It wasn’t supposed to be like this, not now at least. America is firmly within the twenty first century, yet we are struggling to deal with the problem that W.E.B. Dubois so aptly identified in 1903 as the problem of the twentieth century. That problem was the color line, which refers to institutional racism, discrimination and segregation. Looking ahead over a century later, it seems little has changed. While that assertion is unfair to a point—after all, we had a black president and legal segregation is prohibited –certainly the dynamics of racism are still as vibrant, conspicuous and ubiquitous in American life as ever—there is a problem throughout U.S. history that never subsides, and, as if to operate in cyclical fashion, sometimes gains momentum.
Bill Maher, host of the quasi political/entertainment program HBO Real Time with Bill Maher, recently had renowned Black intellectual and ordained Baptist minister Dr. Michael Eric Dyson and rapper Ice Cube as guests. They discussed the n-word controversy that erupted on the May 31 edition of the program when Maher flippantly referred to himself as a “house nigger” in an interview with Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska). The senator had been invited to the program to discuss his book on what he sees as the increasing problem on prolonged adolescence occurring in American society. Sasse and Maher agreed on the issue and provided examples and suggestions on how to rectify the problem. Things seemed to be going well up until this exchange transpired between both men:
Maher: Adults dress up for Halloween. They don’t do that in Nebraska?
Sasse: It’s frowned upon. We don’t do that quite as much.
Maher: I gotta get to Nebraska more.
Sasse: You’re welcome. We’d love to have you work in the fields with us.
Maher: Work in the fields? Senator, I’m a house nigger.
Readers, you’ll need to rely on your imagination to read this narrative.
Let’s start with a few actual “voices from the ranks.”
First Donnie, a middle age white police officer who got out of his hospital bed after recovering from a brutal beating by a drug dealer and returned to street duty, to the profession he still loves.
In Part one of this two-part series, “What to do in those moments of rage,” we called out the increases in acts of hate after the recent election. We follow up here with some tips for getting home safely.
But here’s the reality that threatens that goal – “drive by hate” can spring up unexpectedly, anytime and anywhere. And it’s on the rise across the country. Such acts can puncture your comfort zone while crossing a parking lot, walking on campus, sitting in an athletic stand, in cyberspace – anywhere.
(Article is Part 1 of a series) So here we are, and not in some far-flung foreign country either. We’re in America 2016, and hate is popping up across the nation. And as incidents of racist, sexist and Islamophobia harassment continue in the wake of the election, many are asking, ‘what should I do when (not “if”) acts of hate are directed at me or others?’
“God Bless You,” was her seemingly choreographed response to this question I asked my friend and her young black son “Mark”:
“Given the documented cases of hate crimes since the election, how would you respond if haters drove by you and yelled ‘Hey N—-r”, go back to Africa. We’re taking our country back!”
“Uh, uh! If that happens to me, I’m ready to rumble!” said “Mark,” at hearing mom’s response.
Even after forty years, I still remember the most important lecture I heard at college. It was delivered to me by a friend, standing in the dormitory hallway. I had once again done something thoughtless and self-centered. She had had it with me. She delivered a lecture on all of my failings, all of the ways I had let people down and acted in selfish self-interest. Defensively, I pushed back. But I also absorbed what she said.
It’s been two years since the shooting and subsequent riots in Ferguson. One year after that event, I wrote about having the dubious honor of witnessing three generations of protests related to race, inequality and injustice. In the 1960s, protest marches were televised nationally, inspiring many of us. Yes, some protests became violent riots, but some gave rise to long-term institutions promoting racial equality. Those of us deeply invested in the movement shared a vision and were committed to making a difference through advocacy, education, politics, and, as I did, urban planning. However, after the shootings of unarmed African American men in Baton Rouge and St. Paul, the killing of police officers in Dallas, the numerous street protests, and the ongoing threats, I am less hopeful than I was coming out of the sixties.
There I was pecking away on my keyboard. Part Two of “Hey, Speak English,” was coming along nicely when last week, “the racial week that was,” kicked the legs out from beneath my comfort zone. In a dreadful span of 72 hours, seven lives were senselessly snuffed out in Baton Rouge, Minneapolis and Dallas. Of course, many more lives ended that week, but thanks to the combustible mix of race, firearms and mobile devices, these are the ones that owned the headlines.
I insert here my worry, folks!
Although a bit of a stretch, a force fit, some may view the killing of those five white police officers in Dallas as payback in the same way that some jurors in the O. J. Simpson criminal trial delivered a not guilty verdict as payback for the beating of Rodney King and the atrocities heaped upon African Americans over the years. They may not have said it publicly, but the bet here is that the thought probably raced through some minds and showed up in private conversations. “The chickens have come home to roost,” as the saying goes and as some likely thought.
Although I can understand the sentiments, the simmering frustrations resulting from black lives constantly being snuffed out, payback utterings make me uncomfortable, very uncomfortable.
Turning now to why we need to careful.
You see, the problem with “paybacks” is paybacks begat a paybacks in turn. So before we realize it, the circular cycle spirals totally out of control. (Think about the revenge killings by gangs). And along the way widows and orphans are made, careers, relationships and reputations – and sometimes, bodies – are left in the wake. And at the end of the day, who really wins? None of us.
So what do we do? Or maybe the better question is what do we not do?
Well, if the thought of payback crosses the mind, Dr. King’s advice should put that idea firmly to rest:
The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral,
-begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.
Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.
Through violence you may murder the liar,
but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.
Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate.
In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes.
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence,
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
~Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
So here we are – you, me, all of us – sitting back in the comforts of our living rooms, eyes glued to TV sets, or in our places of worship trying to figure out what all this means, where on Earth are we going and what can we do personally to make a difference. A conundrum that’s indeed a daunting one.
But here’s hoping that any thought of engaging in payback is one option that’s kept off the table.
This “letter” requires some imagination. It is purposefully direct, graphic, hard hitting and may cause some discomfort. The reader is urged to read it carefully, several times perhaps, then pass it along and maybe even make it the focal point of a small group discussion (family, classroom, fraternity, etc.)
I went 12 rounds with Donna, a “bout” that started eleven months ago when I settled into Douglasville, Georgia. You see, Donna, a full-size middle age white woman, and me, a full-bellied middle age black man, first came into contact with each other in the convenient store a mile from my house, a tiny place reminiscent of the bucolic town of Mayberry in the old Andy Griffith Show. This is the place I stop by early mornings for coffee and a newspaper. Donna works there.