A blog by Barry Edelson

Spring Awakening?

Is the Ground Finally Shifting a Little
In American Race Relations?

In the same month when the world observed the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., just a few months after the 50th anniversary of the Little Rock Nine, and a few weeks after Sen. Obama's unusually candid speech about race in America, three New York City police officers were acquitted in the killing of Sean Bell outside a nightclub in Queens, NY in 2006. Do those earlier historical events have anything in common with these recent episodes and, more to the point, do they shed any light on the sordid tangle of white-black relations in our country today?

The regrettable interference of Al Sharpton makes it altogether too easy for some people to dismiss the Sean Bell case as yet another instance in which the race card is played whenever a black person is hurt or killed, regardless of the possible culpability of the victim. But there seems to have been a subtle shift in attitudes surrounding this case. That two of the three policemen acquitted in the killing were themselves black has clearly given many people pause about invoking a charge of racism here. Even Sharpton's comments in the aftermath of last Friday's verdict—handed down by the only person who appears not to have pre-judged the case, namely the judge—have had more to do with police misconduct than with racism.

It goes without saying that Sharpton would have more credibility if he ever stooped to defend a white victim of police brutality (if any white victim would have him as an advocate), but building credibility has never been his mission. The presumption of racist motives in any white-black encounter is sufficient justification for him. However, the mass demonstrations promised by Sharpton in the wake of the verdict have failed to materialize, and his vows to "shut the city down" sound like the hollow threat of an inveterate agitator who, having played the race card and lost, doesn't have another card to play. The New York Times reported today that a number of black New Yorkers were unconvinced that race was a significant factor in the case, blaming instead poor performance by inadequately trained officers.

[This case raises the question of whether police officers accused of using excessive force should be tried in special tribunals for law enforcement officials, the equivalent of military courts for soldiers, rather than in regular criminal courts where the standard of "reasonable doubt" makes conviction of police officers nearly impossible. But that's a subject for another article.]

By coincidence, on the same day as the verdict, April 25, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright appeared on Bill Moyers' regular program on PBS. One would have thought that the only thing worse than listening to Rev. Wright defend himself for an hour would have been listening to Rev. Wright being interviewed for an hour by the unaccountably insipid Moyers. But their conversation, while less than enlightening, was unexpectedly engaging. Wright came across as learned and self-effacing, and though he wasn't entirely convincing about the benign nature of some of his stated (and videotaped) views, neither did he come across as a raving hate-monger. One could easily believe Sen. Obama's insistence that the caricature of his minister in our alarmist and increasingly alarming news media does not do justice to the totality of the man.

To Moyers' credit, he interspersed the interview with extended excerpts from a few of Wright's now infamous sermons. In isolation, the oft-replayed snippets of Wright's fire-and-brimstone-style ravings could indeed be a cause for concern. But on the whole, there is little in these speeches that is either controversial or even original. His rhetorical style is at times inflammatory, in the long tradition of Southern Baptist preachers, but his rhetorical content is by and large unremarkable.

In the course of the interview, after the umpteenth reference to slavery, Jim Crow and the rest of the shameful treatment of African slaves and their descendants in America, one could hardly resist the temptation to say, "Enough already." But in between the distant poles of this argument there is a vast, unexplored gray area which few of us have bothered to notice, let alone traverse. Between the blacks who, as Toni Morrison wrote in "Song of Solomon", wouldn't know how to manage their own affairs if they didn't have "the man" to blame for all of their troubles, and the whites who, as Sen. Obama said last month, had nothing to do with slavery or discrimination themselves and wish the blacks would just get over it already, there is the painful reality of human experience.

The day after the verdict, I happened to have an opportunity to attend a private screening of "The Great Debaters", Denzel Washington's film about several students and their inspiring teacher at a small black college. It is based on real people and real events that took place in 1935 and 1936 at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas: a time when lynchings were still common, and a place where even black people of accomplishment and prominence were subject to humiliation and intimidation. Indeed, during the course of the film, the teacher and his students, driving on a country road at night en route to a debate, happen upon a lynch mob in the midst of its grisly work, and they barely escape with their lives. One of these students and champion debaters was James Farmer, Jr., who would grow up to become one of the leaders of the civil rights movement.

The last officially recorded lynching in the United States, according to the Tuskegee Institute, was the sadistic torture and murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi in August, 1955 for the alleged "crime" of whistling at a white woman. Not included in the "official" statistics is the killing of Michael Donald in Mobile, Alabama on March 20, 1981 by two members of the Ku Klux Klan, who, angry over the failure of a jury to convict a black man of the murder of a white policeman, randomly murdered Donald and hung his body across the street from his own house. Not until 1997 was one of his attackers executed for the murder; the case of the other defendant ended in a mistrial. Nor is the murder of 49-year-old James Byrd, Jr. on June 7, 1998 in Jasper, Texas officially considered a lynching, though it certainly seemed like one to all of us who well remember that Byrd was tied to the back of a pickup truck and dragged through the streets. (Jasper is not terribly far from Marshall in east Texas.)

These few cases, which are a mere drop in the ocean of the incalculable cruelties, indignities, terrors and traumas suffered by black people at the hands of white people in this country over the centuries, occurred within the living memory of tens of millions of Americans. Take a good look at the faces of the white mob in the photographs from Little Rock in 1957: Where are these jeering teenagers now, whose expressions were contorted in grotesque caricatures of anger and hatred? Many would still be in their 60's today. Are they contrite and embarrassed about their actions that day, or do they remain unmoved and unrepentant for a lifetime of bigotry? Do they look upon the candidacy of Sen. Obama with satisfaction or resignation, contempt or fury?

How easy it is for us to say, "Get over it already," and how smug. In psychological terms, we all know that it is certainly healthier for each of us to come to terms with our past and that of our forebears and to count on our own resources to secure our futures. And many have most assuredly done so. It would also be healthier if we were to rely on the voices of our own consciences as our guide to redressing these wrongs rather than on shrill and predictable rants of the most hateful among us. And so many right-thinking people have indeed turned their backs on a once dominant racist ideology that a black man actually has a chance to be elected president. But when the blood has been so recently spilled, when stark divisions in housing and education and employment are still plainly evident, and when demagogues of every color are only too happy to exploit the fear and resentment of their followers, it is easier said than done.

April 27, 2008


I had misgivings about the subtitle of this article, but the subsequent statements by Rev. Wright in the last few days, and the response by Sen. Obama yesterday, gives some hope that we may actually be turning away from the oversimplified pronouncements that have long characterized the nation's "discussions" of race in favor of something more adult and complex.

If the minister wished to counter the caricatures of the black church in general, and of himself in particular, that have lately been circulating on the airwaves and in cyberspace, he could hardly have hurt his cause more than in his buffoonish appearances over the weekend at the NAACP in Detroit and at the National Press Club on Monday. This was not the reasonable and thoughtful man of the cloth who spoke with Bill Moyers last Friday. Even if he could be excused for being unaccustomed to the national spotlight and for letting all the attention go to his head, he cannot be excused for the unhinged nonsense that came pouring out of that head.

Let's be clear on this point: Understanding why someone behaves badly does not excuse the behavior. I tried in the article posted on Sunday to recognize that many in the black community, particularly those of the generation that grew up under segregation, have good reason to be paranoid about the American government's intentions and to be suspicious of whites in general. However, government policy is no longer officially racist, and the number of whites who still hold purely racist views (specifically, that blacks are inferior) has diminished dramatically over the last few decades. The fact that Rev. Wright still finds an audience for his particular brand of conspiracy theory and general outrage signifies only that centuries of insidious black-white relations have poisoned the well of rational thinking on both sides of the divide.

Sen. Obama knows that he has an unprecedented opportunity to bridge that divide, and he showed in his press conference on Tuesday that he knows full well that his pastor and those who think like him are as serious an obstacle to racial reconciliation as white racists ever were. We have often wondered aloud since 9/11 why there has not been a reformation in Islam which would isolate and diminish its most radical elements. A comparable reformation has also been needed within the black community and its churches (and mosques). It is a perilous task to challenge orthodoxy: remember that Bill Cosby was excoriated by black leaders a few years ago, not for attacking them, but merely for daring to criticize the dysfunctional behavior of many black youth. His sin was in airing the black community's dirty laundry in public, an idea that in itself is both absurd (as if gangsta rap were invisible to white people) and delusional (as if whites and blacks can live in two distinct societies and consider themselves as one nation).

The mission to bring about true interracial understanding has found its most prominent voice in Sen. Obama. We have already forgotten that, at the outset of this presidential campaign, there was doubt about whether the half-breed senator from Illinois was "black enough" for most black voters. In the intervening months he has put that fear to rest and largely cornered the black vote. Now that he is reassuring white voters that he means what he says about racial harmony he runs the risk of alienating some of his black supporters by denouncing Rev. Wright. No one said this would be easy, but at least the battle has been engaged once and for all.

April 30, 2008

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