After the killing of two black men by policemen in July—in Louisiana and Minnesota—National Public Radio aired a rant by an Ohio police woman as part of their coverage of these terrible events. Her plea to fellow white officers was to get out of law enforcement if they were afraid of black and brown men. I can’t find the reference now to recap what I heard, but she voiced something that is tragically true in America—white and black and brown people are too often afraid of one other.
The racial divide in America now seems larger than it has been in a generation. People may argue whether it’s grown worse in past decades, diminished or stayed about the same since the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and 1960s. But one thing is clear: the racial divide is now staring us in the face and we cannot avert our gaze. And while the divide seems especially glaring and concerning between the police and black residents, the actual divide cuts across our whole society. We can’t just blame law enforcement for racial conflict and violence in our society; we all bear responsibility for it.
We all participate in the racial divide—though primarily unwittingly---because that’s the way our society was intentionally designed in the past and we have been woefully unsuccessful at dismantling it completely and redesigning inclusive social systems and building healthy cross-cultural relationships. Those of us who are “white” don’t usually have to think about the divide or critique the system that secures our place on the privileged side of the divide. Until some folks make us think about it -- like those within the #Black Lives Matter movement.
#Black Lives Matter emerged out of repeated horrific policing incidents. But the fear and conflict that erupts during police stops grows out of much deeper divisions in our society. Do black lives matter enough in our communities that all children get a good education? Do black lives matter enough that living wage jobs are available in and around black neighborhoods? Do black lives matter enough that affordable housing is available where the jobs are? Or that adequate transportation options, essential childcare and ample youth programs exist? Have we sufficiently reconstructed healthy social, economic and political systems to overcome the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow laws and intractable segregation so that African Americans can thrive in their own country?
While many people from all walks of life now feel like the economy and the government aren’t working for them, these systems have never worked well for African Americans. And as white people’s frustration and anger escalates as we see happening today, sadly and frightfully, so does the scapegoating. Are we about to see the divide grow even worse?
Humanists must remain allies of the #Black Lives Matter movement—what is becoming the leading Civil Rights movement of our time. Not because everyone of us necessarily agrees with everything about the movement but because of our humanist commitment to egalitarianism and the well-being of all. Change has only ever come throughout history because people were tired of the circumstances they found themselves in and they organized to change the status quo. It’s always been a messy and uncomfortable process—and it will be now.
But whether or not you personally are ready to dive into some racial justice action, sign up for some rally or follow some leader, it is imperative that we all better educate ourselves—and others—about the black experience in America. Just recently on the internet I stumbled across James Baldwin and William Buckley debating the proposition—in 1965--“Has the American Dream been achieved at the expense of the American Negro.”Baldwin’s eloquent and captivating performance provided an overview of the black experience that is as insightful and relevant today as it was 50 years ago. It is a must see.
And, if you’ve never watched the PBS series “Eyes on the Prize,” a history of the Civil Rights movement, such knowledge is essential for every American. Or watch it again as an excellent refresher on civil rights activism. To better understand today’s reality for Black Americans, contemporary authors Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow) and Ta-Nehisi Coates (Between the World and Me) are good places to start.
We might process some of this information together if there is enough interest as a community. I’m open to suggestions. But whether we learn together or on our own time, gaining greater knowledge and understanding of the black experience should be on every humanist’s agenda these days. Let’s help break down the walls of ignorance and fear and lay a solid foundation for the bridge-building we need to do in our society.