It has been more than a half a century ago, 1963, when the late, mid-20th century Black intellectual and renaissance author and cultural critic James Baldwin wrote his spellbinding work, The Fire Next Time.
Baldwin’s work was riveting for its era. His narrative that looked at the disturbing and vehement consequences and misunderstanding between Blacks (then Negroes) and Whites in regards racial injustice of the era became a catalyst for many progressive Americans of all racial groups, prompted them into action and provided a passionate and eloquent voice for the modern civil rights movement. The book became a national best-seller and catapulted him further into the premier sphere of American intellectual elite of all races.
Today, more than 50 years later, his prophetic narrative rings chillingly true. Flash forward to the ongoing situation in Ferguson, Missouri.
Indeed, it seems that many of the indignities and differences in perceptions that Baldwin ominously discussed during the 1960s still ring true today in the early 21st century. The stark and wildly diverse perceptions that many White and Black Americans have toward the current crisis in Ferguson (and on race in general) is crucial evidence that the racial divide in our nation is still considerable. Perhaps not as large as it was in 1963, but still wide enough to cause considerable alarm.
A recent Pew Research Center poll conducted from August 14 to 17 of 1000 participants found that the public was divided on the issue of whether the issue of race is getting too much attention in regards to the shooting death of African-American teen Michael Brown by a White police officer. Forty-four percent of those polled say they believe that the case raises important issues about race that require discussion, while, in contrast, 40 percent say they feel that the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves.
Perceptions broke down along racial lines. More than 80 percent of Black Americans stated that the shooting in Ferguson raises important issues about race that deserve attention. On the contrary, 47 percent of Whites argued that the issue of race was getting more attention than it deserves. Sixty-five percent of Blacks polled believed that the police went too far in responding to the shooting’s aftermath. Whites were divided, with 33 percent taking the position that the police had overstepped and 32 percent felt that police actions were just about right. More than one third, 35 percent, offered no opinion.
The fact that more than 1 out of 3 White three participants harbored no opinion on the shooting of Brown demonstrates most likely their indifference toward police violence directed toward Black people and Black men in particular.
Such a chilling level of detachment also demonstrated the fact many of these same people are perversely hostile and, at the very least, callously indifferent to the level of political, social, cultural and economic indignities that too many poor and disenfranchised people, particularly those who are Black and brown have had to and still continue to endure on a regular basis.
Bob Herbert, a former New York Times columnist and now a senior fellow at the thinktank Demos, has written at length on such issues as the attacks on voting rights by many Southern states and the sinister targeting of many low-income and working-class Black home buyers by predatory lenders in the housing and financial industry.
Then there’s the ridiculously obscene level of high unemployment in the Black community. The horrendous treatment and disproportionate sentencing of Black people (especially Black men) in the criminal justice system. The callous and disrespectful treatment of the nation’s first Black president.
Indeed, the level of racism and personal animosity that has been directed toward President Obama has been unprecedented. It is one thing for people to be at odds with the president’s policies. That being said, it does not excuse the demonstrable level of disrespectful behavior and to be quite frank, outright hatred and resentment that many of the president’s opponents have directed toward him. His detractors have made it personal.
For many Black Americans, such mistreatment has been taken personally as well. They see such blatant mistreatment of the president as a personal attack on themselves and Black people in general. The gullible assumption that America had become a post-racial society upon the election of President Obama was a radically misguided illusion.
While some segments of Black America are faring relatively well, far too many other factions are living in a state of crisis that is just as unsettling as those that their parents and grandparents did under the oppressive era of segregation. This is a situation that is unacceptable and must be addressed by Americans of all races, in particular, Black leadership or a new generation of leaders, as well as a government that will be attentive to the precarious plight that is facing too many Black Americans.