Still Deferred

fergusonI wasn’t surprised by the news this morning that the Grand Jury in Ferguson, Missouri decided not to charge the police officer who shot and killed teenager Michael Brown several weeks ago.  In fact I don’t think anyone I know would have been surprised.  It was expected.

Despite my writing what I thought was a pretty good article back in December of 2010 about the improvement in race relations in America, that nation and its racial issues still is a charged situation that is not through exploding.

I can see a number of reasons for ongoing trouble.

The racism of the fifties and sixties is far from dead.  There are a lot of people, particularly in the southern states, who were taught at the kitchen table that Black people are inferior, and who lived through a time when Blacks were definitely treated as inferior, and whose opinions on the topic have changed very little—though they might keep it from the public eye.  I would imagine there are millions of houses in America where the N-word is still in the vocabulary of the family table—make no mistake about it.  We might yet be generations away from that fading.

Tied strongly to that is the fact that in too many cities in America, Black people have fallen into a cycle of poverty, lack of opportunity, and lack of power.  I read a recent article that exposed the myth that Blacks moving into the northern states in the fifties and earlier suddenly found welcome, reasonable housing, and dream-fulfilling opportunity.  In many northern cities, they were immediately taken advantage of by white financiers, property scammers, and other low-lifes, so that instead of realizing their dreams many blacks found themselves locked into financial ruin and endless debt, pushed into neighbourhoods that soon became ghettos under the thumb of crooked white businessmen.  Systemic racism has worked over the last decades to restrict the power of Black people over their own lives, as a form of abuse perhaps only less obvious than the segregation of the last century.  In Ferguson today, for example, Blacks make up the majority of the population, but are strongly cut out of city administration and law enforcement.  The situation hits most harshly on the young men growing up in this situation—education is a struggle, employment is limited, and too many find the lure of gangs or drugs more appealing than the almost impossible fight to achieve their dreams under the white-controlled structure forced on them.  Ferguson officials this morning bragged about the fine job that the police had done last night in containing much of the violence, and labelled the rioters as “criminals”.  Certainly there were those from outside Ferguson adding to the trouble, there were many taking advantage of smashed stores, of crowd frenzy, of violence for its own sake.  But, regardless of how lawless it was, it was a symptom of what happens when it’s shoved in their faces that others with power will make the decisions.  People get the opportunity, and they just let their anger flare.

A major factor in racism today is the clash of cultures between Blacks and too many Whites.  It seems in the nature of us to not understand, even to fear people who do not behave as we do.  Perhaps a different culture calls into question our own values, our own traditions.  We cannot relate.  Only a few venture into that other culture and explore it, seeking to be exposed to something new.  Most of us feel threatened.  Why to they dress like that?  What’s with those pants?  Their hair?  Why do they listen to that music?  Why do they behave that way?  What’s wrong with them?

What do we want?  We want them to be like us, of course.  The Blacks, the Aboriginals, the Muslims, the Asians, the whatever—they should be like us.  Then we would all get along fine.

Never does even a faint notion that they might be thinking the same thing about us enter our heads, of course.  As the only people on the planet who speak English without an accent, why, oh why can’t the rest of them learn?

There have been great improvements in race relations in America, we can’t let the gains I highlighted in my other article pass unheralded.  But there is obviously still far to go.  Ferguson was not the first situation to flare up, and, of course, it won’t be the last.

Langston Hughes said it best from Harlem in the early ‘50’s:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?


Further reading if you have the time:
Emmett and Jeanie article, December 2010

Corrupt court system in St. Louis County today:
Washington Post Article

Long, but significant article on the experience of Blacks in the US:
Case for Reparations

6 thoughts on “Still Deferred

  1. We are all different from one another, but we share the same planet. White (the colour) is different than black (the colour). I am taller than short people. I can only suggest that we appreciate the differences.
    Changing the topic, only slightly…. I have been watching, for the second year now, the TV program that runs on PBS (at least PBS Detroit, Spokane, and Seattle) called “Henry Louis Gates in FINDING YOUR ROOTS”. Henry is a black man who walks with a very pronounced gate and always uses a cane to assist him. He is a Professor at Harvard and first caught my attention with a story in the press where he was accosted by the police in the upscale community near Boston where he lives. He was returning home late at night and something told the cruising policeman that something was amiss. What seemed wrong to the cop was that it was a black man trying to get into the house — his house. So, a confrontation ensued. Dr. (Ph.D.) Gates could see that his explanation — that this was his home (provided by Harvard) and he had the proper key to the house — was not believed and that his being a black man in that neighbourhood was the real reason for the hassle. Whatever, they hauled his black butt to jail!
    The story easily made it onto CNN and widely in the press. Apologies followed.
    Now we have Henry as host of the TV program, mentioned above, as well as his Harvard position. Each hour-long program takes 3 ‘personalities’ from all walks of life — as long as they are well-known. Singers, scientists, politicians, people of all faiths, actors, etc. Henry has the resources at Harvard to trace the guests’ family trees — sometimes back to the 1400s!
    As well, with modern DNA science, a blood sample is analyzed…. Now, isn’t THAT interesting!!! It sometimes happens that surprises are revealed. Whiter than white is sometimes found to have a little Nigerian blood in them! And the frequent claims by Americans that they think there was some native Americans in their lineage is not nearly as common as was believed. Often, people are found to have ancestors from countries that is a complete surprise — and is reinforced by the DNA analyses.
    So, can we say that we are what we think we are? How can that be when we very often are surprised by our origins?

    • What happened to Henry Louis Gates, Don, is quite similar to a common crime in the US: “Driving while Black”. Stopping the vehicle is generally directly related to the assumed cost of the vehicle.

  2. Why do we fear what we don’t understand? Why do others have to be exactly like us in order to be treated as equals. The words of Scripture come to mind, “fear has torment” and “let us esteem the other [person] better than ourselves”. As long as we view each other through our cloudy lenses we will not understand and accept those who also are created in the image of God.

  3. Francis, this is a brilliant piece, so well written, and reflects the dismay that I, and I imagine many others here,in Britain, felt when we heard about the incident.
    But…it continues. When will it all stop? How can we help to stop it ?
    What CAN we do?
    I believe that one day “we shall overcome”. Overcome what? Ourselves that cause such injustice. All of us.

  4. No argument with the article but look around you at your own history — Birchtown, Shelburn, Halifax. How much as Nova Scotia really changed since the 1770’s?

    In the US, “change” is seen differently by people in different situations. A high school classmate sees almost no change at all. Yet in the town in which I grew up — which once banned Blacks, Jews, and Italians, an HGTV episode showed a black family with about $1.2 million to spend get priced out of Harlem and were heading for my former home town.

    I live in a town with a reputation for hostility to Blacks. Yet I have black neighbors. Do they receive equal respect from the law? Perhaps not but we can smile and say “hello” in passing.

    And, most mind-boggling of all, (having grown up in the age of real segregation) I friend once told me that she had had a woman arrested for calling her the “n-word”. I was stunned.

    A lot has changed in the US but there is also a lot of push back by people who feel they are losing their status to people they do not respect. I think the “struggle” will go on for many years but at least there is, in both the US and Canada, the “right” to engage in a struggle.

    Best wishes.

    • You are right, Phil, in that we have a history of racial discord even around here. Halifax has had a history of abuse, such as the removal of the Africville settlement without regard for the people living there, the recent finding of significant abuse at the N.S. Home for Colored Children (just the name alone indicates a history of racial segregation), and there are ongoing racially motivated events from time to time. Canada has never had as significant a population of people of color as many areas of the US now do, that not an indication that there wasn’t racial abuse, but that there was seldom enough of a Black population to respond back. We have more of a history of racial abuse in our historic dealings with our First Nations people, whom we controlled for centuries and utilized residential schooling to try and “educate” their children into being white people.

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