Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Through A Different Lens

Have you ever stood on a city sidewalk, waving your arms frantically, trying to hail a taxicab, only to have empty cab after cab rush right past you as if you were invisible?  Have you ever walked into an upscale hotel, dressed in fully professional business attire, and been stopped by a hotel staff member inquiring as to “and what is your business here today?” while your colleague in tattered jeans and T-shirt passes right through unimpeded?  Have you ever gone shopping in an expensive store, only to notice that a sales clerk was following and watching your every move, however seemingly “discreetly”?  Have you ever been stopped by a police officer while driving your car, and immediately had to reach back and remember all of those life training lessons from your parents: don’t talk back; don’t move suddenly; never reach into your pockets or jacket unless instructed to do so; do whatever you are told?  Have you ever sent out your resume countless times with no answer, and then dropped the “s” from your first name (“José”) to Anglicize it (“Joe”), only to then be flooded with responses and interview offers?  And what is the common link in each of these situations, and no doubt many others?  In each instance, the individual in question is African-American.  These are the shared experiences that virtually every Black American, especially males, has experienced in some form or another.

This fall, millions of White high schoolers will experience a familiar rite of passage: submitting application packages to colleges.  Unsure of what school(s) to choose; anguishing over whether they will be accepted.  All following a path that is assumed to be “normal and expected” for their age group.  Millions of Black and other minority students will not be making these assumptions.  The thought of going to college is not even on their radar, a possibility so remote that it invites little serious thought.  Just getting through high school is an admirable enough accomplishment.  But first in the family to go on to college?  Unlikely.  What family role model even exists to guide and stimulate that student, show her the ropes, help with her finances, help her believe?  For these millions, their circumstances create a far different rite of passage.

Michael Brown, of Ferguson, MO, may not prove to be the most ideal face for the cause of racial justice in America.  That judgment awaits the results of various in-depth investigations in process by multiple agencies.  It should certainly not be determined by the wild posturing of many news organizations covering the case, or the self-promoting individuals attaching themselves to his death.  Whatever Michael Brown’s personal character turns out to be, it likely did not warrant multiple bullets into his unarmed body.  From a police department that is the complete racial opposite of the population it serves.  In the year 2014.

50 years after Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act, liberal and conservative White Americans still do not understand the perceptions, experiences, and everyday realities of Black (and other minority) Americans.  The divide is still there.  And the misunderstandings run both ways.  As a whole, White Americans will never condone, much less support, violent rioting no matter what the perceived cause or justification.  Black Americans experience such violence as a pressure valve that can no longer hold back the pent-up fury over unceasing separate and negative treatment, the failure of genuine social and legal colorblindness.  White Americans decry the pattern of Black rioters taking out their vengeance on Black neighborhoods and fellow Blacks – stupidly ignoring the fact that Black neighborhoods are where the Black people are!  Anger – pushed to violence – is a non-logical and emotional reaction that reaches out where you are, immediately in the moment.  (Which is why domestic violence against loved ones inexplicitly happens as it does.)

Many participants and observers in Ferguson have decried the military-styled presence brought in to “restore law and order.”  Heavy-duty weapons, armored vehicles, and guarded checkpoints to control access, most often enforced by young adults with minimal training for such a tense environment.  “How can this happen in America?” is the anguished, questioning plea.  Yet for those of us who grew up in the beginnings of modern civil rights violence, the scene in Ferguson was all too familiar.  Detroit, Los Angeles, Selma, Little Rock – and even more names from earlier battles, now lost to the archives of old newspaper headlines.

If we are going to denounce the violence of the protesters, then let us also denounce the violence of the unjust treatment that perpetuates it.  If we insist on faulting Black Americans for not “acting like White Americans” or not “thinking as White Americans think,” then let us start treating Black Americans the same way as we treat White Americans.  Colorblind treatment yields colorblind outcomes.  But poor schools produce poor adult workers; poor households create future poor families; home without books create undereducated readers.  Hostility and discrimination create imitated hostility and discrimination to others yet again.  The repeated cycle never stops.

In the past 60 years, we have made great progress towards the goal to end racial discrimination in America.  Progress that should neither be ignored nor diminished.  The world of equality and opportunity is very different than from where we started in 1950s Little Rock.  Perhaps amazingly so, given the usual time it takes to change people’s hearts and their society.  Even doing “the obvious right thing” sometimes takes much effort and many years.

We are not at the endpoint of our goal yet.  Getting to that place requires that we see differently than we see today.  If we want other people to act like the people in our neighborhood, then we have to let them live with us in our neighborhood.  Both our physical neighborhood and our social/economic neighborhood.  Until we have a common perspective and experience, or at least a shared understanding of our differences, we will never have common outcomes.  It is a shared commonality among our peoples that we still have yet to achieve.  Until the “haves” of White America truly understand the wholly different thinking of the “have nots” of minority America, our shared commonality and mutual relationships will remain elusive.  And the promise of American opportunity for all will similarly remain elusive.

This is not an “apologist” point of view that condones violence and blames “society” for individual ills.  We are each charged with responsibility for how we respond to our circumstances and the events that come our way.  And there are countless examples of those who, with hard work and opportunity, have successfully transcended extremely adverse circumstances and events.  But we should be slow to criticize what we have minimal understanding of.  We are obligated to get the knowledge first, to take the time to be able to appreciate what has led each of us to this circumstance in our life and to this perspective in our thinking.  Only from such knowledge and appreciation can we then offer effective alternatives and solutions that come from genuine, informed insight.

©  2014   Randy Bell                          www.ThoughtsFromTheMountain.blogspot.com