CA & USA: Tied in Knots Over Race

Gary Delsohn
Former Sacramento Bee Reporter now working for the Chancellor at UC Davis

America’s latest racial conflict is playing out on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, but everyone knows this could happen anywhere at any time.

Few California cities are immune from such potential explosions. One over-zealous cop, a George Zimmerman-like vigilante or any number of criminal acts with a racial element and our streets could be enflamed while the world watches in sorrow and disgust.

America is still tied in knots over the issue of race and class and at time like this, it can feel as if we always will be.

Why does it seem as if we only talk deeply about these questions immediately after something tragic like the Michael Brown shooting? Is this the only time these issues command our serious attention?

I hope not. As someone who grew up in Chicago, a quintessentially American city that gets as much notoriety for its struggles with race and gang-related violence as for its world-class architecture and other attractions, I fear our country is focused on the wrong battle.

We talk and devote endless resources to the all-important war on terror, but how can we come together with a focused attack on inequality, bigotry and intolerance?

We have an African-American president in the White House and a black middle class that didn’t exist a few decades ago, but we continue to find ourselves stuck in a pre-civil rights era time warp. Our cities are still one bad action away from debilitating racial unrest.

A cop kills a black kid who by all accounts was unarmed, the streets explode and much of the country doesn’t know what to make of it.

Michael Brown may not have been the model 18-year-old he was initially made out to be by friends and family, but so what? Did he deserve or need to be shot six times, including once in the face and in the head, as autopsies have concluded?

It’s always a risk that you’ll offend someone when you address race in America, but a few points seem inarguable.

There remains a clear double-standard in our country regarding race and criminal justice. This is hardly a news flash, but, for the most part, if you are a parent of white sons you probably don’t spend a lot of time lecturing them about the need to be careful around the police. If you are a black parent, you must.

For all the resentment in some circles about affirmative action, social welfare programs and everything else designed to seek a more level playing field, the odds still look better for a productive, prosperous and successful life in America if you’re white.

Is this white America’s fault or problem?  Do African-Americans bear some responsibility for the disparity in education, income, criminal justice encounters and other measures we apply to quality of life? Of course, and we have heard President Obama and other black leaders address this point.

In his much-admired speech on race during the 2008 Democratic presidential primary campaign, candidate Obama called on African-Americans to take “full responsibility for our own lives—by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.”

In the same speech, which we should all re-read from time to time no matter how you feel about Obama, the president spoke eloquently about our history of debilitating bigotry, saying “the legacy of discrimination—and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past—are real and must be addressed. Not just with words, but with deeds—by investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations. It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.”

Have you ever heard a white person say something like “Slavery ended more than 150 years ago. Get over it?” Or “I didn’t have anything to do with any of this―what’s it got to do with me?”

That me-first thinking goes to the heart of what we’ve seen on the streets of Ferguson since Brown was killed August 9. White and black America look at the same set of facts and circumstances and often come away with dramatically different conclusions.

Consider these statements from two good men I know who were commenting about whether some police approach young black and white males on the streets differently.

“One way or another, we all know that black and brown, especially young  . . . are more suspect by the police, more accurately in many cases profiled by them, and seen as more of a threat,” my  friend, who is white, said. “This doesn’t mean police are bad or racist. It is, and has been for a long time, statistically true that these minorities have a higher crime rate. Why? Multiple causes. History, yes, but current attitudes and behavior more so. Solution? More marriage, better work ethic, especially in school, more self-discipline. If folks are counting on the cops to change, they’re pursuing a risky, suicidal strategy. Life’s not fair, get a helmet!”

To which my other friend, who is African-American, responded, “As a ‘more suspect’ American, I’m very interested in finding one of these apparently magic helmets you recommend. Although I’m married, have a great work ethic, did very well in school, and am often complimented for my discipline, I’d like that extra level of protection the next time someone judges me based on the color of my skin.”

It is undeniable that we have made progress on race relations over the years. It is also undeniable that there is still a destructive racial divide in our country that we must always work to bridge.

Do both sides have an urgent moral responsibility to do everything they can to makes things better? Absolutely. But the worst thing we can do is be blind or indifferent to these issues and the challenges they present. Not only for the people directly affected by them, but for our nation as a whole.

If we are the exceptional country we say we are, we have to find a way to make all the people who live here believe it. It is our only hope to end what Obama correctly called “the racial stalemate we’ve been in for years.”

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