Sunday, May 3, 2015

On Race, Baltimore, and Riots in General . . . .

  Like many Americans, I was shocked and horrified by the images coming out of Baltimore this past week.  Unfortunately, such sights are much more commonplace than they were even a decade ago.  Instead of helping to heal America's deep racial divide, the election of our first African-American President has made that divide worse than ever.  This is neither the time nor the place for me to go into my own vast political differences with our President, but suffice it to say that, in my opinion at least, when he should be pouring water on the fire, he always manages to mix a cup or two of gasoline in with it.

    I'm a middle aged white guy.  I am a sixth generation Texan and a tenth generation Southerner, and yes, I am a descendant of slaveowners.  My grandfather was born far enough back he could actually remember the family's former slaves coming by to visit on occasion.  All that being said, I despise racism.  While all my ancestors on both sides of my family fought for the Confederacy, I do not share the fondness that many in conservative circles have developed in recent years for the Confederate flag.  It horrifies me that so many in the South proudly proclaim their membership in the Party of Lincoln while wearing the flag of the rebellion on their ballcaps.  The Civil War was first and foremost a war over slavery - Southern states were determined to spread it everywhere, the North was equally determined to quarantine it in the South where "the public mind could rest in the belief that it was in the course of ultimate extinction," as Lincoln so eloquently put it. 

    What's my point in sharing that?  I want it to be perfectly clear that "I get it"!  African Americans have a legitimate historical grievance with white society.  If racism and discrimination had ended with slavery, it might be a different story. But everyone who has studied history to any degree realizes that, after two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil were ended by the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, and citizenship and equal rights were guaranteed in the Fourteenth Amendment (ratified in 1868, in case you didn't know that!), Southern states simply waited until the boys in the blue coats went home and established a system of legalized discrimination that was, in some ways, even worse than slavery.  The "color line" in the South was deeply cut between black and white, and any black man who stepped across it did so at the risk of his life.  So acceptable was racism that it spread through many of the Northern states as well, although legally enforced segregation was largely a Southern tradition.

   But 70 years ago, after the end of World War II, things began to change.  Court cases and constitutional amendments swept aside all legal forms of racial discrimination, and blacks and whites began attending the same schools in the same classrooms.  By the 1980's overt, spoken racism was becoming rare, today it is almost never encountered and universally scorned when it is brought to light.  Today's black youths will never encounter a sign hanging over a movie theater or a restroom that says "Whites Only."  They have more scholarship opportunities and government assistance than their grandfathers ever dreamed of.

   So what has happened?  Why is there burning and looting in black neighborhoods across America? First of all, police shootings happen.  Sometimes a cop, making a split second decision about his own safety, will kill an unarmed person.  If that person is white, it never becomes more than a local news story.  But if that person is black, all hell breaks loose.  Is police brutality a problem in America?  In some communities, it certainly is.  Baltimore may well be such a community, if some of the stories I am seeing in the media are accurate.  If the policemen who have been charged in the Freddie Ray case are guilty, I hope they all go to jail.

   But police brutality is only one side of the coin.  The sad fact of the matter is that, in many urban black communities, there is a seething rage at all forms of authority.  It takes many forms - from music and entertainment that celebrate crime and violence and the degradation of women, to the culture of gang activity, drug dealing, and wholesale theft.  Pundits can attribute it to many causes, and they do - the breakdown of the African-American family (80% of urban black youth are born out of wedlock), anger at the lack of opportunities in their lives, resentment of white supremacy, anger at supposedly racist police, lack of positive male role models, rap music, the list goes on and on and on.
   It doesn't matter what the cause is.  When any ethnic group - white, black, Latino, or Asian - resorts to wholesale vandalism, looting, violence, and mayhem, they rob their cause of its credibility.  I heard a local politician from Baltimore - a charming African American lady - say that "lack of investment" in the black community there is the root cause of the explosion of violence.  Really?  What businessman in his right mind would build a drugstore in a neighborhood that just looted and burned the previous one?  The sad thing is, the rioters in Baltimore were destroying their own neighborhoods, their own businesses, their own homes, and blaming the cops for all their problems the whole time.

   The racial divide in America has been here my whole life and is not going away anytime soon.  Much of it may be the fault of white oppression, but as long as people of color continue to use the culture of victimhood to justify hooliganism, nothing is going to change. Every cop in America could be armed with a water pistol, and black youths would still be shooting each other.  It is time for both sides on the racial divide to step up, acknowledge their faults, and do better by one another - but most of all, they need to do better by their own children.

   And that's all I've got to say about that.

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