Insensitivity or Ignorance?

photograph of the justices, cropped to show Ju...
photograph of the justices, cropped to show Justice Scalia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


People sometimes ask, irritably, why black people can’t stop being mad. They point to the progress that has been made in this country, where black people have been “granted” the civil rights they were due by virtue of being American citizens…and only slowly. When someone expresses anger, there is a definite sigh of exacerbation from those who think black people ought to just “get over themselves” and move on.


That is, actually, what black people have been doing since having been brought to America – gotten over themselves and this nation which actually passed laws to keep them in their place. They “got over themselves” even as they fought for dignity and a real chance to partake in the American Dream. There was no time to navel gaze.


But the reason the anger still sits within the souls and spirits of many African-Americans is because every now and then, someone from the “majority” population will say something that shows either insensitivity or ignorance, or both, letting those who have been held back and held up by this government cringe with a familiar pain.


Such was the cringe many felt when Justice Antonin Scalia said this week, in deliberations about whether or not to overturn Section Five of the Voting Rights Act, that the Court had to “rescue Congress from the trap of being afraid to vote against a “racial entitlement.”


Cringe. Sigh. This, from the highest court in the land.


Section Five of the Voting Rights Act, for those who do not know, requires preclearance from the Justice Department in certain states and jurisdictions make changes in voting procedures, things like changing the hours people can vote, or redrawing district lines, or changing the requirements for registering to vote. It happens that these preclearances have been required in Southern states because of their long history of denying the vote to African-Americans, by any means necessary. Some politicians are now complaining  the preclearances are not fair, that there is no racism like there used to be in the South, and that states ought to be free to make their own rules vis-a-vis voting with no federal interference. States rights is what they seem to be calling upon.


The Court’s Conservative judges have been particularly hard on those wanting to keep Section Five. They have said that politicians are afraid to change this portion of the law because they don’t want to be seen as racists; therefore, it is the Court’s responsibility to “rescue” Congress from the task.


It’s about racism in this country, this tiff going on in the United States Supreme Court, that subject about which nobody wants to talk, and everybody wants to believe is long gone. It is far from gone; black and brown people can tell anyone who asks that it is not gone. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court justices, at least the Conservative ones, are being coy as they ask questions like Chief Justice John Roberts asked, “Is it the government’s submission that the citizens in the South are more racist than citizens in the North?” No, replied U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, but Roberts undoubtedly knew that when he asked the question. We by now know that the racism in the North was and is as virulent as it was and is in the South. The issue, however, is that states in the South practiced blatant racism , actively working to prevent African-Americans from voting, and had done it virtually without comment since the end of Reconstruction. It was only the intervention of the federal government, under the leadership of President Johnson, combined with persistent protests by Civil Rights workers, that forced a change in Southern states.


R0berts and Scalia and no doubt, all of the Conservative justices know that, and they also know the shenanigans that go on even now when it comes to voting. With the demography of this nation changing, Republicans are worried about the white vote being diluted and some have charged that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is reverse discrimination!


The passing of this act did not give African-Americans an “entitlement,” a word loaded with innuendo and suggestion of something someone does not earn. No, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 gave African-Americans the RIGHT to vote, as described in the United States Constitution.


For Scalia to say that the issue before the Court is “…attributable to a phenomenon that is called perpetuation of racial entitlement…Whenever a society adopts racial entitlements, it is very difficult to get out of them through the normal political processes,” smacks of insensitivity at best, and ignorance at worst. Statements like that are a slap in the face of African-Americans and indeed all Americans who have had to fight for their basic rights.  How is it possible that in the 21st century, so-called intelligent barristers are making such ignorant and insensitive statements? This society should be way past even discussing how to best give all of its citizens the rights they are entitled to as citizens, and yet, we have Scalia’s statement staring us all in the face.


Racial discrimination is embedded in the fabric of American society. Remove certain protections and it is highly likely that, under the authority granted, “states’ rights” advocates will do what they want to wrangle and manipulate elections to go the way they want. That the justices cannot see that, or will not acknowledge that, is disingenuous and dishonest. We can all see how hot the embers of racial hatred are; we have seen it during the presidency of Barack Obama. There are plenty of people, white people, who still want to “take their country back,” and one of the best ways to do it is to control the vote.


The ignorance and insensitivity shown by the justices thus far has been disheartening. Some political activists have spoken out, but it seems that in this year that we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation that more than the activists would register a complaint about what the justices, the Conservative justices, are saying vis-a-vis this important protection for minority voters. We cannot go backwards. Change is hard, and our country is changing by leaps and bounds, but that is no excuse to allow protections for minorities as they seek to exercise their rights as Americans to be overturned or ignored.


There are a lot of people cringing after hearing Justice Scalia’s remarks. Those remarks showed just how deep are feelings of resentment toward groups of people who are still fighting for the RIGHTS of being American citizens.


A candid observation …


“American Exceptionalism” Questioned

, U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania.
, U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I listened to Rick Santorum today bow out of the GOP race to capture the nomination for president of the United States, and was uncomfortable.

His speech was eloquent and sensitive to many wonderful Americans who helped make his campaign special for him. He spoke with genuine tenderness and love for “ordinary Americans” who had sacrificed much to work for his success.

But as he lapsed into speaking of America and what it stands for, speaking of “American exceptionalism” and the ideals of liberty and freedom on which this country was built, I began to be uncomfortable…because it is apparent to me that when Conservatives talk about “liberty” and “equality” for all, they don’t really mean “for all.”

Santorum mentioned Abraham Lincoln as the harbinger of the ideal of freedom, and I found myself wondering if Santorum realized, or knew, that Lincoln only issued the Emancipation Proclamation to save the Union, and that he in no way thought “negroes,” as black people were called then, were equal to whites, or should ever be considered to be so.

I thought about how Santorum, and indeed, many to most Conservatives, make little to no effort to appeal to African-Americans. I do not think I have ever heard a Republican speak out against discrimination in housing and employment; I have not heard any Conservative talk about plans to increase funds for public schools in urban areas, and I know I have never heard any Conservative talk about the problem of police brutality and the injustice that black, brown and poor people consistently endure at the hands of law enforcement.

Santorum’s early campaign statements showed that he believes that African-Americans are “getting other people’s’ money,” and he wanted to help them (us) stop doing that.

Actually, it was by listening to some of Santorum’s statements during his campaign that I really began to understand the Conservative beef about taxes. I picked up a real resentment amongst Conservatives that “their” tax dollars are going to help people who are lazy and who will not help themselves.

As he talked about how America built itself up from its bootstraps today, he failed to mention that it was by the blood, sweat and tears of slaves that America’s economy grew. African-Americans, denied freedom in these United States, went willingly into America’s wars to help garner freedom for other people in other countries, and when said wars were over, they found they were still “unfree” here at home. Returning African-American veterans still couldn’t get loans to buy homes, they still couldn’t depend on funds being sent to their neighborhoods so their children could get a decent education. They were still second-class citizens.

This is a nation that overtly supported racism and segregation – through its laws and policies – and still supports it, though more covertly. This is a nation where far too many people still believe that this is a “white man’s country,” and they do what they can do, legally, to keep it that way.

So, as Mr. Santorum talked about “American exceptionalism,” I cringed. I cringed because I know that the writers of the U.S. Constitution had no desire for there to be “liberty and justice for all;” they did not believe that everyone was or should be equal. They believed in democratic capitalism, which, it seems, demands that there be “haves” and “have nots.”  The fittest survive and thrive; that’s the nature of the beast.

I am not sad to see Mr. Santorum drop out of the race. I feel for him as a father with a sick child, but as an American who might have been president of this nation, I cannot feel bad. Any person who is president has to have the chutzpah to stand up for everybody, to demand the rights of everyone, and to look out for everyone. This is, after all, a pluralistic nation,”many people” living as “American.”

I never felt Mr. Santorum bought into that idea. I felt like his privilege had blinded him and made him just one more arrogant white man, seeking office, who didn’t care about “the least of these” if they happened to be the wrong color or ethnicity.

I could be wrong, but it was my own…candid observation.


Making it In Spite of and Not Because Of

Lincoln Submitting the Emancipation Proclamati...
Lincoln Submitting the Emancipation Proclamation to His Cabinet (Photo credit: Marion Doss)

Martin Luther King wrote in 1964 that although President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil War had been won for the Union, “there was not a just peace. Equality had never arrived.”

And still, equality hasn’t.

King, in his introduction to Why We Can’t Wait wrote that “Negroes were with George Washington at Valley Forge…the first American to shed blood in the revolution which freed his country was a black man named Crispus Attucks.”  King wrote that one of the team who designed the capital of this nation was a black man, Benjamin Banneker…”

“Wherever there was hard work, dirty work, dangerous work – in the mines, on the docks, in the blistering foundries – Negroes had done more than their share…”

And still, no justice, and little respect.

There can be little doubt, as we watch the goings on in the Trayvon Martin case, that the struggle for African-Americans to get justice in this country is still not over. In this particular case, race is not the only issue; Florida’s “stand your ground” law is equally culpable in having created the mess with which the Martin family is facing. Yet, there is a seething rage among blacks and an uncomfortable acknowledgement among whites that if the shooter had been black, and the victim white, the story unfolding would be vastly different.

I have long come to understand that blacks have made the gains we have in this country not because this is America but in spite of the fact that this is America. The presence of structural and institutional racism, even in the absence of stark and obvious racism, has made every step African-Americans have taken very difficult, and yet, African-Americans have pressed on. We have used the United States Constitution even though that document was never meant to secure or guarantee our freedoms or even our right to be here.

The parents of Trayvon Martin are to be commended, because they are standing on their constitutional rights and are demanding justice.  Interestingly, even when the United States Supreme Court has made rulings that should have made life easier and more just for African-Americans, there has been concerted effort to delay honoring the high court’s ruling; after Brown vs. Board of Education, many white school districts closed their schools rather than integrate.

Yet, African-Americans pressed on for justice, just as Trayvon’s parents are pressing on.

It would be such a relief if these types of struggles were over. It would be such a relief if race didn’t still have a seat front and center in so much of American life, but it does, and we refuse to acknowledge her presence and her power in our society.

Kudos to Trayvon Martin’s parents, who refuse to give up. When everyone takes off their hoodies, I only hope that they don’t abandon their determination to make sure race-based injustice doesn’t continue to be a staple of American life. It is so past time for our story to change.

A candid observation …

African-American Males not Safe in America

When my son was little, people would stop, white people, I mean, and would say how cute he was.

He was cute. He still is…well, handsome, now, but when they would stop and proclaim how cute he was, I found myself thinking “yeah, as long as he’s little, he’s cute, but when he grows up, he’ll be just another black male.”  I resented what I knew to be true, but I would smile at the well-meaning people, and say “thank you.”

After all, he was cute.

When he went to a private school, he was one of two or three African-American boys in his third grade class. He had ADHD, and was frequently “in trouble” for being fidgety or disruptive. His third grade teacher seemed really not to like him, but I shrugged it off, thinking I was being overly sensitive.

But then one day, I ventured into his room. The students had behavior logs on their desks, and most had stars or stickers on their logs, but not my son. On his son, the teacher had drawn great big black “X’s, with the comment, “You are bad.” I was furious. I complained to the school administrators, who apologized profusely and said they were sure the teacher meant no harm.

Meant no harm? I talked with the mothers of the other two African-American boys and found out that this teacher had said to the three boys that they were a “gang.”  I remembered back when my son had asked what a gang was and I’d told him. He’d asked, “Is a gang bad?” And I said “yes,” never knowing that I was feeding into the message that his third grade teacher had given him, that he and his two African-American classmates were a “gang” and therefore, “bad.”

Then, there was the moment when I decided to put him on Ritalin. I fought it, but I was fighting a battle with school teachers who continually put him down, had low expectations, and labeled him as a behavior problem. I choked back tears when he got into my car after having taken the Ritalin for two days and said, “Mommy, for two years, I was bad. Now I’m good.”

It is important to say that I struggled to make sure I protected his spirit, strong-willed as he is. He is a brilliant young man, as he was a brilliant child. His spirit was his gift from God, and so I fought to protect it from those who sought to snuff it out. I shared with him how incredibly powerful his spirit was, and that he was to always remember that.

He was and is independent; he speaks his mind. I didn’t want him to lose those qualities, but I had to give him “the talk,” telling him how to act and react if he were ever stopped by police officers, telling him how he had to look out and be extra careful when he was out because he would always be more closely scrutinized. I told him not to hang out with kids who got into trouble, because if he was with a kid who got into trouble, he’d be picked up, too. I was working, even as he was a little boy, to save his life from the likes of people, who, when he was little, called him “cute.”

He graduated from high school with honors. He is a brilliant young man, and a talented writer and musician. He is still strong-willed and independent. He lives in New York and is doing “his thing.” And he is still alive and not in jail, thank God.

I thought about him, and have been thinking about him, as I have struggled with my feelings about what happened to Trayvon Martin. It is only by the grace of God that my son is alive and Trayvon is dead. I am getting angrier and angrier at America’s penchant for wielding injustice toward people of color, especially African-American males. I actually scoffed this morning when I heard a man on CNN say to the public to let justice run its course.

I don’t believe in American justice as pertains to African-Americans in general, and for African-American males in particular.

I wrote yesterday that racism is as American as is apple pie. It is especially noticeable when it comes to matters of justice. Our American history is peppered with tales of injustice in the lives of African-Americans, from the reality to slavery to the serious breaches of morality and ethical actions toward African-Americans once slavery no longer existed.

America has been the teacher to the world on how black people should be treated, so much so that not only in America, but everywhere, one would rather be anything but dark-skinned.

Walking hand-in-hand with racism has been white America’s arrogance, which has given a sense of entitlement and justification to treat African-Americans as sub-human and second-class citizens.

I am praying that George Zimmerman is arrested.  A young man is dead for doing nothing, and for being guilty of nothing other than being an African-American wearing a hoodie and therefore looking “suspicious.”  African-Americans, especially males, are not safe in America. Something is very, very wrong.

The Emancipation Proclamation was issued in the 19th century, but isn’t it unfortunate that in the 21st century, African-Americans are still held captive by racism and a justice system which has been anything but just for us? In fact, that justice system has been little more than a tool to put more and more African-Americans in new plantations called prisons …or in their graves.

It’s nice that white people thought my son was cute when he was little; I’ll bet they said the same thing about Trayvon when he was little, too. But cute little black boys are not safe in America, not once they grow up.

A candid observation…