When I was a child, going to public schools in New York City, we were encouraged to believe that “prejudice” was the fault of bad people, that an improved sense of brotherhood was what was needed to bring this state of prejudice to its deserved end. We were taught that racism, bigotry and their adjuncts were moral failures that could be cured by more understanding, more exposure to “different” groups, by, in a word, empathy, an empathy that would heal the damaged heart.
However, as we became more conscious of the world around us, as we grew up, we understood that world very differently. We came to know that throughout the African and African American presence in America – since there has been an “America” – an anti-black bias has been built into the American system, bias meant to injure, defame, enslave, restrict, defeat, belittle black people, and that this structure was not the consequence of misunderstanding or of the influence of “bad” people but instead is at the heart of the American project.
The familiar term “institutional racism” is not nearly comprehensive enough to register the scope of this structure, pervasive as it is in the nation’s customs, language and laws. Outside of the years 1863-1870 and 1963-1973, practically every law, edict, statute, ruling and regulation passed and invoked at every level of American government – local, state, federal – has been designed to injure black people. We can see that the response of white America to the presence of black people in its midst goes far beyond the ideology of the “injured heart.” And the role of the police as the front line of this order, as the armed force that enforces this social order, is nowhere more evident than in the recent events stirring the nation.
Seen in this context, the unjustified deaths of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford III, Tamir Rice, Dontre Hamilton, Trayvon Martin et al, and the subsequent inability of the state to hold anyone responsible for these deaths, are not aberrant. That these deaths have spurred outrage, demonstrations, anger and, most of all, a critical rethinking of the role of race in American life after a long quiescent period should be seen as an opportunity to finally address this central contradiction in our national life. This current crisis, and it is a crisis, can be seen either as an instrument for addressing the failings of the nation or as a mechanism to reinforce the status quo. But that status quo is unenforceable now. Because, in the words of a graduate of another New York City public school, James Baldwin of DeWitt Clinton High School, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”
Wayne Moreland is a lecturer in English at Queens College.