By James A. Kidney
The news this week on the race front is so demoralizing and sad that I, a 68-year-old white person, just want to cry. There were senseless deaths of young black men (again) in Minneapolis and Baton Rouge. They were guilty of nothing — not even bad conduct. They were killed because of the skin color they wore.
As senseless, or maybe even more senseless, if possible, are the deaths of five policemen and six others wounded in Dallas. These officers were simply standing by as protestors assembled peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights. They were killed only because of the uniform they wore.
Instead of progress, we can add “copism” to “racism” in the lexicon of evils eagerly adopted by some men and women in this country. In both cases, negative characteristics of the few are broadly applied to all based on either skin color or occupation.
My God! The exclamation is appropriate. The chaos of the American burden — racial dysfunction — is Biblical, and not in a good way.
I have no good explanations, much less solutions. Race relations have been an important part of public discourse as long as I can remember. I have a memory of reading the big headline in the long-defunct Washington Daily News about the Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision in 1954. I was only six. My parents, New Deal liberals, had no problem with the Supreme Court ruling. I never heard a nasty word about African-Americans in my parents’ household in suburban Washington, D.C. But, as was typical in the 1950s and even today, I cannot recall that my white parents had a single black friend that they brought to the house. Both of my parents worked. We had a black housekeeper. We loved her, but she was the only person of color we saw on a daily basis, even living just outside a majority black town.
In high school, I attended several on-site demonstrations against segregated private apartment buildings in Prince George’s County, although I lived in the much posher neighboring Montgomery County. In hindsight, this was typical for most of the 60s and 70s — white liberals with good educations and great economic prospects clamoring for housing and job integration among the blue and pink collar communities, but less forcefully — or not at all — in their own neighborhoods and white collar businesses.
Also in high school were the televised images of the Bull Connors and George Wallaces of the deep south inveighing against integration and proclaiming the virtues of Jim Crow. Freedom Marchers were beaten up all the time in front of cameras. Three — Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner — were notoriously killed, along with, Viola Liuzzo, from Detroit and others. James Meredith integrated the University of Alabama to a violent reception and a handful of innocent school children were shouted at and subjected to terrible abuse integrating Central High School in Little Rock. Any sentient person in those days felt the tension among blacks and whites, no matter how well-intentioned you were, what color you were, where you lived, or where your feelings fell in the gap of human understanding among the races.
I remember being very conflicted in college when women’s liberation and protests of the Vietnam War began to absorb much of the energy of liberal, college age white people previously devoted to the cause of African-American civil rights. In both cases, these movements were almost exclusively white people concerned about themselves. Black civil rights became less pressing as war and employment absorbed our attention on the way to establishing a good life. Other than some tutoring in poor schools, I, like my friends, did nothing, though college did expose us to our first black friendships, some of which continue to this day.
In the 1970s, court orders requiring busing in the North exposed the hypocrisy of whites, whether liberal or not. South Boston was the most prominent example of resistance, but it was matched and bettered by more sophisticated objections in richer areas. Again, the lower middle class got the blame, while the upper class escaped nearly all actual responsibility for the continuing, sometimes worsening, economic state of the black man and woman.
The Great Society was a wonderful program. It elevated who W.E.B. DuBois called the “talented tenth” — those with good parents who instilled good habits in their children — the prospect of joining the American middle class, albeit often in their own segregated communities. The previously mentioned Prince Georges County became a center for middle class and higher black populations. But evidence of those left behind is scattered nearby. The close-in wealthier suburbs of Montgomery County, Md., Arlington and Fairfax, Va., trailed far behind. Minorities in these counties increased mostly as farmland far outside of the District was turned into townhomes and apartment buildings no well-off white person with a job in D.C. would consider purchasing.
Meanwhile, drugs — a passing phase for college kids in the ’60s and ’70s — took their permanent toll on black and brown and even white lower class communities. As attention to providing greater assistance declined, so did the poor black neighborhoods become more the province of socio- and psychopaths, who rejected the common decencies of society to sell drugs, join gangs and threaten neighborhood terror. As has been effectively noted this year, notions of “fair trade” lowered prices but also eliminated jobs, providing further cause for, or excuse for, despair and resort to illegal activities.
Lyndon Johnson was really the last effective proponent of improving the economic lot of the African-American, pushing his Great Society program and the Civil Rights laws through Congress. He was president a half century ago. Little has been done since. His successor was elected with a “Southern Strategy,” thus bringing to reality Johnson’s prediction that the passage of the civil rights bills would cause Democrats to “lose the South for a generation.” Only he was too optimistic.
The Republican Party sinceRichard Nixon has held the South in the same way the Dixiecrats of yore did — signaling to poor whites that any social programs would result in higher taxes for them and lots of benefits to the black man. The scam has worked since 1870 and shows no signs of losing its effectiveness. Whites in the economic lower classes seem to again be voting for a candidate who promises tax cuts for the rich — damned few black folk to benefit from that! So rest easy.
Since white people and others who have benefitted from the country’s wealth turned to different issues, such as breaking glass ceilings or lowering taxes on the rich, we are reminded only by violence that there is a large underclass still “out there” trying to live their lives to a natural end, often without comfort or success.
We rely on the police to “keep a lid” on the inferno. We ask them to limit the murders to other black men and women (and sometimes babies). But a few burglaries in a white neighborhood leads to sending in more cops. Only rarely is the same true in black neighborhoods, usually when the murder rate just gets too high and makes mayors and city councilmen uncomfortable with inaction.
Yes, there are too many bad cops. We have seen their fruits. Police killings are actually UP this year, according to The Washington Post. But we also know that there are more policemen who are capable of good policing if they are allowed to do so by their co-workers and, as importantly, by the communities in which they carry a firearm.
We have rehearsed proposals for improving police relations with the black community for a couple of years now. We have considered ways to improve the lives of the black and brown underclass for at least 50 years. There have been results. Well-off whites seem much more accepting of minorities who are their economic and educational equals. There are more such minorities in that category. Even blue collar whites in many cases are willing to share their communities with African-Americans. Poverty does not allow much choice in the matter by either color.
But this is poor progress for a lifetime of dialog and ideas. The basic problems remain and in recent times have worsened. I am demoralized. I wonder if there is any point to the discussions. Is anyone really listening? Maybe after a lifetime of this issue of race I am simply too tired. Maybe younger people can find a solution, if there is one. I can only mourn.
Meanwhile, all of us, of whatever color, are worried by terrorism, by slow economic advance and by the plain fact that all of our politicians are driven by reelection and rigid ideology more than by a desire to better our nation. Instead of being excited by the prospects of making our nation more humane and more sharing, all of us are satisfied by a new gizmo, such as an Apple watch or another product of Silicon Valley. Or maybe streaming a new TV show. A focus on self has long ago replaced activism.
A tax increase to help others? No! I might not be able to afford that Apple watch!
Police and young men and women are dying because of tensions and fears on both sides that we believe we understand because we have seen the results on TV.
There is no understanding. There is no genuine action.
There are only tears. Including my own. And exhaustion.