The Fire This Time

With apologies to James Baldwin for appropriating his title: If people could actually “spin in their graves,” my guess is that he would be doing a very rapid rotation at this time, as would, I think, Abraham Lincoln and many others who have done their best to make the United States a better country than it has been in the past. We have taken at least one big step backwards with the recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia. I am both angry and sad that “white nationalism” is on the march, and that the Ku Klux Klan is crawling out from under the rocks and from behind the bushes that have been concealing it from public view.

The election of Donald Trump to the office of President of the United States indicates just how far we have fallen from the ideals this country used to represent. That is not to say, of course, that we did not have problems in the past. Anyone with Native ancestry knows that North America was not always “white America,” just as anyone with African ancestry knows that slavery was cruel and inhuman. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to go back to the 1920s or even the 1950s. I want the human species to evolve rather than devolve. I am not sure what it is going to take for that to happen. Christians have been hearing Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan for centuries, without ever recognizing that “Samaritan” is metaphorical. If you’re white, your Samaritans may be Blacks, Native Americans, Mexicans, or people from Muslim countries.

I have twice been stopped from going into a neighborhood where a white person would have been a target. A long time ago, I worked for a government housing agency in downtown Los Angeles. One of my friends there and I agreed to get together on a weekend, so he could meet my then-wife and have some quiet nonbusiness conversation over a beer. I said, I can come to where you are. He said, “No, I will visit you.” I reminded him that I had a car and he didn’t. He said, “You wouldn’t be safe where I live.” So … he took the bus and walked to my apartment. He lived in the Watts area of Los Angeles, and it wasn’t long after that the riots erupted. At the time, it definitely would not have been safe for my wife and me to visit him.

Many years later, Debra and I were in St. Louis for a conference. Debra wanted to go to a famous mall there, and we asked the clerk at the counter how to get there. She was telling us, when a Black guy also at the counter said, “No, it wouldn’t be safe for you to go that way. I’m heading in that general direction, and you can follow me.” He told us where he would turn off and said that our exit would be the next one. We went to the mall; I think Debra actually bought something; we had dinner, and then returned to the conference hotel. We learned later that the area we would have driven through without our “guide,” had been having repeated incidents of racial violence.

In the absence of major racial violence—a race riot—being covered on the evening news, it is easy for most of us living comfortable, middle-class lives to think that all is well. Our screens have become our view of reality. Most of what we know is what we see on TV, in the movies, and on our computers. The “talking heads” tell us what to think about what they elect to show us. How many times in recent years have we seen video footage of an unarmed Black man being shot by a police officer who “felt threatened”? I feel bad about the situation every time I see one of those videos, and I can imagine how much worse it must feel to be a Black parent of a Black man-child. The deaths and other inequities add up, and the resentment accumulates.

It is hard to address pent-up resentment. I find it easy to understand why “minorities” feel resentful about the privileges routinely afforded whites in this country. Progress toward equality has been slow. In general, the military has done a pretty-good job of integrating. Although the process of integrating the military has been slow, it has been steady and a lot better than what we’ve seen in society as a whole. I was in the Army from 1966 to 1969 during the Vietnam era. Many of the sergeants I reported to were Black, but very few of the officers were. Blacks could be drafted, and some elected to remain in because the military was more predictable than civilian life, and they worked their way up through the ranks. At the same time they could be drafted, they couldn’t always be served in restaurants—even when they were in uniform. Based on what I have seen on TV, my sense is that more Blacks have entered the officer ranks at this point.

While it is easy to understand Black resentment, it is, I think, harder to understand is why those with privilege would be so resentful of the progress being made by minorities. It is not a “zero sum game,” so where does the fear come from? I suspect it’s the ongoing sense of perceived loss. White blue-collar workers were enjoying economic gains following WWII, and the steady gains have been evaporating as a result of automation. Where we once had an army of carpenters building houses, we now have pre-fab houses that require fewer carpenters. It’s basically the same for the rest of the construction trades. Automobile assembly lines aren’t what they used to be, either. The same is true for virtually all “working class” jobs. Even retail jobs are disappearing as people do more shopping “on line.” When I started my professional career, producing a book required all sorts of work beyond that provided by the author: books had a number of editors, a publisher, and a slew of sales reps who marketed them. Most of those folks are gone, replaced by computer software.

The sense of uncertainty is palpable. The statistics show why: income inequality has been growing rapidly. The irony is that poor people are so busy blaming other poor people that they fail to notice who is laughing all the way to the bank. Kansas experimented with the Laffer Curve and demonstrated how there’s no “trickle down” in economics. Cutting taxes on the rich serves only the rich. But our memories are short, and we have forgotten that Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. The most recent major revolutions in history all started when rich people got too rich and poor people had too little. The three big ones were the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and the Chinese Communist Revolution.

It remains to be seen whether enough of us have learned enough to avoid another armed revolution. At some point humans have to learn that we are one species on what is essentially a very small planet in a whole lot of space. No one is going to rescue us from our stupidity. We are ruining our environment but plan to continue the ruination so that a few very rich people can become even richer. At least those of us who are still relatively comfortable can watch it all happen on our big screen TVs.

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