Thursday, July 23, 2020

Can’t Cure a 300 Year-Old Drought by a Month of Rain

Racism is in the American DNA, a matter of societal drought that goes back a long way, aimed at everyone in our newborn nation that wasn’t white, and some that were.

The Framers of our Constitution made a game go of it, with their finest rhetoric.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

But that was a fiction that couldn't stand up to circumstance. I guess they wrote it as an aspiration, because the fragile land they won by force of arms from the British was built on agriculture—mostly cotton—and in those times cotton meant slaves, sold like cattle into lifetimes of servitude.

If you find it hard to conceive of that mind-set in those days, think of your mind-set in these days. You would bristle at someone calling you a racist. But you (and I as well) are and have been perfectly willing to accept that the poor and the lower rungs of American economic life are almost entirely populated by people of color.

The truth is that if you are white in America or throughout most of the world, you and I are complicit racists.

I have lived in all or part of ten decades and always considered myself to be largely without racist faults. Recently, in the furious times we inhabit, I’ve had reason to re-assess.

Born and raised in Evanston, Illinois, home to Northwestern University, my town was not considered a segregated community. Yet blacks and other people of color sat in the balconies of theaters. Not a requirement, just where they were

An Evanston restaurant would not turn away a black family, but they would wait hours for service. That was seventy years ago. It’s less true today, but still mostly true.

Blacks make up 23% of the population of Cook County, which includes Chicago and most of its suburbs, including Evanston. Yet I’ve never socialized with a black, a Mexican or an Asian. Just didn’t happen

How can that possibly be? Looking back, the percentages prove it can be nothing other than a soft, comfortable, entirely subconscious form of racism.
I’m 85 years old and just now learning that my lifelong racial self-image was a lie.

So, what of Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin and the blindingly intelligent minds that wrote those illustrious words that form our Constitution? Slaveholders all, yet the concept of equality was in their minds even as the current possibility eluded them in so young and fragile a nation.

The nation they founded went on to impose a genocide on our native population, breaking treaties, sending armies of annihilation and trading blankets laced with smallpox. What remains is a broken native American culture, one that is unlikely to ever recover its original splendor.

Eighty-five years after our founding, the stench of slavery became too much to bear and we fought a Civil War—ostensibly to keep the Southern states from seceding, but actually to end slavery. Blacks were free, but racism rose from the battlefields like Jack’s beanstalk. Decades of Jim Crow, lynchings and KKK followed. The Land of the Free and the Brave.

Here we are, 155 years later and the fact of black freedom is writ in our laws, but the reality is quite another thing.

Police are the flash-point today and rightly so according to the evidence at hand. But evidence will admit to anything if your torture it sufficiently. The raw truth is that America was born and raised to be a white supremacy and we are just now struggling with that fact and its repercussions.

I struggle. Black communities, white leadership, protesters of all colors and counter-protesters struggle. Perhaps you struggle as well.

But history has its lessons and the lessons of protests past are that if you simply do nothing for long enough, the energy dissipates.

We march and burn some things and wreck some other stuff, pull down statues and then get tired of being gassed and hosed and shot with rubber bullets. We fizzle—and that’s not the fault of dedication, it’s simply the reality of life moving on and the power of news-cycles.

Remember Occupy Wall Street? Over. Nothing changed and as soon as it had the chance Wall Street wrecked the economy again.

This fragile, complicated and hectic year has been our month of rain in hundreds of years of drought. Don’t expect the parched and cracked soil of racism to suddenly turn green and heal. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, alluding to another crisis of spirit,
“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

We are a nation in turmoil today, as politically fractured as I have ever seen in my lifetime. Our current leadership would split us against one another in its desperate effort to survive. The chance to join or turn away from that political philosophy by ballot is soon upon us.

There’s a lot on our plate: businesses failing, job losses in the tens of millions and probably worse to come. A pandemic thrown in for good measure, the impact of which is impossible to predict.

Those circumstances will heal, as they always have.

We dare not lose our courage or commitment on seeing through the long-term drought of systemic racism without losing our national soul. We must see this through as if our lives depended upon it, for they truly do.

It takes months, sometimes years of slow, steady rain to cure a drought. I somehow feel we’re up to the task, because I must feel it in order to remain American in all that means and has meant and will mean in a world that needs us back.

Back as we were, not as we are.


  1. good heartfelt column that yanks the flimsey rascist lies we hide behind off their comfort chair, one I too have sat my ass in.

  2. Thanks Joe. It was a difficult column to write because I seldom expose myself personally. But there seemed no other way to be authentic instead of a premium quality asshole.