By Alan Bean
Glancing at the paper this morning over breakfast, I noticed the headline, “Race relations arguably worse in ‘Age of Obama'”.
That banal conclusion is based on a recent poll suggesting that 43% of Americans believe that having an African-American president has not helped race relations, while only 34% believe it has helped.
This assumes that race relations–white folks and people of color getting along–is what we’re shooting for. It isn’t. Racial justice is the goal.
It could be argued that race relations declined significantly during the civil rights era when all those white folks were foaming-at-the-mouth-angry. Never in a thousand years would they give the Negro equal status in America.
In fact, a common line of argument in the late 1950s and early 1960s accused civil rights activists and “outside agitators” of stirring up racial enmity. Before the Freedom Rides, sit-ins, marches and mass meetings began, it was said, white folks and black folks dwelt together in harmony.
A superficial harmony can mask a racial justice problem. As Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out in his letter from the Birmingham Jail, African Americans have little interest in improving race relations “When you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity . . .”
Most African-Americans, fifty years on, still feel brutalized by law enforcement. That isn’t the voice of anarchy you hear on the streets of Ferguson; it’s the voice of despair.
We need police officers. Poor black neighborhoods need them most of all. But after generations of fear, arrogance and abuse, a simmering hostility has evolved between poor black neighborhoods and the police officers charged with serving and protecting them.
To be sure, the riots and looting we have witnessed in Ferguson and elsewhere have garbled the message of legitimate protest; but no one should be surprised by the broken shop windows and burning buildings. We all knew it was coming.
The ink was hardly dry on the Voting Rights Act of 1965 when riots broke out in Watts, an inner city Los Angeles neighborhood. In 1967, Dr. King described a memorable encounter.
I was out in Watts during the riots. One young man said to me… ‘We won!’ I said, ‘What do you mean, ‘we won’? Thirty-some people dead—all but two are Negroes. You’ve destroyed your own. What do you mean ‘we won’?’ And he said, ‘We made them pay attention to us.’ When people are voiceless, they will have temper tantrums like a little child who has not been paid attention to. And riots are massive temper tantrums from a neglected and voiceless people.
In Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman’s wife, Linda, understood the silent rage of the dispossessed and the ignored.
Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person.
When people are ignored for too long, they lash out like wounded animals in a trap. So long as terrible things are happening in the invisible neighborhoods of America, a modest improvement in race relations is meaningless and misleading. We won’t have racial justice until white America acknowledges that terrible things are happening and, worse still, we are responsible for those terrible things.
That’s a lot to ask, I realize. So long as white people control the national conversation we can ignore racial reality if we want to. Out of sight, out of mind. We won’t change until somebody gets out attention. That’s what the protests across the nation are all about: getting our attention. White people don’t like it. We’re not supposed to like it. We’re supposed to pay attention. Because, if we don’t, nothing will change.