With each passing week the American public is being bombarded with scenes and stories of racially based friction, sparking violence, protests, and finger-pointing. From the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin incident to Ferguson to the most recent race related incident in Charleston, SC, it seems that the gap between the races is once again widening- spurred on by the inflammatory rhetoric of opportunistic public figures, by a speculative and exclusive driven media, by “political correctness”, and perhaps even our own inattention.
The term “race relations” has been forcibly changed from meaning “cultural contacts and relations between people of different races” to being a rallying cry of racial injustice. How did we as a country allow such a divisive attitude to poison our soul?
In part, but not fully, our country’s leadership is at fault. In the film “Remember the Titans”, Julius Campbell states “Attitude reflects leadership”. Though much of the film is a fictionalized account of a true story, the sentiment contained in it is well worth giving attention. In each seemingly race-related incidents of the past few years, those in leadership positions, from the White House to racial activists such as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, have spoken out on the racially motivated aspects of the incidents, often with little or no access to the actual facts of the incidents. While ignoring the actual meaning of the words, calls for “justice” and “fair treatment” are voiced, not in an attempt to achieve those noble goals, but instead to stir up greater levels of frenzy and vitriol – often achieving further tragedy. Such actions by the Administration and community “leaders” are shameful and manipulative, and do a disservice to American citizens of every race.
The media also is partially at fault for the attitude pervading our culture with regard to racial relations. Using polarizing language, and a 24 hour news cycle jammed full of “breaking” video, audio, and on the ground reporting, media outlets on every side of the political spectrum craft the story to represent the message they want their viewers and listeners to believe. With a massive supply of “experts” and unlimited airtime the message these media outlets promote is often accepted without equivocation, and while some outlets strive to keep the reporting as factual as possible, many times ratings supersede reason.
Also at fault and bearing a large portion of blame is the country’s trendy commitment to “Political Correctness”. America’s sacred 1st Amendment right to Freedom of Speech has been subjugated by the much more fashionable and “socially conscious” mandate of “Freedom to say what you think-unless it offends someone else”. Censorship and public condemnation assault anyone making a statement not deemed “socially acceptable” by some group or another. Individual feelings are now more important than individual opinion, and individual opinions that challenge the “socially acceptable” positions are quickly tagged with labels such as “racist”, “sexist”, “elitist”, or “-phobic”, stifling an chance of open conversation or thoughtful debate.
The final portion of blame is sadly borne by ourselves, but is directly related to the three previous points. We have chosen to listen, without question, to leaders and media outlets, allowing the opinions and commentary of others determine how we as citizens and neighbors to react. Police are collectively pigeon-holed as racist, while blacks are collectively portrayed as criminal, victim, or both. The result is that our minds have become closed off to other possibilities, resistant to any explanation that doesn’t fit into the narrative created by “leaders” and “media”, driving a wedge and widening the gap between neighbors, communities, and races. It is an appalling result.
But do we have to accept such a result? The answer is “no”, but requires courage to implement, and a return to the thoughts and beliefs of truly great leaders such as Martin Luther King and Thurgood Marshall.
In his 1992 speech when accepting the Liberty Medal, Thurgood Marshall gave both sage observations and advice that is profoundly germane to the racial obstacles we face as a nation:
“… as I look around, I see not a Nation of unity but of division – Afro and White, indigenous and immigrant, rich and poor, educated and illiterate. Even many educated whites and successful Negroes have given up on integration and lost hope on equality…
But there is a price to be paid for division and isolation as recent events in [pub. note-1992 riots in Los Angeles]California indicate. Look around. Can’t you see the tension in Watts? Can’t you feel the fear in Scarsdale? Can’t you sense the alienation in Simi Valley? The despair in the South Bronx? The rage in Brooklyn?
We cannot play ostrich. Democracy just cannot flourish amid fear. Liberty cannot bloom amid hate. Justice cannot take root amid rage. America must get to work. In the chill climate in which we live, we must go against the prevailing wind. We must dissent from the indifference. We must dissent from the apathy. We must dissent from the fear, the hatred and the mistrust…We must dissent from a government that has left its young without jobs, education or hope. We must dissent from the poverty of vision and the absence of moral leadership. We must dissent because America can do better, because America has no choice but to do better.” [emphasis added]
In his speech of August 28, 1963 given in front of the Lincoln Memorial, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech that spoke of his dream for true relations between the races:
“I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’ I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today!”
Martin Luther King’s speech held profound statements and hopes for the future interactions between races, but sadly the words are now often only partially heard, and are often twisted in meaning by activists and organizers interested only in achieving a inflammatory result. Quotes regarding “color of their skin” are shouted, but the meaning of the words “content of their character” are trampled upon in a mad rush to gin up protest.
Sadly – not only for the those in the black community, but for whites, Hispanics, and police of every race -the tragedy of the recent racial incidents has increased mistrust and negative preconceptions. Yet the courage shown by family members and friends on both sides of the incidents, who have called for peaceful response and open communications, cannot and should not be diminished. Their statements and actions represent the thoughtful, determined change in attitude that will lead to better understanding and relations between citizens and neighbors.
The change in attitude towards race relations is not one that can be implemented by some government policy, or by punishing individual opinions. It requires courage on all sides of the racial dialogue, and a willingness to have an open, patient, thoughtful dialogue with each other. Courage to speak rather than yell, courage to say “Let me explain” rather than shout “You’ll never understand”, courage to see unique individuals rather than stereotyped groups, courage to shake hands rather than raise a fist. It will not be easy, it will not always be comfortable, and it will not always perfectly succeed, but perhaps by smiling and shaking hands rather than holding an attitude of distrust, we can accomplish the dream so many great men and women have died hoping to achieve for this country, where our interactions are based on relations or relationships not race. At least, that’s the way that I see it…hopefully you do too.