Thoughts about Race for a White Audience
by Dean Jacques

Responding to the race-related issues of his time, Thomas Jefferson wrote: "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever."

A young black man in Ferguson, Missouri, was killed by a policeman for what appears to be no legitimate reason. The incident highlights a number of unwarranted shootings and beatings of black people that have been going on for a long time. This is measured beside a history of racial discrimination that goes back to before our country was founded. People in Ferguson went to the streets to peacefully protest. Some turned to violence, theft and the destruction of property. The police responded with a military-style show of force.

The election of a black president did not mean an end to racial discrimination. Such transformations don't happen over night. "Dog-whistle politics," using coded language to exploit local bigotry, still taints political discourse. A clear conscience speaks plainly.

Lacking real leadership, politicians and the media keep things the way they are. Without a rational promotion of unity and understanding, people take sides according to inclination. Prejudice is seen as a given. The uninspired pace of actual progress reveals the foot-dragging response of a disengaged, unenlightened people.

In the name of honest discourse, I'd like to share my thoughts about where this attitude comes from.

Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner himself, condemned slavery in his rough draft of the Declaration of Independence. He has been called a hypocrite because of that, but such conclusions overlook a deeper reality. Jefferson was considered an enlightened product of his times. Like many others, he knew slavery was wrong, even though he profited from it. Like others, he feared the retribution that freeing the slaves might cause. He understood the enormity of guilt that the toleration and exploitation of slavery carried with it. Today we would call it a crime against humanity, deserving of severe punishment and condemnation. White people believed that they had good reason to be afraid of what justice might follow. The way they responded, with continued, systematic abuse, only added to their shame.

Long before Emancipation the fear of a slave uprising was considered an ever-present threat. Afraid that they might be killed in their sleep, those in power suppressed the hopes and dreams of black people with maniacal brutality. They kept them oppressed, uneducated and under tight control. The combination of fear and guilt imbued these oppressors with an instinctive dodge of conscience, a paranoid harshness, a fixed way of seeing things that avoids close examination. They would go to war to keep things the way they were. Some of that harshness remains in today's politics.

The kind of guilt associated with defending the indefensible powerfully influences one's perspective. When we are born into a culture that willfully embraces a false exoneration of guilt, we are told that things simply are the way they are. God's will. The inability to justify what cannot be justified produces not only a deep-seated, personal anger of moral frustration, but a distrust of the kind of questioning that comes from reason and analysis. Avoiding mirrors does not change one's actual appearance. One avoids mirrors because one does not want to see what one knows will be revealed.

What better way to soothe guilt than by redirecting one's anger toward the victims? At the same time, truth-tellers need to be rejected, even condemned. The psychological damage brought about by such dynamics is not easily overcome.

Emancipated slaves, for the most part, greatly outshone their white contemporaries by not turning toward violent retribution, even when the system continued to be unfair. They did their best to get on with life. Their moral forbearance was remarkable.

It was the whites who unleashed their inner demons. They beat and murdered black men as if to avenge their own failed illusions. They donned masks and burned crosses to instigate fear. They resurrected slavery through convict leasing (leasing black convicts out for hard labor) which continued until the mid-1940s. Extending their twisted reasoning to blasphemy, they told themselves that all this behavior was sanctioned by heaven since God permitted these religious people to do it.

Racial prejudice remains a complicated topic today. Slavery is gone. Jim Crow laws ended. Convict leasing finally stopped. Lynching is a thing of the past (or has it just morphed into something new?). Today's whites can legitimately claim no connection with all the racial crimes of the distant past.

Yet guilt remains, real and deviously influential. Quite simply, it comes from knowing that inequality still exists, and we are not taking steps to eradicate it. White society remains burdened by a subtle prejudice that refuses, for the most part, to recognize itself. We ignore our guilt by refusing to see it. We fail to be sufficiently outraged when innocent blacks are hurt or killed by the police. We feel removed, unaffected, casually wishing that the Ferguson riots would just end.

No white person knows what it's like to be black in America today. We get nowhere without acknowledging that fact. No black person understands the irrational prejudice held against them. We all have prejudices. They come from being human. What defines us as being good or bad is how we respond. Do we rise above them? Or paralyze that which makes us most human, our conscience, as injustice continues?

The problem is more complex, of course. I merely point out some aspects that no one seems to talk about.

Likewise, it would be wrong to ignore other aspects of the Ferguson incident.

While we must expect the highest performance of duty from police officers, we must remember that they are only human. Facing the possibility of violence during a mass protest, where instances of rioting were occurring, cannot be easy, especially when related training is limited. An officer's main protection and ability to get things done comes from his or her projection of authority, which can easily get threatened and end up out of control. That being said, a certain percentage of police officers wear the uniform for the wrong reasons, and should work elsewhere.

The only real answer to our racial problems, requires mutual understanding, a cleansing of heart and a moral commitment to set things right. Understanding is what we need, and a refusal to find refuge in willful ignorance. It is our duty, each and every one of us, to be morally upright and work for the good of all people. That is and remains the truest goal of freedom.






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