with a particular race, they risk being suspect through omission, or lack of encounters. If we have had few personal encounters, we may not know enough about them, so we must rely solely on how the media and Hollywood portray them on screen. In the early days, people of color rarely played more than a servant or stereotypical bad guy. As we’ve evolved as a society, we are seeing more positive role models everywhere. Hispanics, African Americans, Middle Easterners, and other people of color are beginning to find their way into a more prominent place in fictional and non-fictional shows and films. Oprah Winfrey was/is one of the most beloved cultural icons, and loved by people of all color. Actors like Samuel L. Jackson, Morgan Freeman, and Zoe Saldana are perfect examples of America’s enthusiasm for seeing people of color on television and in the movies. Not surprisingly, as there were more and more positive portrayals of blacks in the media, the depictions of people of Arab and Middle Eastern descent plummeted in the wake of 9/11. Seemingly all at once, TV and film villains morphed into vague terrorists from the Arab world or cab drivers or convenience store owners. Needless to say, Arab stock fell dramatically, and many African Americans joked that it took the heat off of them, as Middle Easterners were now the ones being profiled.
Of course, racial profiling is no joking matter, regardless of who’s being targeted. As ethnically diverse as this country is, the vast majority of people who make the laws are upper middle class white; the majority of those who enforce the laws are middle class and white; the majority of those who report the news and make our entertainment are upper middle class and white; the overwhelming majority of people that go through the criminal justice system are impoverished and black or Latino. We have a punitive system of laws and punishment that was crafted by privileged white Americans, which by and large, punishes citizens of color. It’s a system that paradoxically seems too expertly suited for people of color, and conversely, completely ill fitting and unprepared for such inmates.
I am by no means suggesting that the majority of these criminals are not guilty or are not deserving of their just punishment. They are. Most of these young men and women committed crimes, and have been charged accordingly. I am simply suggesting that we have a problem on our hands. Young black men are being profiled in disproportionate numbers, and are repeatedly being shot dead by over-zealous police officers or vigilante gun owners.
The problem is that law enforcement and trigger-happy gun owners frankly don’t have enough positive encounters with young men of color. Although most would hesitate to draw the parallel today, I firmly believe there is an undercurrent of the Overseer (Master)—Slave dialectic at work. We are still deeply entrenched in our archaic struggle, and it is what defined us for centuries. And yet, it hasn’t even been 150 years since the end of the Civil War. We are all still fighting a racial civil war, and the vast majority of us don’t even know it. Even the most liberal and progressive among us, are still unconsciously trafficking in stolen racist currency. As money, our language passes a lot of hands, and we cannot help but be dirtied as the change is made. White men enforcing white laws on young black men, is naturally going to evoke anger and breed resentment. That relationship was tainted from the start, and we are now scratching our heads as to why these exchanges keep turning lethal. They end in blood, because they began in blood, and there will be much more bloodshed ahead, if we don’t come to terms with our troubling past and shameful history.
Rome fell for falling a victim of conceit,
If we don’t rise to mend our ways,
At last our ends will meet.
America has always been a proud nation of conceit. She is a brave and brazen country, who is always steaming forward in the spirit of Manifest Destiny and ‘Go West, young man.’ There is always something greater on the horizon, and something new to conquer. America seems to have no shame, and the rest of the world seems amused (or horrified) at our brash enthusiasm. The spirit of discovery and newness can also be detrimental to the United States. The mass slaughter and annihilation of Native Americans is still fresh and destructive on those descendents who survived. There couldn’t be enough reparations to make right, everything these indigenous Americans endured. The next great injustice was slavery. For over 250 years, African Americans were bought and sold, and worked to death on plantations all throughout the South. These two abominations are what this country was founded on, and because we are uncomfortable with our shameful history, it has been easier to look away, and look ahead. We are still unhealed, and our wounds are raw.
How does a nation recover from wounds that are centuries in the making?
Carefully and creatively.
The first thing that must be acknowledged is that there is no easy fix for such calcified institutional racism. It really will take a number of significant changes on everybody’s part—both black and white. It’s important to recognize that we all still carry baggage and ancestral racism from our shameful past. It is reenacted everyday in classrooms, courtrooms, and street corners. We may not even realize that we play a part in the drama, but we do. It is on our televisions, film screens, in our laws, our law enforcement, job market, media, and language. It’s like a car we have souped-up and refitted with all new parts and exteriors, but no matter how you cut it, it’s still the same old car. It still has all the problems that come with an old and out-of-date model. The language and model we still use is out of date. It comes from a time when people of color were second-class citizens…if that. We look at Ferguson, and we wonder: ‘How can this keep happening?’ It keeps happening because we keep acting the same old script over and over again. We can make little fixes like having officers record their exchanges with suspects or by demilitarizing the police, but these are just band-aids on a much larger and graver wound. I’m not here to provide a list of changes to be made, but I can at least observe that this has to happen on the ground floor, and be a mission of peace, humility, contrition, reconciliation, compromise, and everyone needs to admit fault and accept responsibility. It needs to be a purposeful summit aimed at hearts and minds, not shock and awe. On a greater level, it needs to be about changing laws and shifting focus. That means decriminalizing certain crimes, lighter sentences, more proportionate race representation, parity in sentencing with whites, emphasis on reform and marketable skills, job counseling, community organizations, improved schools and more educational opportunities, more after school programs, crime prevention programs, beneficial sports organizations, arts outlets, drug awareness programs, strong church and civic involvement, and many more.
Investing in people of color—specifically black America—means shifting focus from reactive and punitive to preventive and educational. It means rather than spend millions and millions on building larger and more efficient prisons, we spend that money on pre-school and elementary schools. Rather than outfit a police force with military equipment, instead we could institute programs where officers go out into the community and volunteer or work with these youth, rather than shoot them. It means the federal government shifting it focus, and looking to be more inclusive. It doesn’t mean easy handouts to the poor, but making sure to create a healthy land of opportunity, where no young black man will need turn to crime. If that means fighting less foreign wars or providing aid to other countries, than so be it. We have a domestic crisis on our hands, and a wound that needs more help healing. The answer isn’t throwing more money at the problem. The answer is being more creative in how we spend our money, and look at ways to change the dialogue. That means involving African Americans in the conversation, and looking for ways we can be more inclusive and how we can give people the benefit of the doubt.
True reconciliation won’t come until both sides admit fault, both sides forgive the other, and we recognize that the script we’ve been using just doesn’t work anymore. Ferguson is a flash point, but sadly, one of many. A young man may have used poor judgment and committed a crime that day, but a police officer definitely erred that day by using excessive force. One young man lost his life that day, and his death sparked a firestorm of anger. People are angry and some are violent. Michael Brown Jr. is this week’s name, but sadly, there’ll be more. Surely, we must address the abuse of power in American law enforcement, and the ever-deepening mistrust and gap between the African American community and a militarizing police force. But let’s not stop there. Let Ferguson be a rallying cry to take a closer examination of race and its very real legacy in America today. Let us all work together to find peaceful solutions and ways we can include everyone and allow all of us access to the ‘American Dream.’
If nothing else, Ferguson should teach us what may happen to a dream deferred—it might explode.