This essay was written originally for CNN.com and can be found here.
There’s an old saying that it’s hard to know what you don’t know, the premise being that when you’re ignorant about something, you aren’t likely to realize your blind spots.
But I’m not so sure. Sometimes, knowing what you don’t know just requires a certain degree of humility.
For instance, I don’t know calculus, because I never took it in school. But here’s the thing: I know that I don’t know calculus; and as such, I would never presume to know it, let alone to tell others for whom it had actually been their major that I knew it better than they did.
How nice it would be if white Americans would exercise a similar restraint when it comes to the topic of racism and discrimination in America. For although we have rarely had to know much about it — and though most of us, by our own admission, socialize in nearly all-white environments where we won’t benefit from the insights of persons of color who have, indeed, had to major in the subject — we continue to insist that we know more about it than they do.
To wit, a just-released poll from CNN and the Kaiser Family Foundation, which finds that white Americans are far less likely than persons of color to believe that racism remains a serious problem in the U.S. While roughly two-thirds of blacks and Latinos believe racism is a big problem in America today, only about four in ten whites agree. Even a simple recognition of ongoing racial inequities in life chances differs markedly across racial lines, with clear majorities of African Americans perceiving that the typical black person is worse off than the typical white person in terms of income, education and housing, but most whites being evenly divided on the question, with about half of us failing to perceive such well-documented inequalities of condition. So despite the fact that African Americans are worse off than whites in every single category of well-being, and despite the research indicating that these disparities owe significantly to discrimination both past and present, most whites believe there are few if any ongoing inequities in need of being addressed.
Just recently was pointed to these videos, of my appearance on Stephen A. Smith’s ESPN show in 2006, to discuss Bill Rhoden’s great book, “Forty Million Dollar Slaves,” about the way in which black athletes are used/abused within the pro sports complex. There are three parts to this video. I am not in the first segment, but you should watch all three because it’s a great discussion about many important issues…
My speech at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, September 24, 2015. Discussing racism in the nation and Baltimore area specifically. Freddie Gray, institutional versus personal violence, and more…
One correction re: the talk. I mis-stated a stat and want to get it right here. In the speech I claim that 2/3 of black housing in cities was destroyed by urban renewal and highway construction. That is actually wrong. The number — and I’ve quoted it accurately in prior speeches and books — is more like 25 percent. Still horrible when you you think about it, but not 2/3. The mis-statement was surely not deliberate. I just forgot the number and didn’t have it in my notes…but once I caught the error I wanted to make sure to get it right here…
My discussion with Laura Flanders about racism, the class system and my new book, Under the Affluence: Shaming the Poor, Praising the Rich and Sacrificing the Future of America, which aired on October 13, 2015.
My appearance on RT (Russia Today) news, from shortly after the Baltimore uprising of late spring/early summer, discussing the importance of both an historical and systemic analysis of racism for those interested in understanding the crisis there (and elsewhere). It’s a few months dated, but I just found the link…and it’s still relevant of course…
It is an axiom of modern American politics: whenever someone does something that you really don’t like, they are to be immediately analogized to Hitler. Conversely, when someone does something you support quite a bit, you are to proclaim them the modern day incarnation of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Or at least Rosa Parks.
Thus, this week, conservative politicians and media talking heads have insisted that Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky who has refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses because God, is no less admirable than Parks, and every bit as brave. She, like Parks, was arrested and thrown in jail for her beliefs, we are told. She, like Parks, is exercising her duty to disobey “unjust laws” (or in this case, an unjust Supreme Court ruling), we are told. She, like Parks, is practicing civil disobedience in the tradition of the civil rights movement. And like the stormtroopers of the SS, those who believe she should be required to treat all seeking a marriage license equally, without prejudice—or else resign if she cannot bring herself to do so—are apparently fascists. Fascists, for believing that discrimination is wrong and shouldn’t be allowed on the part of government officials.
Any day now, to hear some like Davis’s attorney, it will be Christians marching to the ovens, just like the Jews of Europe in days gone by. Of course. Because holding someone in contempt of court for refusing to comply with a lawful order to treat persons equally is exactly like murdering millions of people because you believe them to be a biological pollutant. At the very least it is surely an obvious precursor to such genocide. Read the rest of this entry »
It’s always easier to be thought of as a hero, I suppose. The adulation, the uncritical praise, the unadorned love and devotion of millions must be nice; and especially when you’ve grown rather used to it. In the wake of 9/11 — after which tragic day millions of Americans began donning NYPD caps and shirts — such was the life of police officers in America.
So it must be difficult, being brought back to Earth from that place in the nation’s moral stratosphere to which you had been previously elevated, forced to breathe regular air rather than the rarefied form to which you had grown accustomed. It must be jarring to confront the fact that for millions of others, who never bought the caps or shirts, police are not perceived as their friends or protectors, let alone as heroes. Indeed, for millions of those others, they never were; the image never fit with their lived reality, their own experiences attesting to a very different history: one in which law enforcement was typically the first line of mistreatment and oppression. As memory reminds us and as Jill Nelson’s anthology on past and present police brutality documents in painstaking detail:
Police enforced the infamous Black Codes and every aspect of segregation. They were the ones pulling peaceful protesters off of lunch counter stools, turning vicious dogs on the same, and even murdering civil rights workers who dared stand up for justice.
Police participated openly in the brutal lynching of black men and women as well as community-wide pogroms — white-on-black race riots — throughout the first several decades of the twentieth century.
Police assassinated activists fighting for liberation and black self-determination, including at least twenty-seven members of the Black Panther Party, often with the open collaboration of federal agents.