Racism is a poison that's been polluting America since before the States became United. Umbilically present in the womb of our colonial birth, racism saw our colony through to independence, and it continues to infect the US today. America became great by exploiting the land, labor, and lives of people of color. We built our greatness on the backs and with the blood of others. This is a fact.
While we've tried, we've never fully committed to undoing and repairing the damage done to Americans of color, and the steps we have taken have always been met with fierce resistance. It took a civil war and over 600,000 dead to make owning another human being illegal in America, and even then the losers innovated ways to exploit the newly emancipated. We will never fulfill our nation's promise until we accept that believing all are created equal means nothing until all are given an equal footing. Take two identical fish, put one in water and the other on dry land, and tell me which survives.
People of color have always been fish out of water in America, no matter their collective or individual gifts and strengths. We celebrate black athletes and entertainers but cross the street when a black man who isn't singing, dancing, or scoring comes walking towards us. The false narrative of a nation imperiled by the lasciviousness of black male lust and violence was the story of the first-ever American blockbuster, 1915's The Birth of a Nation. Based on Thomas Dixon's novel The Clansman, D.W. Griffith's 10 reel epic "is three hours of racist propaganda -- starting with the Civil War and ending with the Ku Klux Klan riding in to save the South from black rule during the Reconstruction era."
It's the same trope that Mayella Ewell brought to bear against Tom Robinson in Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird. The fictional Robinson is a stand-in for the thousands of real men and women of color who lost their lives to racially motivated terror. The idea that black men in particular are somehow more dangerous than others makes living while black complicated at best and lethal at worst. This notion drove Amy Cooper to tell a black birdwatcher that she was going to call the police "to tell them there's an African American man threatening my life" after he asked her to leash her dog. It is what killed Emmett Till, Amadou Diallo, Trayvon Martin, and now George Floyd.
It's true that these deaths can be traced back to individual actions, but those actions grew from thoughts and perceptions shaped by our nation's cultural conditioning when it comes to black men and black lives. This conditioning didn't start or end with The Birth of a Nation, and it still has lethal consequences. As Dylan Roof shot up a bible study at a historically black church in South Carolina, he told one of his victims "I have to do it. You rape our women and you're taking over our country, and you have to go."
Roof uttered those words in 2015, but you could easily imagine them falling from the lips of a Reconstruction Era Klansman. The same culture that made Roof a killer has, to some degree or another tarnished us all. This has had dire consequences for people of color as a whole. The Sentencing Project's 2018 report to the United Nations on racial disparities in the US criminal justice system found that "African Americans are more likely than white Americans to be arrested; once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted; and once convicted, they are more likely to experience lengthy prison sentences." To draw a sharper contrast, Dylan Roof took nine black lives at that bible study, then got humane treatment and a Whopper from the police. George Floyd got a knee to the neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds for allegedly passing a fake 20-dollar bill.
"WHAT'S GOING ON" - MARVIN GAYE
"Brother, brother, brother... there's far too many of you dying."
"What's Going On" was written by Obie Benson with contributions from Al Cleveland and, eventually, Marvin Gaye. Benson, who was a member of the Four Tops, wrote the song after witnessing acts of police violence against peaceful protesters in San Francisco. His bandmates felt the song was too political, so Benson shared it with Joan Baez, who also passed. Then it made its way to Gaye, who, according to Benson, "added some spice to the melody. He added some things that were more ghetto, more natural, which made it seem more like a story than a song."
Released in 1971, "What's Going On?" climbed all the way to number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. I fell in love with the album of the same name in college, some 20 years later. My musical tastes, like my world view, were expanding, which tends to happen at that age. But What's Going On? reached me at a particularly formative time in my life. In high school, I was a member of a church we would now call "Evangelical," but my congregation was pretty apolitical. We were not so much interested in establishing Falwell's Moral Majority as we were in keeping kids like me out of juvenile hall. I left after high school, when the focus became more about growing the church than nurturing the people in it, but I can see that my interest in social justice took roots there. Those seeds would grow and flower at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas along with my tastes in music.
What's Going On was part of the soundtrack of that time of my life, along with The Clash on Broadway, Achtung Baby, and Fear of a Black Planet, among many others. Leaving the church cold turkey was not easy. My view of religion was so distorted, I went through physical withdrawals and bouts of intense depression because when I left the church I felt that God had left me. Music and books like The Catcher in the Rye, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X (which I've written about in detail) helped me figure out the kind of person I wanted to be post-church, and new people came into my life to help me heal. Then the Rodney King verdict was announced and Las Vegas, like much of the nation's cities, caught fire.
The collective disbelief people felt when the not guilty verdict was announced was profound. Officers claimed King resisted, though witnesses contradicted those claims. Then the police said King was on PCP, which gave him a sense of invulnerability and made extreme force necessary, but there was only evidence of alcohol in King's system. There was something else that kept the police's account from being accepted as gospel. The more than 50 baton blows officers rained down on King, resulting in multiple injuries including a broken leg, had all been captured on video. If ever there was a moment where bad cops would see justice for an injustice they perpetrated on a black man, it had arrived. And yet it didn't.
When the cops who beat Rodney King were acquitted, "What's going on?" seemed like a reasonable question to ask.
I remember attending a rally held by UNLV's Black Students Association. I walked up to one of the speakers, who had just given a fiery speech about "mighty-whitey university" and complimented him on his words. After his initial shock, David Smith became one of my best friends. We tried to integrate the student union. We challenged and changed one another only for the better. Since then, we seemed to have grown on somewhat parallel paths, at least socially and spiritually. But we are those two fish I mentioned earlier. While I see David as my equal in every way, I know that society as a whole, subconsciously at the very least, does not.
So "what's going on?"
Accepting my privilege as real doesn't mean life can't be or hasn't been hard for me and other white people. White dividend payments are not directly deposited into my checking account (though I probably make more money than a black man doing the same job). Other white folks don't give me things for free when we are alone (at least not as often as I'd like), despite what Eddie Murphy learned in the 80s.
But Murphy's sketch hyperbolized the essence of what it means to be white in America. I do benefit from a system that has always bent the odds in my favor. Take my educational experiences in Las Vegas. My parents' marriage imploded when I was six, and my elementary and middle school years were marked by transiency, with me attending 10 different schools throughout the valley prior to finishing up at a single high school. This would be hard for any child, regardless of his or her race (again, privilege does not exempt one from hardship). Changing schools impacted students with stable homes, too. Because of its rapid growth, many students in the Clark County School District switched schools without switching residences as school zones were periodically redrawn. Still, throughout my winding path through the CCSD, African American kids were unfairly bused to schools all over the city for a different reason.
"What's going on?"
This was the result of the CCSD's "Sixth Grade Center Plan of Integration." In 1968, despite the Supreme Court ruling almost 15 years earlier requiring schools to integrate "with all deliberate speed," 97 percent of the students enrolled in schools in Las Vegas's historically black West Side were black. The unfair and inequitable plan the district came up with was to convert schools in black neighborhoods to Sixth Grade Centers. Black children would attend neighborhood schools for kindergarten, and then be bused to schools in white neighborhoods for grades 1-5, stay in their neighborhood for sixth grade, then hit the buses again for grades 7-12 (which was always the case, as there were no secondary schools on the West Side). White students would face this inconvenience just once, being bused to schools in the West Side for sixth grade only. Even though it was clear that much of the burden to reform a broken system was being placed on the students who suffered from it the most, white families still resisted. Opposition groups staged a one-day "Bus-Out" that kept 15,517 white students home. I can't imagine the impact this must have had on black children, and their perceptions of themselves and the neighborhood they lived in. What were white parents telling their children about black people and how they lived?
When I rode the bus to the Kermit R. Booker, Jr. Sixth Grade center for the first time in 1982, I was scared. I had been led to believe that the West Side was a war zone filled with gang members who shot up buses filled with white children. By the time I moved again, and started taking a different bus to a different West Side sixth grade center, the only thing I was worried about was having to make new friends. My experiences at Booker, including getting there and back, dispelled the myth of the dangerousness of the black community, so much so that I even attended black churches on occasion in high school.
I'm thankful for friends like David who helped me change and grow. Yet I still carry racism with me. I think everyone is guilty of leaning on a stereotype now and again, because it's easier than challenging our own biases. Those prejudices have had dire consequences for African Americans. A black man jogging through his own neighborhood can arouse the fatal suspicions of his neighbors. What happened to Ahmaud Arbery, with three white men "saddling up" to protect their property from a threat that existed only in their twisted minds, is a natural consequence of the hate Griffith propagated all those years ago. The fact that one of those men was a former police officer says something about how deeply racism continues to infect our society and its institutions.
So here we are again, a nation coming face to face with the poisoned fruits of its past as it struggles to grow a more sustainable future. When riots erupted after the four officers were acquitted of beating Rodney King, President George H. W. Bush didn't turn off the lights and bunker down. He didn't order the use of tear gas and rubber bullets on peaceful protesters so he could stage a hackneyed photo-op. When he addressed the American people, Bush didn't use the riots as an excuse to dismiss the injustice of what happened to King. He drew a distinction between legitimate protest and mob violence that our president doesn't seem to be willing or able to do. When you have a someone in the Oval Office who is so bad that he makes George H. W. Bush seem overqualified to be president... well, "What's going on?
But this isn't about Trump, just as the racism in Griffith's film wasn't really about him (though he was undoubtedly racist). This is about us. When"What's Going On?"was released in 1971, Gaye suggested it was a question we should be asking one another in order to break down walls and build understanding. "Talk to me," he said, "so you can see what's going on." Today, "What's going on?" is a question we should be asking ourselves. For white people as a whole, that means accepting that racism is our problem, even if we truly believe that we aren't racist, or feel that we haven't benefited from racism in any way. We must no longer give the oppressed the added burden of ending their own oppression the way the Clark County School District did.
If I could, I would kneel on the neck of my privilege, but privilege is not something I have, it's something that's given to me. Ahmaud Arbery's white neighbors probably ignored a few white joggers the day they murdered him. They probably didn't even notice them. In this, we see how privilege is transactional. We must ensure that our African American brethren are included in the exchange -- not because we are racist, but because they are suffering, and for no reason. It's not good enough to not be racist. We must be antiracist. In that sense, "What's going on?" is still a question we must put to others, just not to black people. We know what's going on with them. They are suffering. They are dying. They are tired. "What's going on?" must be a challenge we make to power whenever a person of color is denied the level of dignity and respect we demand for ourselves. Racism did not start with us, bit if we question more than we accept, we can conquer the hate it causes.
Consider learning about and supporting the following organizations committed to bringing justice and equality to America:
Grow your understanding of the African American experience, and learn about how you can work to make change: