I’ve never written much about race before. I’ve referred to it in terms of the appalling lack of diversity in the industry where I’ve published much over the decades – golf. But I’ve never written about race in the intensely personal, searing and painful way it deserves. After this weekend it’s hard not to look and think about race and racism and the power they hold over the American cultural landscape; and the way race implicates all of us, though very differently.
My wife, Jane, and I live in a demographically and ethnically diverse community. Racially, too, it’s quite mixed. So we see and hear from lots of different people, including many from the Black communities, both African-American and Afro-Caribbean. The more we talk and the more I hear the less I am sure I fully appreciate how deeply embedded the pain of racism is. What I do know is that the more I try, the more I want to make sure that our grandkids don’t grow up in a world where they have to hear and see the same things I’m encountering.
I grew up in Queens, N.Y., one of the most ethnically and racially diverse boroughs or counties in the U.S. My high school had 5,000 students in the building during peak hours. This was back in 1967-1971, when the New York City system was still well funded. The school was also racially very diverse, and there was a shared sense of hope and optimism that we felt together in our classes, in band and orchestra, in the gym and at anti-Vietnam War protests that marked our high school days.
What I didn’t know about back then was “The Talk.” The one that dealt with how to handle yourself when harassed or arrested by the police. That was simply not an issue for us white kids but it was, and certainly remains, central to growing up in Black communities. About showing your hands. Not making any unexpected moves. Putting your hands on the steering wheel of the car and asking permission to get your registration from the glove compartment rather than moving suddenly on your own.
For teenage Blacks this is part of basic survival. So, too, the need for wariness when walking in a so-called White community, even during the day. And there’s a whole protocol for entering a parking lot late at night. It’s a survival guide because it’s a matter of life and death at the hands of the police or at the hands of vigilante community patrols.
That’s just a small part of the exhausting, degrading, dehumanizing day-to-day lack of respect that so many American Blacks have to endure; being judged by the color of their skin.
The demographic data are overwhelming in showing massive discrimination in housing opportunity, availability of bank loans, job hiring and advancement.
For all the treacly commercials aired about our “being in this together” during the coronavirus pandemic, the public health data tell a different story. The far higher rates of infection and fatality among Blacks compared to Whites are irrefutable. So, too, basics like generalized access to health care. Or average life span. Or being stuck in the kinds of low-wage work without benefits, retirement savings, health care coverage or adequate paid sick leave that forces minorities to make life and death decisions to stay at work and put their lives on the line.
Police work in these communities is less a matter of community engagement than of militarized occupation. The lack of respect evident in Black communities has a disastrous effect on everyday life. It does not help that police unions are more intent on protecting their members than in allowing for adequate, independent civilian review boards.
The rage evident when a Black person is murdered by the police might surprise the rest of the population. The sad thing is most of these communities have had many more cases than come to the fore. George Floyd in Minneapolis. Breonna Taylor in Louisville. Eric Garner in New York City. Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. These four stand for many more killed by the police and unpunished. They stand for the kind of sustained, unyielding racism that has continued to tear apart the country while remaining virtually hidden from well-to-do White communities.
The media fascination with showing “riots” on TV does little justice to the complexity of the legitimate, largely peaceful protests. Too often, white nationalists exploit the tensions that have arisen and then become, in effect, provocateurs of escalating violence. This, in turn, promotes more of a militarized response by police and National Guard.
What’s stunning to watch, and sickening, too, is the extent to which the seething rage of racial protest gets folded into larger, more complicated narratives involving nativism, white supremacy, authoritarianism and militarized policing. It surely is not lost on the Black communities that the police are far more heavily armed and prepared with the latest technology while frontline nurses and doctors who meet the COVID-19 pandemic in hospitals still have inadequate PPE supplies.
Federally sanctioned crackdowns and authoritarian responses only exacerbate an underlying complexity. When it came to exercising civil, legal and entirely peaceful modes of expression like taking a knee at the national anthem, a national recognized athlete like NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick was met with scorn and loss of his job and of his career. What sort of a lesson does this convey to young people about possible avenues of protest?
Nor can it be lost on anyone observing events that unarmed civilian protestors are met with brutal state power and militarized force. Meanwhile, an armed occupation by heavily armed white nationalists carrying swastikas and MAGA hats that overtakes the Michigan State House is treated with silence by the police.
The sordid, hateful legacy of racism did not end with the Civil War, or the Civil Rights Movement, or with the election of Barack Obama. As a country and as communities we need to do so much more to listen, to be open minded and to stand up against racism whenever and wherever it appears. Talking is a start, as is listening. But there has to be so much more. Like checking our own prejudices and meeting people directly, for who and what they really are.
Beyond this basic act of civility we need major public policy reform. That means full access to public health care. Guaranteed access to voting rights for all citizens. Civilian control over policing. Loans and bail-outs for very small businesses rather than big ones. An unqualified commitment to funding public education. Stricter enforcement of anti-discrimination laws. Decriminalization of small, petty drug crimes and amnesty for those prosecuted under the draconian drug possession codes of previous administrations.
Watching all of this over the weekend brought me to tears. While I can never fully know the pain and exhaustion that afflict those who suffer from racism, I know that most people can do better in addressing it openly. Racism has a toxic effect. We have to acknowledge that and refuse to deploy it as a weapon. Its function, after all, is to set us on edge against each other. No wonder it becomes a convenient tool for autocrats. Resisting it means changing a lot, both publicly and personally.