Back in the 1960s and 70s it seemed the United States was moving toward an age of enlightenment and although just barely out of reach, true integration among the races seemed achievable — if given more time. Leaving aside those who genuinely felt it was the U.S.’s place to interfere and stop the spread of communism (the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Bay of Pigs invasion), White America was starting to wake up to the realization that the U.S.’s meddling and oppression abroad bore resemblance to the institutionalized racism imposed on people of color (PoC) at home.
Throughout the arts, sports and politics — the recently departed and beloved Muhammad Ali, Harry Belafonte, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Maya Angelou among many notables — allowed for a little more understanding of the heavy burden placed on Black and Brown people both within the U.S. and abroad.
This movement toward progression didn’t erase the continued pace toward regression, segregation and more ways to keep PoC down, but they were definitely steps in the right direction and many — including my parents — could see a path toward integration and racial equality.
But that was then and this is now…
A Little About Me
I was born in the 1960s and began to come of social and political consciousness in the 1970s. My parents’ interracial union accelerated this for certain. The met in 1958 and were married in New York City 1960. New York was one of a handful of states that allowed interracial marriage, seven years ahead of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in 1967 when attitudes about race were slowly beginning to shift.
My Black and Japanese mother offered not only physical but cultural contrast to my German, Dutch and Irish father. Although both were poor growing up, it was understood doors would open for my father simply because he arrived in front of them.
Conversely, because it was expected my mother would live in my father’s shadow, my father instead chose to challenge the status quo. In his view of things, he hadn’t been disowned by his Nazi Sympathizing father to turn around and subjugate my mother. He was anything but polite to anyone who didn’t see my mother as his equal.
For a brief period from 1969 to 1973 my parents separated and my mother’s boyfriend moved in with us. A member of the Black Panther Party, Al and his comrades held meetings in our home and they did nothing to shield us from their discussions.
By the time I was four (in 1972) I had not only been taught the Black Power salute, I was already learning to pick up on the subtle and not-so-subtle expressions of racism.
Although my home life was probably unique, for the most part I saw the White adults in my Manhattan neighborhood (a blending of people in the arts and those who took the subway “downtown” to large office buildings) as representational of those who embraced racial equality.
Indeed I was raised in New York City, which has always been seen as progressive bubble bearing contrast to the Mid-West and Deep South. However, it’s fair to say that the “all races are equal” message was starting (even if only slowly) to spread, which didn’t sit well with the White Power Base of the political system.
My parents didn’t need Watergate’s co-conspirator John Ehrlichman’s confession in the latter years of his life to confirm what they already knew: the so-called War on Drugs was only ever about former President Nixon’s obvious hatred of Black people.
And it worked.
Rather suddenly all of the progress we’d begun to see was eroding. Between the sweeping social and economic changes domestically and the return of the imperialistic policies and war mongering, the message was clear: The United States was bouncing back, and anyone who opposed her — internally or externally — would be dealt with harshly.
Sound familiar? Think about what’s going on today both domestically and “over there.”
To Drive Home a Point…
If you grew up with social media and viral videos, it might seem as though racially motived killing and cops using PoC as target practice are new. They aren’t and neither are the reactions by the Black Lives Movement, the protesters in Baltimore, Ferguson, more recently in North Carolina, et al, and Jesse Williams and Colin Kaepernick.
In the wee hours of a March 1991 morning, Los Angeles Police officers pursued a suspected drunk driver. Rather than pull him over and arrest him for driving while intoxicated and leading them on a high-speed chase, instead the three officers brutally beat the driver.
Caught on video, the cops repeatedly struck and kicked the driver in the head and body. Speaking about the incident after the fact, Rodney King said that he suffered 11 skull fractures, a broken ankle, as well as several bruises and lacerations on his body.
While nobody argued that Rodney King was driving while intoxicated (it is suspected his BAC was more than twice the legal limit at the time of the beating), the harsh response by LAPD was clearly uncalled for.
The inconsistent outcomes of the civil and criminal trials mirrored the debates taking place around office water coolers, on mainstream media and in homes. A jury awarded King $5.5 million dollars while the cops — who were again, caught on video — were acquitted.
Depending on where the debates were happening and with whom, the responses were polarized: “King deserved the beating” or “The cops were clearly racist and used excessive force.”
Reaction in the Black community following the verdict was swift: race riots in Los Angeles, Atlanta, San Francisco and Las Vegas opened a door that reopens when a new cop on Black killing occurs.
Ultimately King’s call for unity, “Can’t we all just get along?” fell on deaf ears. The United States had all but forgotten the country of brotherly and sisterly love we’d begun moving toward in the late 1960s and 70s.
Meanwhile Back in the Land of Privilege and Blinders
It was also clear the many in the White middle and upper middle classes were too busy ensuring their kids were getting the educations they needed and rightfully deserved to notice, let alone care what was going on with “those people.”
This burying of their heads in the sand worked for several years. Hippies gave birth to Yuppies who gave birth to Millenials who were sold a bunch of snake oil. They got their degrees and showed up to claim their high-salaried jobs … but there were no jobs. Either they had been shipped overseas, or the number of graduates simply didn’t equal the number of jobs available.
Seemingly unaware or unfazed by the plight of the marginalized in the U.S., the middle class unapologetically took to the streets — specifically Wall Street — to protest.
And Then Trayvon Martin Happened
Although George Zimmerman didn’t invent racially motivated killing and cop (or wannabe cop) on Black kiling, social media now makes it difficult to hide from them. Zimmerman’s acquittal for killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin brought out some interesting reactions in the White community, as far as I am concerned.
Although I can always count on my Black, Latino, Hispanic and mixed race friends to respond appropriately when I start a conversation about yet another cop on Black killing, until recently, I could divide responses by Whites into three categories:
1. “Oh, that’s sad”
2. “What do you mean? Racism doesn’t exist. Why are you still playing the race card?”
3. “Race is a social construct. You need to stop buying into believing it’s anything but.”
Of course I am always happily surprised when a White person would show genuine anger.
I wrote a stream of consciousness on my website right after Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were killed by cops. Anticipating only PoC and a smattering of White people to truly “get it,” instead I got dialogue between people who despite being my friends for years, had never interacted with each other. It was wonderful!
Jokers to the Left, Clowns to the Right, Makes For Some Very Strange Bedfellows
Now mind you, I don’t take myself so seriously to believe that it was my perspective or my brilliant writing that spurned these dialogues. No, I have to believe it’s something much bigger than me.
I do have some very enlightened White friends who get why we PoC are damn angry, but for the most part I can split my White and non-White friends who are middle class or higher into two camps:
1. Those who believe Hillary is going to save the U.S. from falling into economic despair and who are doing all they can to prevent Donald Trump from being elected.
2. Those who believed in the ideals of Bernie Sanders and thought he was going to be their savior and magically make the middle class prosperous and feel secure again.
(I am saddened to admit I have about three or four friends who drink Trump's Kool-Aid.)
Both camps have bought into the system. Hillary supporters appear to either be blinded by how she intends to maintain their middle class lifestyle or worse … they know and don’t care.
Many Bernie lovers counted on him to fix the middle class and perhaps by reverse osmosis, things were supposed to trickle down to the poor and people of color.
That snake oil the Yuppies and Millenials were sold was unfortunately repackaged and resold under its new name of Bernie Sanders. Once it became obvious the new snake oil was the same as the old snake oil and Bernie endorsed war-mongering Hillary, this — in my opinion — left them kind of stuck.
And Then There’s Trump
The orange-faced, king of combovers will throw anyone under a bus — including his speechwriter to keep himself relevant. Speaking to the truly disenfranchised (said with all the New York sarcasm I can muster) his idea of making America great is to segregate or get rid of anyone Black and Brown, and turn the U.S. into some twisted 1984-esque version of Nazi Germany.
What are deflated Bernie supporters to do but align themselves with those who are actually disenfranchised and discriminated against?
Faced with the ugly prospect of voting for either HRC or Trump, the closer we get to November’s showdown, I see signs that the once “oh, that’s sad” crowd are becoming the allies we’ve been hoping and praying would return.
Ever the idealist, I always believed the momentum we experienced in the 1960s and 70s wasn’t lost forever. Whatever your motivation is for being an ally to PoC, we need you. The recent police shootings of unarmed Terence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott within two days of each other tell us there is still much more work to do and we can't do it alone.