Can’t Cure a 300 Year-Old Drought by a Month of Rain
Racism is in the American DNA, a matter of societal drought that goes back a long way,
aimed at everyone in our newborn nation that wasn’t white, and some that were.
The Framers of our Constitution
made a game go of it, with their finest rhetoric.
"We hold these truths to
be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their
Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and
the Pursuit of Happiness.”
But that was a fiction that couldn't stand up to circumstance.
I guess they wrote it as an aspiration, because the fragile land they won by
force of arms from the British was built on agriculture—mostly cotton—and in
those times cotton meant slaves, sold like cattle into lifetimes of servitude.
If you find it hard to conceive of that mind-set in those
days, think of your mind-set in these days. You would bristle at
someone calling you a racist. But you (and I as well) are and have been perfectly
willing to accept that the poor and the lower rungs of American economic life
are almost entirely populated by people of color.
The truth is that if you are white in America or throughout
most of the world, you and I are complicit racists.
I have lived in all or part of ten
decades and always considered myself to be largely without racist faults. Recently,
in the furious times we inhabit, I’ve had reason to re-assess.
Born and raised in Evanston,
Illinois, home to Northwestern University, my town was not considered a
segregated community. Yet blacks and other people of color sat in the balconies
of theaters. Not a requirement, just where they were.
restaurant would not turn away a black family, but they would wait hours for
service. That was seventy years ago. It’s less true today, but still mostly
Blacks make up 23% of the
population of Cook County, which includes Chicago and most of its suburbs,
including Evanston. Yet I’ve never socialized with a black, a Mexican or an
Asian. Just didn’t happen.
How can that possibly be? Looking back, the
percentages prove it can be nothing other than a soft, comfortable, entirely
subconscious form of racism.
I’m 85 years old and just now
learning that my lifelong racial self-image was a lie.
So, what of Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin and the blindingly
intelligent minds that wrote those illustrious words that form our
Constitution? Slaveholders all, yet the concept of equality was in their
minds even as the current possibility eluded them in so young and
fragile a nation.
The nation they founded went on to impose
a genocide on our native population, breaking treaties, sending armies of annihilation
and trading blankets laced with smallpox. What remains is a broken native
American culture, one that is unlikely to ever recover its original splendor.
Eighty-five years after our
founding, the stench of slavery became too much to bear and we fought a Civil
War—ostensibly to keep the Southern states from seceding, but actually to end
slavery. Blacks were free, but racism rose from the battlefields like Jack’s
beanstalk. Decades of Jim Crow, lynchings and KKK followed. The Land of the Free and the Brave.
Here we are, 155 years later and the fact of black
freedom is writ in our laws, but the reality is quite another thing.
Police are the flash-point today and
rightly so according to the evidence at hand. But evidence will admit to
anything if your torture it sufficiently. The raw truth is that America was
born and raised to be a white supremacy and we are just now struggling
with that fact and its repercussions.
I struggle. Black communities,
white leadership, protesters of all colors and counter-protesters struggle.
Perhaps you struggle as well.
But history has its lessons and the lessons of protests past
are that if you simply do nothing for long enough, the energy dissipates.
We march and burn some things and
wreck some other stuff, pull down statues and then get tired of being gassed
and hosed and shot with rubber bullets. We fizzle—and that’s not the fault of
dedication, it’s simply the reality of life moving on and the power of
Remember Occupy Wall Street?
Over. Nothing changed and as soon as it had the chance Wall Street wrecked the
This fragile, complicated and hectic year has been our month
of rain in hundreds of years of drought. Don’t expect the parched and cracked soil of racism to suddenly turn
green and heal. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, alluding to another crisis of spirit,
“Now this is not the end. It is
not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the
We are a nation in turmoil today, as politically fractured
as I have ever seen in my lifetime. Our current leadership would split us
against one another in its desperate effort to survive. The chance to join or
turn away from that political philosophy by ballot is soon upon us.
There’s a lot on our plate:
businesses failing, job losses in the tens of millions and probably worse to
come. A pandemic thrown in for good measure, the impact of which is impossible
Those circumstances will heal, as
they always have.
We dare not lose our courage or commitment on seeing through
the long-term drought of systemic racism without losing our national soul. We must
see this through as if our lives depended upon it, for they truly do.
It takes months, sometimes years of
slow, steady rain to cure a drought. I somehow feel we’re up to the task, because
I must feel it in order to remain American in all that means and has
meant and will mean in a world that needs us back.
Back as we were, not as we are.