Tonight I had the privilege of attending a guest lecture by the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Stephen Henderson. In the lecture, Henderson, a Detroit native, discussed being black in America and the idea of American narratives playing a part in the unrest we see on the news every week. What sparked my interest, however, was when he briefly mentioned his own comparison between pre-Civil War America and America today (cue my 11th grade AP US History teacher, Mr. Petraitis, and his inquisitive look).
Let me explain why I think this is possibly the most interesting way to describe race relations in America today, and why I think that Mr. Henderson was spot on.
In America today, there is this sort of hushed tone to race talk. There exists this line, where everything before it lies the problems we have already addressed in this country- de jure segregation, slavery, Jim Crowe, basically everything before 1970. We can talk about that- hell, we teach it in our schools to our young people, and kids everywhere know in one capacity or another that there used to be laws to keep black people from being equal to white people, and then Dr. King came along and made sure it got changed. This is all free game, we can scream it until our lungs get tired.
But after that line, after the 1970s and the mass “reform” in voter laws and affirmative action, after the big gathering to push for change, it is as if white America went back to its side and said ok, that’s it for us. It’s almost as if they looked at how Black America was prospering, and said “great! It’s going to stay this way, back to the status quo!”
After that line is what we aren’t supposed to talk about today. Its what makes people uncomfortable. It’s not polite to talk about race. It’s not polite to mention the war on drugs that statistically incarcerated a higher percentage of African Americans than White Americans, or the police brutality that we “left behind” after the Civil Rights Movement, yet has been present year after year in different cities since the 1970s. Don’t talk about the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan after President Obama’s historic win in 2008. Why talk about the shockingly disproportionate number of African Americans killed by the police (7.66 per million) as opposed to White Americans (2.93 per million) in 2015? That’s not right. That’s racist. There is no problem. There can’t be. There is no problem.
Except there is.
The problem is that Americans-ALL Americans- are in love with comfort. Even the hard talking, anti-PC, anti-Safe Space crowd. We love our comfort. We don’t want to talk about our problems- it’s uncomfortable. We, as a country, don’t want major change- change is uncomfortable.
Which brings me to Mr. Henderson’s point. Pre- Civil War America was a time of hush hush, under the rug racism on a national level. America did not want to admit it had a problem. Just like now. The 1850s had plenty of prominent people trying to make a difference, and being public about it, but the problem was in the fact that no one wanted to listen. We now have plenty of prominent voices screaming out the wrongs, but no one seems to be listening.
My question is, is this our modern day Civil War? Is this form of covert racism and one side versus the other America’s second Civil War? These new forms of online attack, news attack, video attack- are these our new battles? Is Tomi Lahren, dare I say, a General???? No, we aren’t on the battle field. We aren’t leaving our families behind to march across the country to die for what we believe in, but there are people dying for this fight.
This is our new Civil War. Our comfortable, digital, online war with the people who live down the street from us.
Instead of fighting, I think we should step over the line and talk. Open, painful, uncomfortable dialogue for both sides. We don’t know what it’s like to go through someone else’s battles, so why don’t we start asking, and listening? Don’t let there be another catastrophe in order to spark change.
Learn from the past.