My voice has been silence these past several weeks as the nation has been consumed by the events in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City. I have imagined that I have little to contribute to the chorus of political and social commentators and media analysts and their pronouncements about matters of race in America. As I have noted in earlier blog posts, in my view, black Americans and white Americans experience race differently which predictably shapes their views about race in this nation. If the consequences of those differences resulted in a simple intellectual divergence of opinions race would hardly matter. Unfortunately, it is far more complicated and nuanced as the events of the last several weeks have underscored. White policemen shooting unarmed young black men and appearing to face little consequence is a matter of race that cannot be ignored.
To suggest that race plays a significant role in the deeply unconscious response of white policemen to young black men seems perfectly reasonable to most black Americans. Some white Americans, on the other hand, seem offended that race is interjected into the conversation and, as evidenced in the comments of former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, attempt to re-craft the discussion by blaming the killing of unarmed black men on criminal behavior in the African-American community. Presumably from this point we are to assume that if the police were not in crime infested communities, they could not kill unarmed black men. To deconstruct that logic is to inquire about a police officer’s ability to distinguish between criminals and law-abiding citizens. Giuliani’s position actually confirms the role of prejudice in these situations!
As is often the case in public discussions about emotionally-laden topics, ideas get co-mingled and the discussion almost always results in generating more heat than light. To be sure, crime in the African-American community and the horrific consequences of black people killing black people is a problem but to introduce it in the discussion on what motivates a white policeman to shoot or choke unarmed black men obscures the broader issue and confirms that some white folks view these events with an entirely different racial lens. Current New York City mayor, Bill DeBlasio spoke openly about the messages and lessons given to his bi-racial son regarding his encounters with the police. The NYC Police Union President characterized his comments as “throwing the NYC police under the bus…” However, every black and brown parent in America with sons understood exactly what Mayor DeBlasio meant having themselves had that uncomfortable yet necessary conversation. This represents a profoundly different perception of and experience with the police. Sadly, the image of Office Friendly is entirely foreign in far too many communities of color. As a consequence of his remarks, some NYC police officers have adopted the classless action of turning their backs on Mayor DeBlassio at public events honoring slain policemen. As talk-show host Jon Stewart noted in his recent show, it is possible to honor and mourn slain police officers and still hold the living accountable for the actions of killing unarmed citizens.
There is a truth about race that is known but rarely acknowledged. When talking among themselves, some white Americans and some black Americans have conversations about each other that would be considered entirely offensive and downright racist if revealed. The conversation attributed to the Sony executives regarding President Obama revealed in the leaked Sony emails provides another public opportunity to hear private conversations about race. Yet another revelation confirms what most black folks already suspect to be true. The disappointment comes in realizing a collective naiveté in hoping that progress has been made in matters of race. This nation was built on assumptions about the value of one set of characteristics over another. A status hierarchy continues to exist and shape unconscious motivation, thinking and behavior. In the stark reality of our social interactions and the social currency we attribute to groups, we value men over women, white Americans over black Americans, heterosexuals over homosexuals, thin Americans over fat Americans, able bodied Americans over physically challenged Americans, young Americans over old Americans, rich Americans over poor Americans. As a result, we must constantly and intentionally fight misogyny, racism, homophobia, classism, and ageism. This is our present reality. To ignore this ugly truth is to keep us perpetually mired in this soul crushing state which pits Americans against Americans and conceals the real worth of every human being.
Too often I have had the nagging feeling that in matters of race and the celebration of human diversity, intolerance seems more deeply entrenched and immutable. I am convinced that if this intolerance is to be changed, it will be the young who will dare to dream of a world were every human being is valued without exception.