One of my black friends confided in me this week that he was really demoralized by all of the events surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. He was so devastated that it affected his mood, work and outlook for the future.
This is a man who had a successful career, is buoyant by nature, sociable, outgoing and a humorist. He continued: “Specifically, the events in Ferguson, Mo. and Staten Island, NY plus the widespread disrespect shown to my President has made me –a normally optimistic person–very pessimistic about the future of race relationships in the U.S.”
I share his dismay. I look back and recall that at age 19 in 1956, I was so distressed by the ugly events surrounding desegregation in the American school system, I wrote “An open letter to the Mayor of Little Rock.” Even then I knew that it would not be “open” or shared, but before the Mayor threw it in the trash I hoped he might read it and pause for thought. I wrote in my youthful naiveté that “according to the Constitution of the United States of America, All men are created equal.” Forgive me if my own response to that statement today is “Baloney.” The drafted Constitution is dated 1787 but slavery was not abolished until 1865. In 2014 discrimination is still systemic.
President Obama said: “This is an American problem, not just a black or minority problem. Where anyone is treated unequally by the law, it’s a problem.” The President is exemplary in seeing the wider picture.
I have always been fortunate in having friends from many different cultures and races, probably because I grew up in London, where people of all racial backgrounds reside. I responded to my friend that I am not surprised he feels down-cast, that I too feel saddened and maddened by the inequalities and underlying tensions which affect the social climate.
I tried to comfort him with the suggestion that dismay at recent events is much wider than the black community. I sense a change in that more whites are marching in protest than before, and that many commentators in the media are indignant at the issues raised, especially where law enforcement agencies are concerned. When a policeman shoots an unarmed civilian repeatedly his actions must be called into question. When a man on the ground gasps “I can’t breathe,” how strong should a choke hold be to maintain his prone position? A free pass to the agents of death is not justice.
The American Justice system is far from just. It’s depressing that black people are disproportionately imprisoned, often for offences that are more lightly treated if one’s skin is white. It’s not just a question of race. Some people are imprisoned for life under “three strikes and you’re out” for quite minor offences, while white collar crimes, resulting from embezzlement, exploitation and greed, often go unpunished.
Furthermore, where oversight of legal processes is exercised by an interested party, an independent, more objective process is essential. Local legal authorities are not the appropriate body to influence decisions about the police with whom they habitually inter- act, any more than superior officers of victims of sexual abuse in the military are qualified to handle sexual misconduct allegations.
And then there is the underlying disrespect towards the President. When Barak Obama was elected I felt immensely proud of the United States. In two elections the voters overcame racial prejudice and voted on policies. As an outsider I may suffer by ignorance from my own bias but it is difficult to dismiss the notion that the unprecedented lack of cooperation by Congress with President Obama’s administration might be due to underlying racism. I raised this topic with a group of a dozen (white) friends and only two of them said they did not consider the opposition racist.
How far America has come, I used to think, from the time of the Civil Rights struggles. But I was 19 when I felt moved to comment on Little Rock and now I’m 77 and my disappointment at recent events in America knows no bounds.