I've tried to develop a new habit in the morning. Before I get busy with the important work of using the internet to point out everyone and everything that's wrong, I post a video clip on Facebook, some piece of music. It's a way to make myself breathe before Internet Derangement Syndrome takes hold. I recommend it.
My musical tastes run pretty broad and deep, but the other morning I just wanted a song I half-remembered from Three Dog Night. (For you youngsters, Three Dog Night was an inescapably popular band in the early 70s. Their thing was three lead singers who didn't just harmonize, but riffed off each other like the horn line in a small jazz band. They had a monstrous hit with "Joy to the World," a terrible song that your grandmother probably called "Jeremiah was a bullfrog" because it was the only line she could remember.) Anyway, the song I was thinking of was this one:
As soon as it started playing, I had that sinking feeling, that realization that, like Sean Connery's Rapey James Bond, this was one of those hallmarks of my youth that I would no longer be able to enjoy.
The message here is one that was prevalent in early 70s (heck, it was still around when genius Paul McCartney and genius Stevie Wonder teamed up to give us the not-so-genius piece of goop, "Ebony and Ivory.") It's a message about racial harmony, peace, love and understanding, and it goes like this:
For some reason, black and white folks have trouble getting along. For some reason, there is tension and strife. Let's all just agree to get over it and get along.
This sounded nice to me when I was young. It sounded nice to lots of young white kids. But let me propose an analogy.
You are a student at a school. You are bullied daily by a gang of bigger, stronger kids. Every day they subject you to one form of indignity or another. Some days you just take it and get beat up. Some days you try to fight back. But after 100 straight days of bullying and abuse, you and your tormentor are called into the principal's office. The principal says, "It seems that you two just can't get along for some reason," as if you are somehow both equally to blame. Your first thought is probably not, "Oh, yeah. I'm going to get justice here." And your mood probably does not improve if your tormentor says, "Yes, I'm not sure why we've had all this conflict, but I'm certainly willing to leave the past behind."
The problem, of course, is that we do not have racial strife in this country "for some reason."
I blame, in part, our national ignorance about history. Too many people think the basic narrative is, "Yes, well, the South held blacks as slaves and then the Civil War freed them and that was pretty much the end of it. Maybe there was some Jim Crow sort of thing?" The weight of history that whites don't feel is staggering. Forced segregated housing in major cities like Chicago. Systematic obstacles to the vote. A justice system that refused to punish whites for assaulting or killing blacks. Even simple indignities like Robert Moses building overpasses low enough to bar buses from carrying poor blacks out to the nice beaches. A web of systemic and institutionalized racism stretching over decades.
As teachers, we're supposed to know better. If we stormed into the office and said, "This kid keeps acting out in my class for some reason, so put them in detention," any decent principal would tell us to get back out there and find out what the reason is. "For some reason," is not a reason-- it's a decision to avoid learning what the actual reason is.
And yes, I know it's complicated. Complicated to sort out the lines between the races and complicated to track down culpability through generations and complicated to figure out what our own individual responsibilities and actions should be. But that's part of my point. "For some reason" is about the facile erasure of all complications. It's like going out to eat and one person orders six lobsters and the other gets a baloney sandwich and at bill time, lobster person says, "Well, I guess the only thing to do is split the check evenly." Pretending that racial tension and conflict exist in this country "for some reason" is a terrible example of false equivalence, and we should have gotten smarter over the last forty years.
Meanwhile, here's a better sample of the band's work. No, I will not post the bullfrog song.