Two young men sat in the auditorium and snickered as they exchanged a series of nasty jibes against Blacks, peppering their remarks with the “n” word.
They were students in the Alexandria Technical College Law Enforcement program. On that day, nearly four decades ago, they were there in a class to learn how to be sensitive toward people of color.
I was there as a reporter, sitting in the same row. I was hoping they’d flunk because that law enforcement program was – and still is – considered one of the finest in the nation. To this day, every time there is police violence against Blacks, I think of those two snide students.
Law enforcement agencies must weed out blatant racists. Just about every time an officer murders a Black man or woman, there’s been a history of complaints of him of using excessive force. They should be removed before their attitudes escalate into murder. Too often, histories of excessive force are ignored or hushed up. It is no wonder the Black Lives Matter movement has such urgency these days, thankfully with the approval of many whites.
Meantime, we should all learn more about race issues, a first step toward human harmony. That is what I’ve been doing for the past couple of years. I grew up in all-white St. Cloud, utterly unaware of racial issues in my younger years. In college, I took a course called “Black Literature.” It was enlightening, but I realized then there was more to learn. Now’s the time.
Some things I’ve been learning:
There has always been bristling mistrust between Blacks and whites; we are all likely “racist” to some degree. Racism not only causes the arbitrary killings of Black people, it can lead to inequities in housing, health care, education, jobs, wages and more. There is also a “silent” racism in which many, if not all, whites and Blacks tend to harbor a socially conditioned fear of one another. Negative notions scurry across the mind; baseless assumptions skitter to the surface; stereotypes abound.
That psychological divide began with the separation (physical, psychological) of whites and Blacks throughout centuries of slavery. Thus, they (we) did not get a chance to know one another as full-fledged human beings, all deserving of respect.
Post Civil War, that segregation was re-enforced by a perverse socio-economic structure called (by whites, of course) “separate but equal.” Such a convenient legal delusion stemmed from a Supreme Court decision of 1896, Plessy vs. Ferguson, an appalling decision that legally enabled Southern states to re-impose a caste system dubbed “Jim Crow” (so-named after a vicious “entertainment” caricature of a Black man). That system was so atrocious that torture, mutilations and lynchings were actually considered appropriate punishments for “uppity” Blacks.
Monstrous Jim Crow laws doomed Blacks to be property, things, beasts of burden – just as they had been “nothings” as ripped-apart slave families on auction blocks for more than 200 years.
Lincoln freed the slaves, but they were virtually re-enslaved within the Jim Crow nightmare. It was so depraved that the Nazis studied that caste system and then adapted it to de-humanize the Jews in the years just before the widespread butchery of the Holocaust.
I hope others do some reading, learning, sharing. I highly recommend the following books: “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom” by David W. Blight (biography of the towering 19th Century runaway slave, orator and visionary); “The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabel Wilkerson” (heartbreaking history about Blacks fleeing the South and seeking freedom elsewhere, only to by humiliated and stymied by systemic racism at every turn), “Caste,” just published, also by Isabel Wilkerson (about how a caste system was concocted to keep Blacks as brutalized underdogs), and “Humane Policing” by Darron Spencer (insightful account by a Colorado police officer on how he learned to empathize on his beat with people in crises, including Blacks, and the strategies he brought to bear to de-escalate dangerous encounters).
A warning: Those first three books contain unspeakably horrific accounts of unspeakable mental and physical cruelties.