Two stories this week featured young black men and race. In one story, a young black man in his mid thirties who reported that he was often harassed at work for being black killed nine people at his workplace when he was let go. Another story featured a young black high school graduate from a prestigious New York High school whose graduation speech dressed down the school and his classmates for being “the beneficiaries of advantage.”
“And on the 12th of May, 1828, I heard a loud noise in the heavens, and the spirit instantly appeared to me and said the Serpent was loosened, and Christ had laid down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and that I should take it on and fight against the Serpent, for the time was fast approaching when the first should be the last and the last should be the first.”
I am not here to equate Omar Thornton’s heinous, calculated assault on his defenseless coworkers with Nat Turner’s vengeful killing spree, although there are a few similarities. But since we are living In modern times, without the restrictions Mr. Turner had to deal with regarding his freedom, the first thing that came to my mind was “why didn’t Thornton try to move to an area more hospitable to blacks if the treatment at work bothered him that much?” The idealist in me answered immediately. “Why should he have to move? In 2010, in the country that bills itself as the greatest nation on earth, in the country that wants to play human rights standard bearer for the rest of the world, why are racists still tolerated at all?”
How do you persuade people who so emphatically believe in this one thing—the inferiority of one race to another—to think differently?
Would the constant application of one of the basics of a good old fundamentalist’s religious beliefs—an eye for an eye—work better than the “turn the other cheek” doctrine that has allowed the racists to thrive even as African Americans move ever closer to the center of Americana?
"Our brain has developed a capacity to create for us a world of our own imagination and making. Very few of us live in the real world. We live in the world of our perceptions, and these perceptions differ dramatically according to our personal experiences. We may perceive danger where there is none. If the distortion is ever enough, we may think we are living among enemies even when we are living among friends."
William Gaylin The Rage Within
The mental gymnastics required for an individual to suspend their beliefs long enough to hold a job, navigate a relationship, or participate in the political process is staggering, if you really think about it. But we don't.
It was the second story about a young black man and race, one with a similar, but less violently delivered message, that illustrated how far the gap remains between the promise of America and the realities some African Americans continue to endure.
“If you truly believe that the demographics of Hunter represent the distribution of intelligence in this city, then you must believe that the Upper West Side, Bayside and Flushing are intrinsically more intelligent than the South Bronx, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Washington Heights. And I refuse to accept that.”
If you step back to look at the big picture, America has not done enough, not by a long shot, to change the nation’s racial calculus. No truly meaningful amount of direct cash transfers have taken place, despite conservative think tank claims to the contrary, although a lot of money has been spent, and a lot of listening has been done. That we all can see.
The question is, were those efforts consistently performed or delivered at a level that could insure a successful outcome, or were they merely salves to a nation's conscience?
I refuse to hide behind "feel good" platitudes right now. There is a very real reason why the average black person in this country has less stuff and more problems. Looking at the world through colorblind lenses isn't going to help solve these inequities. But our infatuation, as a nation, with the idea of "individual achievement" overlooks the amount of interdependence there is between all of us, and how much we depend on our collective efforts to accomplish anything worthwhile.
The country cannot rise above the level of its lowest common denominator, so long as minority equals "less than." And if this lowest common denominator remains isolated enough, and alienated enough, there are going to continue to be times, unfortunately, when other Omar Thorntons will try fruitlessly to rewrite the “less than“ equation, one death at a time.