Why “#BLM” Matters. A Personal Journey To Partial Wokeness And The E Word, Equality.
It’s been with me my whole life. That is the issue of racism in the United States and in my own existence. Even today it is both hard to face and hard to write about, but I’ll try. The times call for a re-examination and a self-examination, too.
My parents were both of Eastern European descent, and my father was characteristically pale, blue-eyed and dark haired. My mother was very dark-skinned with green eyes and black hair. She attributed her unique appearance for an Ashkenazi Jew to an ancestor having been raped by a Cossack. She was probably right.
Their children looked like them. I shared my father’s pale skin, blue eyes and dark hair. My younger sister is very dark. Our mother was so dark that she almost was displaced to a different Pullman car by a conductor on a train when she was returning to New York from a week on the beach in Florida as a youngster. My father liked exotic looking women. He married one. My earliest memory is the brown baby they brought home when I was three in 1951. My sister looked like my mother.
This is relevant. Bear with me.
Charity Bailey was an African-American television personality and educator in the 1950s. Both my sister and I watched her show where she got children interested in music. One day Charity Bailey was going to make a personal appearance in our small town in Connecticut. My mother took my sister to see her. When she had gone to the event, my sister returned home and reported on what she saw.
“I don’t get it,” she said. “Everyone said she was colored. She wasn’t. She was brown all over like me.”
That’s the view of race with which I was brought up. I was supposed to be colorblind. I viewed the racial strife of the 1960s through the lens of a privileged white person who really believed the country was moving toward true equality where true equality meant equal opportunity. By 1969 I had black fraternity brothers, one of whom was my roommate. The first white household he ever visited was mine on Long Island. I thought equality was upon us. I supported affirmative action. I thought I understood. I was wrong.
Over the years my attention to issues of race has shifted, but it was always influenced by my white, liberal middle class upbringing. I was taught and I believed that black people were equal to white people and that the goal of the civil rights legislation of the 1960s was to provide all races with the true equality that had been enshrined in the post-Civil War Constitutional Amendments and then neutered by the Plessy vs. Ferguson Supreme Court decision of 1896 with its attempted correction in the Brown decision of 1954. In reality, none of these judicial or legislative maneuvers were enough. In fact, despite the Brown decision of 1954, the institutional racism that has been baked into America since 1619 persists. That’s what the demonstrations in response to the killing of George Floyd mean to me. It’s all well and good that those brought up to be colorblind believe that equal opportunity is upon us. It is not. Black people in particular, but all people of color, are still struggling against racial bias that is in the DNA of most American institutions and compounded by nobody really being colorblind.
So for this old middle class veteran of the 1950s and 1960s who wonders what exactly do the protestors want now, I am starting to get it.
First, there needs to be an admission on the part of those who really run this country and its major institutions that the struggle for equal opportunity goes on and that they must be a part of the struggle and the solution. Many institutions have tried to address the inequality. They cannot stop. The work is not over.
Second, this is most profoundly out of whack when it comes to the police. There have simply been too many incidents of black people being singled out for police led violence for this to be ignored any longer. The reasons for these incidents are critical. I suspect that most police officers want to do a good job and actually do, but somehow the police need to do better. We all do, but the police are the ones with the lethal force and they have been doing the damage. That does not justify the ransacking and looting that have accompanied some of the protests. If you want to see why you cannot get rid of the police, that should show you.
Third, many of the problems being foisted on the police—mental illness, woman and child abuse, inequality in housing and health care, drug addiction—would be better addressed by different agencies. That is the point of the “Defund the Police” movement. Defunding the police may be impossible as the police are underfunded already. But major new investments in social services, homeless care, health care for the needy and above all public education are long overdue. That will probably require new taxes, not tax cuts as are being suggested by the Trump Administration. The country needs to invest less in munitions and more in teachers.
Fourth, tear down the symbols of the Confederacy and outlaw that flag. It is as vile to many Americans as the swastika is to Jews. Waving a Confederate flag is shouting fire in a crowded theater. The cause of the Civil War is still being litigated 150 years later. Let’s end it once and for all. It took me a long time to understand why the statues need to come down. I get it now. I am slow, but learning.
As a Jewish child of the 60s, I thought that my religion’s history of slavery and my personal experience with anti-Semitism would allow me to understand the African-American experience and empathize with black people. I was wrong. That can never happen fully. The African-American experience has been unique in all the world and long overdue for some systemic adjustment. If George Floyd’s death is to mean anything and the protestors’ marching is to be significant, the slogans need to stop and the work needs to begin.
I am starting to get it. Okay. It took sixty years. I’m a slow study, but not unable to be educated. I would not claim to be woke. Just woken up and willing to learn. Step one.