Race: Let’s talk about it

I have two wonderful, adorable biracial grandchildren, and one of them is a boy. I get angry when I think about the barriers they and my two Black step-grandchildren will face in building a life where they can pursue happiness and make their own contributions to society.

Sometimes I fret that I haven’t done enough to bring down those racial barriers to give them and all kids of color the same opportunities I’ve had.

But maybe it’s not too late to make the world a little better for them. Maybe the sad, infuriating, unjust deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown will open a frank discussion.

Though the nation’s justice system failed to insist the killers of these two young, black men must be held accountable for their actions in a court of law, the angry response to these unfathomable grand jury decisions has stirred a national debate.

The activism that has forced this essential discussion gives me a ray of hope. For a change, those who deny the lasting and destructive power of racism have been put on the defensive. The resolve to fight back, led by young people, people of color and those who support them, is turning this into a new front in the fight for justice and equality. And many are speaking out with eloquence and passion.

Now, maybe, these voices will be heard when they demand that we take on the unfinished business of dealing with that festering spot on our country’s inner core. It seems to me we have to start by recognizing that our founding fathers and their revered successors, patriots all, built much of the nation’s riches and power on the backs of slaves. And we have to learn to understand how the consequences of that history affect us now. Because if we don’t, it will continue to weaken our collective ability to distinguish right from wrong.

Let me roll out some examples of how this debate is proceeding.

There’s New York City’s first-term mayor, Bill de Blasio. He has some guts.

He stated publicly that he and his wife did for their biracial child, “What parents have done for decades who have children of color, especially young men of color, is train them to be very careful when they have a connection with a police officer.

“It’s different for a white child. That’s just the reality in this country. And with Dante, very early on with my son, we said, look, if a police officer stops you, do everything he tells you to do, don’t move suddenly, don’t reach for your cell phone, because we knew, sadly, there’s a greater chance it might be misinterpreted if it was a young man of color.”

For that he got a strong rebuke, one he surely knew was coming, from the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch, who said de Blasio “threw cops under the bus.”

No, my four-year-old grandson’s not old enough to understand yet, but here’s some of the lessons deBlasio was talking about, lessons that youngster will eventually have to learn. They were articulated by an angry Ijeoma Oluo, a writer and mother of two young boys. She Tweeted out an eloquent, satirical litany, with links to the tragic incidents they mention. Check out the entire list here. It’s powerful.

Here’s a few of them: “Don’t play in the park with toy guns and maybe they won’t kill you. Don’t ask for help after a car accident and maybe they won’t kill you. Don’t wear a hoodie and maybe they won’t kill you. … Don’t reach for your wallet and maybe they won’t kill you. … My heart can’t handle any more.”

After such incidents we see officials and pundits getting busy trying to explain away the killings. For example, we frequently hear calls to improve training for police officers. But retired New York Police Department sergeant Noel Leader, who served in the NYPD for more than 20 years, rebutted that assertion:

“Training is not the problem. We have a problem of racism within law enforcement as it relates to communities of color,” he said. “… officers that get trained in the police academy are dispersed throughout the city.” Yet these horrific incidents only seem to happen in communities of color.

When we elected Barack Obama to be our president, I expected a fierce white backlash. But I hoped that having a biracial president would force the question of race and the problem of racism out into the open, where we could go through the painful, divisive discussion that recent events are finally triggering.

First came the backlash, most visibly in the form of the Tea Party. But Obama chose not engage on the racial issue, perhaps the right political call, since he won reelection. But the events of the last few months, with the specter of Trayvon Martin in Florida and Oscar Grant in Oakland hanging over us, have forced Obama and a huge and growing number of commentators as well as ordinary people to talk about race.

Not everybody gets it. The Chicago Tribune’s John Kass, writing about the killing of Eric Garner by chokehold in New York and the failure to indict his killer, said in his column that the slogan “Black Lives Matter” is “intellectually dishonest … because it presupposes that many think black lives don’t matter and conveniently sidesteps the epidemic slaughter of black-on-black crime.”

It doesn’t presuppose any such thing. It isn’t about what individuals think, it’s about what’s happening in our country, not only of killings by police that hit Blacks and Latinos disproportionately, but by all of the oppressive consequences of institutional racism.

As for the black-on-black crime excuse that is often used by people like Kass to justify profiling and other racist policies, his colleague at the Trib, Stephen Chapman had a strong rebuttal.

He reminded readers that this line of thought tends to “blame blacks for pathologies that whites played a central role in creating.”

In fact, Chapman argues, “The epidemic of unarmed blacks being killed by police comes not when black crime is high but when it is low. Homicides committed by African-Americans declined by half between 1991 and 2008. Since the early 1990s, arrests of black juveniles have plunged by more than half. … In any given year, less than 5 percent of African-Americans are involved in violent crime as perpetrators or victims.”

I’ve been thinking about race for a long time. I was 16 and a student at the Northwestern High School Institute in journalism when I first started writing about it. Naïve as I was, I also approached the issue with passion. When I speculated in a writing assignment that intermarriage was, perhaps, the eventual solution, the instructor wrote on my paper, “Would you want your daughter to marry one?” I guess he was a prophet.

4 thoughts on “Race: Let’s talk about it

  1. Thanks for your thoughtful observations Linc. So much to think about and I’m glad you’ve contributed so sensitively to this conversation which absolutely must keep going.

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