Hard Road

It would be easier to teach a paramecium to dance the jig than it would be to explain the history of oppression of African Americans in the U.S. to the average white person.

When you’ve finished that discussion, start talking about the absolute right that African Americans whose descendants were slaves have for billions of dollars in reparations. How’s that jig doing?

You could prove my point about how hard it is to explain oppression by conversing with the person who stole the “Black Lives Matter” sign the other night from the front lawn of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Mansfield. Nah, call in the paramecium.

If I wanted to think positively, I would say the thief was a sophisticated student of change who wanted to make the point that slogans are a quick fix that won’t move the needle to justice and that what is needed are protracted, brutally honest discussions from the towns to the pinnacles of power.

But probably the person who stole the sign is just a jerk who thinks he’s a real American, who doesn’t believe there is something very wrong with a system that tolerates and even encourages police violence against African Americans, is livid that the sign doesn’t say “All Lives Matter” in blue and wants all protesters to be bound and gagged and jailed for good.

So I’m thinking of posting 1,000 “Black Lives Matter” signs because I think the thief is also a lazy jerk and it would take him or her too long to remove all the signs. But the signs are too expensive so we’ll just replace the stolen one and keep replacing it each time it’s taken.

Maybe Amazon will give us a thousand signs for free as a gesture toward “Black Lives Matter.” Maybe not. How about a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for the signs. That wouldn’t work. By the time we raised the money, the slogan of the day will have changed.

To begin to understand the depth of the economic impact of racism in the U.S. and the need for reparations, I suggest reading a story in this Sunday’s N.Y. Times titled “What is owed.” You can find it at https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/06/24/magazine/reparations-slavery.html?action=click&module=Top%20Stories&pgtype=Homepage

It is a long piece that explains in tragic and painful details how the legacy of slavery remains a major factor in income inequality in the country, from violence and poll taxes, to redlining to poor schools and lack of medical care. I wouldn’t begin to summarize the story but it’s well worth it to take the time to read.

The problems are so entrenched and so complex that they can’t be boiled down to a simple phrase. Simple phrases that are eventually replaced by new simple phrases won’t do it. Remember “Make love, not war” and “War is not healthy for children and other living things.” Catchy phrases didn’t stop the war in Vietnam. The North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong had something to with kicking out the U.S.

And don’t forget that panacea for drug abuse, “Just say no.” That was every effective. Not. Or that white-bread, non-threatening standard, “We shall overcome” when white and black people walked arm in arm for a better country before returning to their respective homes in the suburbs and ghettos.

Political will is the key to real change. That takes us back to the paramecium.

It’s kind of hard to talk about sophisticated social issues to people who get so riled up and angry about a slogan when they don’t have a clue about what the slogan means.

Police violence against African Americans is the low-hanging fruit. Such attitudes are just part of a system that was always designed to keep African Americans down from the slaves to the present day. But the system can change with laws that demand police accountability and reassignment of resources from enforcement of laws to community aid. Refer to political will.

Trying to change an economic system that has been built on the backs of slaves is a whole other story. The question is where would the nation be without the billions of dollars that were saved by having unpaid slaves to harvest the crops and work in the fields? The answer is that the country would be in dire straights. Did someone say political will?

Education in the schools about the terrible and continuing effects of slavery would be another low-hanging fruit. Unfortunately, I’m a bit skeptical that African American history classes in the public schools will get much past the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s flowery words at the 1963 march on Washington, D.C., when he said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Better to focus on some of the other points that King made. For example he said that 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation “the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land.”

Though you won’t learn about it in history class, King also said, “We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the unlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.”

And King’s prophetic words, “Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual.”

Today’s children can be tomorrow’s saviors or tomorrow’s bigots. Political will, where are you now?

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