Racist America – Fact or Friction?

michael brownDarren Wilson may not have been indicted last week, but once again America is indicted- for being racist.

Is America racist?

Was the shooting of Michael Brown an example of a systemic bigotry what we simply cannot overcome?

No- and no…

I won’t debate the facts of the Michael Brown case specifically. If you’re like most Americans, your mind is made up. If you’re the average person, it’s also likely that you have not read any of the grand jury disclosures, and unless you have, we’d only be arguing intractable emotions and feelings rather than facts.

I will first question the motives of an individual, Officer Darren Wilson…

To presume that Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown because he was black is to assume that he would not have shot a white man under the same conditions.

After extensive grand jury investigation and countless hours of media scrutiny, there is not one shred of fact or even innuendo to suggest that Wilson, as some allege, was a bigot. Nor is there one scrap of evidence that indicates, as some shouted after the incident, that Wilson “just wanted to shoot a black man,” or anyone else for that matter.

What we have here is not institutional racism, it’s a systemic failure of leadership…

I work with kids like Michael Brown as a volunteer in my state’s juvenile detention program. Not the 12 year old Michael Brown whose picture dominates the media, but rather the 18 year Michael Brown who attacked a police officer after committing a petty theft at a convenience store.

And yes, his background is relevant.

Young people black and white embrace the thug culture, especially in impoverished areas where they feel victimized and hopeless. They gain more credibility with peers by defying authority than by respecting authority.

I witness this defiance of authority on a regular basis. Do these kids have a reason for their attitude? Of course they do- they were taught to behave this way.

Leadership starts at home…

Nearly any leader who even suggests that these issues might be resolved by first focusing on the family is immediately painted as naive, or very often as a traitor to the African-American cause.

Anyone who suggests that the disproportionate percentage of single mothers, absent fathers, drug abuse and domestic abuse in these communities may be a more important cause of higher crime and arrest than race is vilified and tagged as racist.

People rightfully cite data that indicates a serious problem; blacks are arrested in numbers disproportionate to their numbers in the general population…

…but is this indicative of racism?

Not long ago you could make this argument.

In a case that has shamefully been associated with the Michael Brown incident, a young black man named Emmett Till was kidnapped, then brutally tortured and murdered by two white men in Mississippi in 1955 for flirting with a white store clerk.

In a sham trial an all white jury acquitted his murderers, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, of all charges.

Racism? Of the worst kind…

The Tills case ignited the furor for justice and civil rights all over America. We fought for years to eradicate institutional racism from our society- and we did it.

Separate but equal…Racist?

Yes…and made illegal.

Discrimination in housing and employment…Racist?

Yes…and made illegal.

Voting restrictions…Racist?

Yes…and made illegal.

Arresting people based solely on their race…Racist?

Yes…and MADE ILLEGAL!

My mother taught me to judge a person by his character, not his color. Inspired by Martin Luther King and other leaders, an entire generation picked up this banner and made sure that from those times forward, not only would institutional racism be eradicated, but that individual racism would be openly condemned and opposed.

You cannot legislate away bigotry, but you can make it illegal to discriminate based on racial prejudice…

…and we have.

Leaders who continue to beat the drum of inherent racism are ignoring another significant data set. Ferguson, like many of the communities experiencing continued issues involving race, are populated by a black majority.

In the wake of the Michael Brown shooting, many Ferguson residents expressed extreme dissatisfaction with the lack of black police officers on their police force. Others condemned their largely white representation in city government.

Ferguson is 65% black!

People have a right to be upset, but what should they be doing about it?

Just a few days ago I listened to an interview with a young man from St. Louis- I did not catch his name. He identified himself as a documentary filmmaker.

He talked about the lack of black representation in the Ferguson PD and in city hall. The reporter then asked why there was such a low voter turnout among blacks in Ferguson.

He answered that black voters felt disenfranchised, largely because white politicians largely ran unopposed. African-American voters simply felt- what’s the use? He said there are simply no good choices!

This young man was obviously intelligent, articulate and charismatic.

No choices? All I could think of was…

…Why aren’t YOU running for office?

If this were 1955, it would still be true that blacks would be prohibited from holding office in some communities. I have friends that still remember when they couldn’t use the same restrooms as whites!

It might also be true in 1955 that even if a community had a black majority of voters, those people would likely be intimidated into voting with the white minority or simply turned away at the polls without recourse.

This is not 1955. If a black person would run for office in Ferguson today, it might be impossible for a white candidate to win- unless of course, race were not an issue.

If meaningful leadership would emerge from the black community in Ferguson, it seems likely that the entire city government could be populated with black officials. They could then hire a black chief of police and fill the rest of the department with African-American officers…

…if, of course, race, or more specifically racism, were the only issue.

And as for white officials and leaders, stop thinking that you can solve all the problems in black communities!

This is not because you’re inherently racist, but simply because of the fact that while racism is not the problem, the racial composition of a community is still an important consideration.

One disturbing factoid making the rounds to support the idea that we’re still inherently racist is a study showing that within 3 months, most human babies demonstrate a preference for other human beings of a similar color.

Of course they do. It’s natural. Not too many generations ago- this was simply part of our survival mechanism.

Human beings are inherently tribal, this is not new information. We tend to trust and bind ourselves more strongly to people who look like us, speak the same language and as we develop, those who share the same fundamental cultural beliefs.

That does not mean we’re racist- it means we’re human.

This trick of evolution does not give you license to treat people badly because they don’t look exactly like you. It does not mean it’s right to discriminate against people who speak differently or act differently or believe differently.

Malcolm X once said;

“We are not anti-white. But we don’t have time for the white man. The white man is on top already, the white man is the boss already… he has first-class citizenship already. So you are wasting your time talking to the white man. We are working on our own people.”

Malcolm X was vilified by white people in his time, largely because of his militant tactics. In pre-civil rights America, was peaceful demonstration working? Was he not simply employing the same tactics to assert rights for blacks that the founders used in fighting Great Britain for theirs?

But we live in post civil-rights America…

Black communities need black leaders, not because they’re black, but because we need leaders who live and work in those communities- leaders who know the community and the authentic concerns of the people.

White leaders should not impose solutions, but rather support solutions brought forth from those communities wherever and whenever viable leaders rise to the task. If you are white and want to make a difference in a black community- then move into that community, earn the respect of the people and work from there.

Continued attempts to impose solutions from outside the community simply reinforce the same mistakes made, however well-intended, throughout the 1960s. As black leaders stepped up and organized their communities, they were largely discredited and ignored. Funding and support went instead to white activists and organizations working in black communities. Is it any wonder that some black leaders responded with militant activism and others became the leaders of gangs rather than than mayors and city councilmen?

We will never resolve black-white differences as long as we fail to respect those differences. Nor will we resolve those differences unless we are willing to fully acknowledge our sameness…

…our sameness as human beings.

We solve problems together only when we acknowledge our commonality and respect our differences.

Do we still have a race issue in America? Obviously.

Do we still have racism in America? Of course we do- and always will.

Is this racism promoted, accepted or tolerated?

No…

…not because there is no bigotry, but rather because there we no longer allow racism to infect our institutions and when it does, we do not hesitate to destroy the infection.

Ultimately, the important question is no longer whether there is systemic racism in America at large. There is not.

The important question is-

Are you a racist?

I am not.

“I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it’s for or against.” ~Malcolm X

This is leadership…

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