The Gray Matter In A Black and White World

Why can't we all just get along like the flavors in this cone?
Why can’t we all just get along like the flavors in this cone?

Confession: I haven’t watched any televised footage of the riots in Baltimore. Well…wait. Maybe I did see a few seconds of that video clip that was being passed around on Facebook, the one where the mom was slapping her son after plucking him from a crowd of rioters. And, for the record, that is exactly what I would have done if I caught my son like she did. But, I digress. The reason that we haven’t been watching the news since all the chaos erupted in Baltimore last Saturday is because I’m sick and tired of seeing this situation on television. I’m sick of news stories about African-American men ending up dead in situations that seem to defy logical explanation, and I’m tired of listening to clueless white folks try to explain the resulting violence. I try not to get sucked into the spectacle of the television news because it makes me nauseous. I choose, instead, to read the news so I can eliminate the pageantry and drama of pompous television news anchors who live to hear themselves speak. Yawn.

Last night, feeling a bit impudent, I broke down and turned on the news around dinnertime. I started with The O’Reilly Factor on Fox News and then caught some of The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC because that is what I have to do to find fair-and-balanced news these days, watch two vastly different programs and interpret where the reality lies in the space in between them. O’Reilly spent part of his air time trying to blame the rioting on the 72% of African-American children born to single mothers. His assumption is that the breakdown of the nuclear family is primarily responsible for all the trouble in the African-American demographic. That’s one way to view it, I suppose, but I happen to live in a very grey world where things aren’t quite that easily defined. While O’Reilly seemed to have it all figured out, I found Maddow reporting on all the things we don’t know at this time…what the coroner’s report will say about the cause of Freddie Gray’s death, when the curfew in Baltimore will end, when we will know the fate of the six police officers suspended after Gray’s death, and what might happen once whatever is going to happen happens. I turned off the television news reminded once again why I rarely turn it on in the first place. There’s no news in the news.

This morning a friend shared this piece that was posted by Julia Blount on her Facebook page and then picked up and reposted by Salon. In it, Ms. Blount, a Princeton grad who grew up in an affluent home to a white mother and an African-American father, recounts her experiences as a person of color and, as her article title states, asks white people to respect what Black Americans are feeling. She writes of hopelessness, oppression, pain, poverty, anger, and despair. She writes about how fortunate she has been in her life and yet how even with all the privileges she’s had people still treat her differently. I know people like Ms. Blount. Our son’s best friend also comes from a mixed-race background. He lives in an upper-middle-class suburb of Denver where only half of 1% of the population is African-American. He attends private Christian school and has every conceivable advantage in his favor, save the color of his skin. I have no doubt that his American experience, while certainly impacted by his color, will be tremendously different than the American experience of an African-American child being raised by a single mother in impoverished, inner-city Baltimore. Poverty is reality for 31% of single-mother, African-American homes. Despite this statistic and many other statistics that show that African-Americans live in poverty on a far greater scale than their white counterparts, I know way too many white Americans who wholeheartedly believe that all Americans share an equal part of the American pie dream. Just pull yourself up by your bootstraps like the rest of us, they think, completely oblivious that it’s a lot harder to pull yourself up by your bootstraps when you can’t afford boots. The disparity between us isn’t simply apparent in poverty ratios; it’s apparent in the complete inability many of us white Americans have to notice that we’re better off in nearly every way than any person of color in our country. We’re so clueless that we like to point to Oprah as an example of how the rest of the African-American population should just buck up and get their shit together because it’s totally possible…or at least it was for that one person. This ignorance disappoints me.

Over the past few days I’ve talked with my sons about what is going on in Baltimore. I’ve talked about race, poverty, the staggering number of African-American men in prison, and about the what the death of Freddie Gray and the ensuing riots say about our country. Last Sunday, my oldest son and I watched Selma. As we watched, I had to pause the movie repeatedly to field his questions and listen to his comments. Even my thirteen year old could watch that movie and point out how much things have stayed the same for African-Americans despite some advances. We talked about how fear figures so prominently into our racial inequality and how part of the problem is the ignorance white Americans have about the African-American experience. The marches of the Civil Rights movement occurred 50 years ago, but we’re still stuck with immense disparity between the wealth and status of the races and no apparent interest in ameliorating the current situation.

I’ll admit that I have no clue how we can move beyond these now too common situations, but we should probably start first by admitting that there is more than one reason why we’re still mired in inequality nearly fifty years after the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. and second by acknowledging that there isn’t a white person in this country who understands the frustration, anger, and hopelessness of the African-Americans rioting in Baltimore. When whites in this country stand in judgment without attempting to view things from the other’s perspective, we perpetuate a de facto Jim Crow situation where we are above and they are below, where we know better and they are ignorant, where we are master and they are slave. Sadly, our continued privilege as whites provides us with a podium and a microphone with which to pass judgment, and we continue to do just that. Maybe it’s simply hard for some of us to acknowledge there’s an uphill battle for others when we were born at the top of the hill?