Competing truths in America
With recent protests flooding college campuses and cities, I would swear that our country looks more like the 1960s than 2014 right now. We’ve come so far since then, right? After all, in the 1960s, police were shooting innocent African-Americans in our streets. Famous ministers were pounding their pulpits about the treatment of minorities and the segregation of wealth and education. Back then, our handsome President, the affable man with the beautiful wife and young children in the White House, spoke in racial platitudes that promised change, but never really delivered it. Thousands were marching in the streets, violence was erupting … no wait … that was literally just yesterday.
Yesterday, I watched in disgust while a newsman, one I usually have respect for, repeatedly told his African-American guest that he was going to “educate him” on what it feels like to be a black male. When that guest, also a famed and highly regarded newsman, tried to point out that he was feeling condescended to, the show erupted into claims of unknowing racism and horrified denials. It was the perfect picture of how America feels.
Aren’t our schools racially diverse and desegregated? Don’t we already have legislation that guarantees every American’s right to the same opportunities? Wasn’t electing a black president supposed to somehow prove that America’s reprehensible past was finally behind us? The answer is a resounding “Yes,” and also a resounding “No.”
It is true that our schools are technically desegregated. Most police forces, even in the deep South, are painfully aware that purposeful racial profiling will get an officer fired. Interracial families are now so normal that no one even gives them a second glance. And the average American believes that racial slurs are disgusting curse words. But the problem that many white Americans still don’t comprehend, the same problem that is causing the current protests, is that racism doesn’t have to be blatant to be real. We’ve made a lot of progress, but we still have more progress to make.
Racist attitudes are often something that good people are painfully unaware of — a lesson I learned 17 years ago when I became the mother of three African-American children. From then on I witnessed the most insidious parts of racism and I felt its sting in ways I thought were unimaginable in our modern country. Most people who witnessed my beautifully multi-racial family smiled at us with joy. One man even ran down the aisle of a store to throw his arms around me and declared, “This is what the world is supposed to be like!” I also heard, “Did you want to adopt black children?” Like they were a color of jelly bean that no one wants to eat. I quickly realized something that I’ve tried to pass on to my children as they navigate the rough waters of unknowing racist attitudes — sometimes people are racist without meaning or wanting to be. And sometimes it takes generations of people to change the past, but that doesn’t mean that everyone or everything has changed for the better.
For the record, I don’t believe that the now infamous police officer in Ferguson was doing anything except for defending his life and his community from a young man who was committing a crime. Also for the record, I do believe that there are a disproportionate amount of young black men being harassed by a minority of police officers. Americans would be wise to remember, however, that just as it is difficult for a white person to know how a black person feels, it is difficult for a regular citizen to know how a police officer feels. The sad truth is that America has a history of racial profiling, especially against black men, that modern police forces are trying to purge from their ranks. Another sad truth is that the gang, gun, and drug violence in our country necessitates a well-armed, more military-like police force. Those competing truths are the reason for the current racial unrest in America.
Past generations have already given us the beginnings of “what the world is supposed to be like.” Now we have to realize that America’s problem isn’t the obvious racist, those are the easy kinds to spot. It’s the quiet, unknowing attitudes that we still have to let go of. Perhaps, forgiving each other for a painful past is the best way to start.