America’s inescapable specter of violence and racism


“…they aren’t all valedictorians. They weren’t all brought in by their parents.

“For everyone who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there who weigh 130 pounds — and they’ve got hands the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert…”
– Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), referring to DREAMers, in an interview with Newsmax, Thursday, July 18, 2013

There’s no American racist poster child. That’s a sad fact. After his horrible comments, which he doubled down on, during a radio interview, Tuesday, we might like to hang it on Rep. King, but he’s just the xenophobe du jour. Sadly, our struggle with racism is older than our Republicans, and our republic.

We are born from an egg of independence fertilized by musket sperm. We were weaned at the teat of slavery and subjugation. Our country was raised on European snobbery and Christian absolutism.

“All men are created equal” was a great slogan for declaring war on a king, but the rebellion of the American Colonies against the British Empire was a revolt against tyranny, not privilege. Privilege is an inalienable right, under that whole “pursuit of happiness” clause. Without the superiority complex with which our founding fathers endowed us, in a period of colonization and exploitation, we would be just another Western Hemisphere backwater, trying to find a way to live with the native population instead of looking for the most efficient ways to annihilate them and their cultures. Empathy was not a tool of survival for the early settlers.

So when President Obama said the other day, “Trayvon Martin could have been me,” it shook the absolutists to the core. There’s no room for empathy in their view of justice, be it judicial or economic. There is only what the law says, and we move from there. Even the president, in that same speech, last Friday, admitted that a trial was held, a jury deliberated and a verdict was rendered, and inasmuch as this is what defines the criminal justice system in America, justice was served. “That’s how our system works,” he said.

Then he tried to put it into context, by talking about what it’s like to be a young black man in the United States, distrusted and feared by a white majority that seems to think cautionary aloofness is safer than positive engagement. The changes he suggested were all based on the way we relate to each other as a society. He spoke of changing the way the police think about racial profiling, and creating positive role models for young black men who are in threatening community situations.

Even when he was talking about “stand your ground” laws, he did not talk about changing the law. Instead, he talked about it as an unfortunate result of a society that would rather find an excuse to justify murder than a way to confront the ambiguous and seemingly capricious way those laws are applied.

We may not be able to change the sordid roots of our nation’s racist tendencies, but we can change what happens from now on. Yes, we can. That was always Barack Obama’s message. As the president said in his speech on the economy, in Illinois, Wednesday, quoting the state’s Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Carl Sandburg:

“The past is a bucket of ashes. Yesterday is a wind gone down, a sun dropped in the west. There is only an ocean of tomorrows, a sky of tomorrows.”

So the next time you hear a Congressman call immigrants from Latin America “wetbacks” or “drug mules,” remember that they read from a thin, fading parchment, that will turn to dust with them. When that happens, we will not dance on their graves, for we will have long dismissed their ideas as a disappearing specter, a ghost of an unfortunate past that we will not care enough to miss.

-PBG

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