I am sure some Americans, especially younger ones, are wondering how to interpret what is happening in our country with all the rioting, looting, and burning of our cities. We have been here before in the 1960s and sporadically on smaller scales since. So as a person who lived through the worst of those earlier times I offer my perspective, especially for my younger readers. I will say up front the reality of what is happening now is a sad commentary on our culture. It demonstrates that we have not learned the lessons of the past and calls into question how civilized we really are.
To be sure we have an ugly racist history, worse than most other nations. Though slavery was outlawed in the mid-nineteenth century, racism was openly practiced here until about 50 years ago. With landmark civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s, strong federal government enforcement, and broad societal support, institutional racism was driven underground, but it never really went away. And some white politicians still exploit racial fears and division for personal political benefit. I can think of one prominent one. That helps perpetuate racism as a central part of the conscious and subconscious fears of white people.
Racism is all around us everyday. The most obvious remaining institutions where racial tensions naturally boil over into the public consciousness is within the law enforcement community. I believe most police officers are sincerely trying to serve the public good, but police policies and operating procedures are often stacked against black individuals. And through decades of white societal conditioning and current politicians and political social media white officers naturally reflect a general fear and suspicion of black men.
Killing of black men in police custody has made the news in a big way during the past 4 or 5 years. But it is not worse now than it has been in the past; there has always been an unhealthy tension between the black community and predominantly white police forces. It is just that today technology is ubiquitously in the hands of ordinary citizens and it is easy to capture video of abusive events like the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis this past week. A decade ago few people except those directly involved would have ever known. And police departments and their political leaders would have suppressed broad public knowledge of any such events. They still would if they could.
Martin Luther King, once said: “riot is the language of the unheard”. That is what we are seeing now. Too many black men and women are marginalized, especially too many black men are abused by law enforcement, and our white society in general is not hearing or listening. We white folks are the guilty. Collectively, most Americans would say and probably actually believe they are not racist. But that is not good enough. With our national history we must be actively and aggressively anti-racist; as a society we have not yet accepted that responsibility.
We have seen this movie too often before. After a few days the demonstrations and violence will likely subside; a kind of exhaustion will set in and we will try to clean up the damage. Then we will return to an uneasy normalcy that does nothing to address the underlying crisis before the next time. I hope it will be different this time, but I doubt it. We need fundamental change in our social, cultural, and faith institutions to address the racist mentality that seems to pervade virtually every white American’s mind.
I am including a link to a monologue by Van Jones. Mr Jones is a journalist and CNN commentator. He also has a program on CNN on Saturday evenings. The video is only about 5 minutes long, but he does a good job of describing the American black man’s reality in a powerful way. I encourage you to listen to his perspective. If we listen carefully and take his words to heart it should give all of us white people pause.