Civil Rights

White American needs to start getting honest about race

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Over the last few days, protests have erupted in Charlotte, North Carolina and Tulsa Oklahoma, as once again, two African American citizens have found themselves on the receiving ends of police bullets.

After centuries of slavery, another hundred years of de jure segregation (followed by de facto segregation that still exists), and decades of systemic discrimination, redlining, unequal economic opportunity, and unequal treatment in the ‘justice’ system, African American civil rights groups are pushing back. They are taking to the streets because the legitimate, electoral means of correcting those historic and current injustices seem out of reach.

The economic problems that face most middle and working class Americans are even more pronounced in communities of color. With higher rates of poverty, unemployment, incidents of police brutality, and incarceration then the general population, cities have decided that it is easier and cheaper to beef up policing than to actually face the problems that have been caused, in large degree, by deliberate, long term policy. Admitting this in no way ignores that fact that conditions are better for African Americans today than they were in the Jim Crow or Antebellum South; it is simply an acknowledgement that we still have a long, long way to go.

African Americans, especially those living in urban centers, are under siege by militarized police forces. They are too often treated as something to protect the community from, rather than the very community the police have sworn to protect. Police, for their part, have unfairly found themselves on the front lines of a modern day race and class war, in which the thin blue line is asked to hold back the floodgates of all this tension. Donald Trump’s recent talk of restoring “law and order” is little more than a thinly veiled dog-whistled call to double down on this strategy.  The results of this untenable situation have become abundantly clear to anyone willing to open their eyes to the facts.

The massive accumulation of anecdotal evidence of racial injustice in policing, corroborated by the highly detailed Department of Justice reports on Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore can no longer be denied. In recognition of these facts, a recent decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Court went as far as to acknowledge that African Americans had legitimate reason to fear and run from the police even if they have not done anything wrong: “Such an individual, when approached by the police, might just as easily be motivated by the desire to avoid the recurring indignity of being racially profiled as by the desire to hide criminal activity.”

This evidence, and the ensuing protests, impels us to confront our history and present polices and, uncomfortable as it may be, face our unequal distribution of the blessings of liberty in a way that is absolutely necessary in country aspiring to be the Land of Liberty.

In 1943, Langston Hughes wrote:

“There are words like Liberty,

That almost make me cry.

If you had known what I knew,

You would know why.”

He was challenging, as he so often did, what most Americans consider to be the core of our national creed.  He, like Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. De Bois before him, asked us to look in the mirror and turn our critical eye upon our society.  That is what #Blacklivesmatter is asking us to do.  That is what Colin Kaepernick is asking us to do.  Do we have the courage to do it?  Can we show the empathy necessary to see the world through the eyes of our fellow citizens and know what they know?  If we do, will it “almost make [us] cry”?  I don’t have the solutions to this crisis, but I know it starts by looking in that mirror. 

Widelec is a New York City teacher and a progressive activist, who lives on Long Island, NY.  


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