Over a century ago, Black intellectual extraordinaire of his day, WEB DuBois, stated that the problem of the 20th century would be the problem of the color line. He was right on target. Indeed, such a prophetic message is very relevant today in the 21st century. If the past several years (hell, the past several months for that matter) have taught us anything, it is that we as a nation are in a perpetual state of crisis when it comes to the racial situation plaguing our nation. A recent CBS News Poll of 1,205 adults taken from July 14-19 indicated that a majority of people polled believe that race relations were at their worst in more than two decades.
The report showed that large majorities of Blacks and Whites as well as Americans across all race and ethnic groups characterized race relations as “bad.” Twenty percent saw race relations as improving; 40 percent viewed the racial climate as being essentially the same as ever. Such a dramatic change in attitude was most prominent among Blacks at 68 percent. The recently conducted poll provided specific detail on the vast divide of opinion between different races on topics ranging from politics, economics, law enforcement, etc. The election of the nation’s first Black president notwithstanding, race is still the unruly, rambunctious elephant running wildly through the room.
The recent suspicious death of 28-year-old Chicago native Sandra Bland. The violent, racially motivated murders of nine Black church worshipers in Charleston, South Carolina, in June. The senseless, violent snuffing out of Black lives such as those of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Eric Garner, Reika Boyd, Aura Roser, Renisha McBride and others too numerous to mention here. The feeling among many people across racial lines, particularly people of African descent, is that Black America is under unrelenting physical, mental and emotional siege.
As a Black college professor, I can attest to the fact that, by speaking with other educated Black professionals (and some non-Black), friends, acquaintances and through social media, I can detect the unmistakable level of anger, stress, fear, and most certainly resentment in regard to the current volatile racial situation. Such emotions are indeed well-founded. The temperature is hot and the climate has become unpredictable.
For many of us, our viewpoints on race largely have been formed by our personal experiences. In a nation that has been less than equitable to people of color, in particular, Black Americans, it is justifiable that many Black Americans are more inclined to believe that race is an intractable factor in our society that has an impervious grip on all people regardless of race either as perpetrators or oppressors. Many of us have stories of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, ourselves for that matter, who have been the recipients of its often poisonous venom. On the contrary, many Whites, particularly White men, are in positions where the specter of racial prejudice has little, if any, effect on their lives. Indeed, for many, institutional and structural racism is a vice of which they are largely if not totally immune.
A number of Whites are in denial about racism. A greater percentage are even more dismissive about the potential negative economic, psychological and emotional impact that it can have on the lives of non-Whites. Such attitudes have manifested themselves in polls like the recent CBS/New York Times poll, on social media, chat rooms, political oriented websites, talk radio, private clubs and multiple avenues of society. Over the past several years, a number of politically right of center media outlets, FOX News in particular, shamefully and purposely misrepresent or, at the very least, manipulate racial incidents (in particular the Charleston shootings).
Conservative talk radio chimes in with its relentless bombastic, acerbic thrashing of President Obama. The nation’s first Black president and, to a lesser degree, his wife have been the subject of unprecedented vitriol and disrespect from politicians, a few journalists, anonymous bloggers and other disgruntled malcontents who cannot stomach the fact that a Black man is commander-in-chief and that a Black family occupies 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Such personal attacks began even before he officially took office. Such juvenile and pathetic behavior among the President’s detractors has been a sad spectacle to witness.
The recent deaths of Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Reika Boyd, Tanisha McBride and many others at the hands of law enforcement. The ongoing dramatic saga of police brutality plaguing cities such as Baltimore and Ferguson. The growing wealth and income gaps that transcend across racial lines but disproportionately affect Black and Brown Americans. Lower life expectancy that is more likely to impact poor people (especially poor Black men). Systematic and structural discrimination all too often directed toward Black and Brown Americans. All of the aforementioned factors indicate that racism is a malignant form of cancer that has spread throughout the land.
Chattel slavery, Black codes, Jim Crow servitude, grandfather clauses, oppressive sharecropping systems, lynchings, urban ghettoization, political disenfranchisement, covert and overt discrimination and outright unapologetic violence have deeply affected America’s Black population. The results still linger with us today. Denying such hard truths will not bring us any closer to any sort of racial reconciliation. Rather, acknowledging that racial conflict is a serious problem and making a valiant, diligent and committed effort to tackling the issue will be the only viable solution to addressing such a crisis.
Elwood Watson, Ph.D., is a professor of History, Africana Studies and Gender Studies at East Tennessee State University.