By Mike Koetting June 6, 2020
NOTE: This was written in the first week of June, but I am just now posting. I ran into some nasty health issues that made it impossible to post—and, in fact, put the entire blog on hiatus. But I am recovering nicely and anticipate that I’ll be posting again on my usual semi-regular schedule starting in mid-August. Thanks to all who sent words of support.
In 1967, I was 19 and spending the summer in New York, where the drinking age was 18. For 10 day in the middle of July, every night was spent in a Bronxville tavern glued to riots, first in Newark, then in Detroit.
If you don’t remember this, I doubt it is possible to recreate the impact of watching the flames and the tanks roll through those cities. Now the very names Newark and Detroit summon images of urban decay and despair. But in 1967, they were still major centers of commerce. Until then we had grown up in this haze of unending, if largely unexamined, national optimism. Riots and tanks in the streets were things that happened elsewhere, not in America.
The conversation those evenings was a stew of despair about what we were seeing and what we understood was behind it, and optimism that somehow we would make it right. This wouldn’t happen again on our watch.
Fifty-three years later, I stood on my balcony and saw the smoke rising from the Loop where the crowd had set a police car on fire. We failed. It was harder than we thought and, one has to concede, we didn’t care enough.
The latter is a bitter pill. We did care. But not enough to cure the racism which has so deeply infected our society.
At this point, there is pretty wide-spread acknowledgement of the ways that the current racial attitudes were built into the foundation of the country. It would be foolish to not acknowledge that they have moderated. But it would be even more foolish to turn our back on how much hasn’t changed and on how slowly change has come. No one in their right mind could pretend that our racism ended with the Civil War…or the Voting Rights Act.
Despite progress, there is the stubborn reality that, counter to the instinct that racism is a spectrum of attitudes, it is actually more of a “yes-no” proposition. Racism gets built in ways large and small into every aspect of society. Each piece makes an incremental contribution to the cumulative effect, both within the society and within each individual. Each piece that doesn’t change reinforces the idea that change is too difficult, maybe impossible. And if change is slow enough in coming, that is proof that not much can be done.
Sometimes this is expressed in outright racism—a foundational sense of superiority over “the other,” whoever that might be. But for most people it is much more subtle, a quiet infection. Even those of us who try not to be. Racism erects many barriers to full participation in society. When people, inevitably, become snagged on the barriers, that in itself reduces societal empathy, particularly when it’s possible to point to people who somehow overcame the obstacles. Some of us are better at seeing problems as a symptom not a cause of racism. But when we are honest, we know that even many of us who are committed to the idea of a just society remain disconcerted by the specifics.
Dahleen Glanton, in the Chicago Tribune, spells it out:
Take an honest assessment of your attitudes Admit that would you be less likely to believe Floyd did noting wrong without the video to prove it…Ask why doubt creeps into your head when you find out that the victim didn’t live a perfect life.
The sum of these doubts, distances and hesitations keep us from the all-out, sustained assault on the problem that would be necessary to actually tame American racism. Without such a comprehensive assault, we’ll be in an endless cycle of a “whack-a mole”.
I believe such a comprehensive effort requires:
- Attitudinal change
- Structural change
- Patience and persistence
Attitude change will be the hardest. It is not like we don’t know what are the manifestations of racism in America. Any sentient American can list at least a handful of unarmed Black men shot down in situations ranging from flimsy to downright felonious. We might know something is wrong and we might try some things and those might make some difference. But it doesn’t get at how deeply gnarled the problem is in every aspect of society.
We won’t make necessary progress until the attitude changes from “Racism is wrong” to an unrelenting focus on “It is wrong to not end racism.” We are a long way from there.
There is another tricky aspect of changing the national conversation. We want to move away from us-versus-them attitudes. It is hard, because racism is so heavily implicated in many of those discussions. Unfortunately, significant focus on ending racism will inevitably stoke it in some quarters. We must be prepared and not let it deter us. If we get this right, the haters will simply be left behind by history.
It is beyond this post to get into details on the necessary structural changes. A few general things are, however, clear:
- It will require large sums of money, probably over a long period of time. Reparations however structured. I favor expenditures on structured programs rather than outright grants, but the topic requires a long and thoughtful communal discussion.
- We will need to level the economic distance between Blacks and the rest of the population.
- We will need powerful levers to mitigate residential segregation. It is too easy to maintain discriminatory structures—even unwittingly—when there is so much physical and social separation.
- We need a completely different approach to policing. It is clear the current structures aren’t propagating the right attitudes. It may be easier to largely blow them up and start over.
- Related, we must rethink drug policies. From my perspective, we have it mostly backwards when we legalize guns and criminalize drugs. Untrammeled drugs are a scourge. But the current approaches have been ineffective and have led to unacceptable collateral damage.
Beyond that, I think there needs to be a lot of attention to the process by which we move this forward. Addressing racism will impact so many aspects of our society, there will need to be massive buy-in. Think of the societal effort support for WWII. We won’t get that unless many elements of society feel their voices were included, particularly including those less enfranchised.
Patience and persistence will be required, on all sides. The reason I started this post outlining how hard it is to mitigate racism is to illuminate why this is not going to be a “one-shot” affair. Changing attitudes and making necessary structural changes will require years and years, probably decades and decades, of focused, concerted effort. Many Blacks will justifiably think progress is too slow. Many Whites will incorrectly think we are giving too much. And everyone will be shocked at the price tag. But the moral imperative is clear enough—and perhaps this time shared enough.
Almost 60 years ago John Kennedy said:
We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.
Getting our house on earth is an even more worthy goal. We must not underestimate how long and hard the journey—or we will not have the political fortitude to get there. But we must pick up the torch now.
We shouldn’t fool ourselves again. Fixing the racism problem in our country will not be a single program or set of expenditures. Addressing this fundamental flaw in the way America developed will be a project for several generations.
The question is whether we are going to do it or not. Do we choose to start now on this long and difficult road? Or, will we settle for some one-time changes and 50 years from now our children and grandchildren will look again at the flames of outrage, shake their heads, and say “We really should have fixed this.