Maybe it’s yet another indication of a memory faculty that just ain’t quite what it used to be, but I’m having a hard time remembering when or whether since the 1960’s there has been as much pain and despair and polarization abroad in the land as there is now. “Ferguson” has already entered the history books as “Selma” did half a century ago, and the name will henceforth have a mythic quality that both bears witness to a true, cruel, and great injustice, and that also hides a deep and painful complexity manifest in questions about the details. A grand jury in a small town in the country’s heartland is unwilling even to send to trial for actual adjudication an on its face reasonable accusation that a police officer’s killing of a citizen in the given circumstances crossed the boundary of a legitimate and therefore legal use of force. Not two weeks later a grand jury in the nation’s largest, most cosmopolitan, and most glamorous metropolis makes a comparable choice.
The obvious points of comparison are that the victims in both cases were black males, the police officers white, and the alleged offenses that led to the fatal encounters relatively minor on the spectrum of criminal malfeasance. If, like me, you’re a child of the ’60’s, with politics well to the left of center (if “center” even exists), it’s not hard to start wondering “Is it now open season on black males and I didn’t get the memo?” or “I know it’s long been a criminal offense to Drive While Black (DWB), but when did it become an offense to Live While Black – did I miss that memo too?” The point of this meditation is to reflect on what it means for me not to go there.
What it does not mean, is that I have any doubt whatsoever that racism is alive and well in the United States of America; that as a whole citizens of color do not have the same life opportunities of virtually any sort as non-colored citizens; or that black males especially are the class of citizens most likely to feel the consequences of the nation’s unwillingness to face, embrace, discover, and atone for the great crimes that have been and continue to be perpetrated against people of color, from slavery, through the days of Jim Crow and routine lynching as a a nice Saturday evening entertainment, on down to the Prisons, Inc., Fergusons and New York Cities of today.
Additionally beyond doubt for me: The Civil War may have been the first industrialized modern war in which hundreds of thousands of mostly clueless, mostly white young men died on both sides because old men were unable to find another way; and its efficient cause may have been a dispute over the question whether or not the notion that one class of human beings may be held, treated, used, and disposed of as property by another class of human beings is reconcilable with basic American beliefs in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, as the bedrock principles that justify the Republic’s existence and constitution; yet the result of the war with the defeat of the Confederacy and the attendant implementation of the Emancipation Proclamation; and the fact the military conflict did indeed end at Appomattox Courthouse 149 years, 8 months, and 244 days ago today, clearly have not left us with a society in which all citizens are treated as equal before the law. This is not disputable. The facts are there.
I have two granddaughters who are bi-racial. It is not okay with me to think that their opportunities in life will be less than they would be if they were white, despite the fact they are both – by any objective assessment – truly gifted, smart, engaging, personable, and attractive young girls. We as a nation have got to face our demons around race and we have to come to terms with them if we are ever going to move on. There is a moral imperative behind this assertion; however there are also practical and economic imperatives as well.
First on the moral imperative: It is not good to live lies. Every faith tradition, every sound secular approach to psychotherapy, every person gifted with true life wisdom knows this. It is the height of hypocrisy for any of us to make large claims about the US of A as the land of the free and the home of the brave, where all who try hard and work hard have a shot at attaining the American Dream, when we harbor such a huge hunk of unfreedom in our hearts and souls and when fear drives all of us – oppressors and oppressed – to perpetrate and perpetuate unconscionable things.
On the practical and economic imperatives, in a world where deep restructuring is going on in the global economy, where climate change is real and beginning to have real material consequences all over the planet, and where innovation, resilience, creativity and flexibility are going to be the absolute keys to future prosperity and well being; we CANNOT AFFORD to have a sizable portion of our population sidelined and marginalized, and to absorb the real financial and social costs of keeping them there. We – and I’m speaking here as a privileged White Anglo Saxon Protestant Straight Hyper-Educated Male with 40 years of diverse professional experiences behind him – need Them in the game. We need them to be deploying gloriously all the great gifts the Creator endowed them with. For the bitter truth is, by keeping the oppressed from living to their fullest potential, the oppressors are held back by their own guilt and fear from living to their own fullest potential. The hard part, and right now the heartbreaking part, is being so uncertain about how to proceed from here.
One thing is clear, a change of heart is precisely what must first occur. It will take great courage for all of us to be willing to look at the others, those we now despise and view with despair, anger, and contempt, and to say, yes, this too is my neighbor. It is easy for me to lay the blame for the present anguish on “racist cops” and a legal system designed to empower the powerful and cripple the powerless. It’s easy for me to point fingers at “rednecks” and the “toxic-testosterone” guys who drive around in over-sized pickups with gun racks and “these colors don’t run” and confederate flag bumper stickers. It really does stick in my craw when I hear people go on about how the f***ing n*****s should just get off their asses and stop freeloading and go get a real job and stop depending on handouts from a government that overtaxes good honest truly patriotic Americans in order to pay for them. However, what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If I want those guys to make room at the table for people they’d as soon lock up or send back to Africa, can I make room at the table for them?
As hard for me, as a “universal oppressor” (shorthand for straight-WASP-hypereducated-male), is to turn to my black neighbors and gently inquire to what degree is their community rising up to the challenge of beginning to raise especially their male children so they are better able to perform in school, less likely to get involved in gang violence, less likely to assault others in their own communities, less likely to be incarcerated, more likely to rise to their own potential, and more likely to become positive community leaders and parents of the next generations? Having worked actively for 30 years to make Hartford, one of the nation’s poorest of poor cities, where fewer than 30% of the residents are white, a better place, I know the stats on all the challenges their community faces and I can go on at longer length than most white people have patience for about what it would be like for THEM to have to succeed against such odds. Still, for there to be a turning, the black community must own its own. My neighbors have every right to come to me and tell me what resources they need, what blockages need to be removed, and what help and support they want from me. Oppression needs to stop, but there is real healing work to be done that the oppressors cannot do, even when we finally get far enough to see the light and experience a change of heart.
Along with the hard truths that racism is real and unconscionably immoral and unhealthy and life-threatening for the Republic, there is also the hard truth that we are ALL in this together. I don’t get to write anybody off. In the present order of things, I do not look to politicians or the most widely followed talking heads to lead on pointing the nation toward a change of heart. Watching Jon Stewart lay out there the most egregious follies and moral deficiencies of the day may warm the cockles of my lefty-liberal heart, but no more than Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh do I expect he will be the voice who will encourage all of us to rise up and move forward into a better future.
For that, a spiritual awakening must happen, the kind of awakening that historically is first proclaimed by voices not yet heard from – from a Gandhi, a Nelson Mandela, a Martin Luther King, a Vaclav Havel, a Jesus of Nazareth, a Malala Yousafai. In these times, with the advent of global communications and social media there will almost certainly be more than one voice and many of those voices will be female. What is foreseeable about them is that they will speak truth to power, they will look us all in the eye and call us all to account, they will speak to our higher natures, they will imbue us with hope, and they will encourage us to go deep and find our own power to rise to the occasion. We are all scared, we are all despairing, and we are all bitter and angry. Meanwhile the storm is raging and it is real. We can flounder or we can take heart. And then get smart. And do our part. And invite all our neighbors to join in. All of them.
Here’s a mantra to meditate by:
In the heart of the whirlwind sit
as the vortex of the silence
draws the storm down to rest.