Last week I received the following email from my dear friend, Roger, a Brit, who in the summer of 1963 worked with me and other college students on the mean streets of New York’s Lower East Side. We worked with disadvantaged kids—mainly African American and Latino– at two small churches on Henry Street, which were at the time mission “chapels” of Trinity Parish on Wall Street. Roger is now retired after a successful, long ministry as an Anglican clergyman in various parishes in the Liverpool metro area.
What does your blog have to say about the following – found in “The Guardian” (more left wing than otherwise, and the only newspaper we take)?
“White supremacy is as American as apple pie. What we saw in Buffalo last week is another manifestation of it.”
“The Trump forces have gotten stronger”. “Race is the most explosive issue the history of this country: from war to civic strife to Buffalo”
Dare I ask “where are y’all in the U.S. going? Are we much better?” It’s scary for our children and grandchildren…!
You’re the blogger. Any answers?
Short answer, Roger, yes and no. Yes, we are a racist country, and no, you Brits are not much better.
Here is the long answer:
I attribute the current situation in the U.S. following the death of George Floyd and other African Americans, and the “Black Lives Matter” protests that followed–and more recently the Buffalo massacre–to two things: old fashioned tribalism and the legacy of slavery in the U.S.
We homo sapiens on the Planet Earth evolved hundreds of thousands of years ago from our ancestors that banded together to form small tribes, which gave them an edge over those who tried to go it alone. The Us versus Them, stick together mentality gave them a leg up. It has found its way into our DNA.
I like to say that we humans are basically herd animals. We band together and follow a leader, often an alpha male. Anything that challenges the unity of the tribe—or is considered “Other,” or “not like us” –is considered threatening. This is not a uniquely American phenomena. It is a fact of life all over the world. And it is not always about race. Remember the Holocaust, the current get-tough actions of China toward its minority Muslim population in western China, the genocide in Myanmar against the Rohingya people, the massacres in Rwanda, and tribal conflicts throughout sub-Saharan and North Africa. The list is long. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Racism may be “as American as apple pie,” but tribalism is part of our humanity, albeit the dark side. We are stuck with it. The question is how we contain it.
Why racial tribalism in the United States? Our legacy is slavery. But I should point out that you Brits do not get off the hook. You were involved in transporting slaves from Africa to the U.S. That is the origin of my favorite hymn (and the name of my third sailboat) “Amazing Grace.” It is a disgraceful history. Prior to the Civil War slaves were considered property and in 1787 were counted as three-fifths of a person for determining congressional representation and taxation from slave states. At the time this was considered a reasonable compromise. In Plessy v Ferguson the U.S. Supreme in 1896 upheld legal segregation, which led to more than sixty years of Jim Crow laws and lynching in the South. It is hard to believe now, but I grew up in Nashville, Tennessee at a time when schools, lunch counters, public transportation, rest rooms, housing, neighborhoods, and just about everything else was segregated by law in the South. Even worse, we did not think that much about it. It was just the way things were. There was no question about whether Whites were superior. Blacks were “other” and to some, not fully human.
So compared to where we are now to where we were in the 1950s, we have come a long way. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was certainly a defining moment for me and, I think, for Embry and changed our lives in ways for which we both will be forever grateful.
Some protest that we really have not made that much progress and that we are stuck in a racist society. Good heavens! We have had an African American as President of our country. African Americans now run top U.S. corporations, attend American’s finest schools, hold public office throughout the country, and segregation has been illegal since 1954. Of course, we have made progress. And, of course, it is not nearly enough.
What I believe we are experiencing now is a last gasp backlash fueled in part by economic seismic changes in our country where a hefty portion the White working class feels their position has slipped, and the rise of African Americans in the U.S. has come at their expense. Good jobs have been shipped overseas. Unions have almost disappeared, and many White people are struggling to get by. An African American may now be their boss. African Americans they know may live in better homes and make more money than they are making. They see African Americans as getting a bigger piece of the pie, that African Americans have gotten the lucky breaks.
It is not just many in the White working class that have pushed back, however, there are a lot of others who are still stuck in the attitudes of the pre-civil rights era and who remain for whatever reason racists. I think an argument could be made that due to history and upbringing and the nature of our humanity—tribalism, if you will—we White folks, all of us, could plead guilty for being prejudiced from time to time. Sad but true. We are all guilty.
So, the real question is what we are going to do about it. Where do we go from here? The answer is we press on. Yes, we remain a racist country in many ways, some of them subtle (“de facto segregation”), but we have made progress—enormous progress compared to where we were during my childhood. We cannot let the country slip into tribalism and allow discrimination and acts of violence against people of color to continue or, as things now stand, increase.
There is no easy answer. And as they say, the devil is in the details. A lot depends on leadership. Afterall we are herd animals. We need enlightened, courageous progressive leaders. The “Trump insurgency” must be fought at every turn, and progressives must be elected. Tougher laws must be passed regarding hate crimes. We need gun control. Elections must remain legitimate. There is a long list. I also believe that we must level the playing field so that all Americans who work can make a living wage and the Great Disparity between the haves and have-nots shrinks. I know, wishful thinking; but if we can’t tackle the excesses of capitalism, we will not heal the wounds that cause working people to turn against each other based on race. And most of all, we can’t allow our country to slip into tribalism in the extreme and totalitarianism, which is the Elephant in the Room, whose name is Donald J Trump.