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Tuesday, 19 August 2014 07:53

Most Whites Still Don't Understand the Dangers of Being a Black Man in the US

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unlearnracism(Photo: Light Brigading)

On August 18, the Pew Center for the People & the Press released a poll that reveals "stark racial divisions in reactions to Ferguson police shooting":

Blacks and whites have sharply different reactions to the police shooting of an unarmed teen in Ferguson, Mo., and the protests and violence that followed. Blacks are about twice as likely as whites to say that the shooting of Michael Brown "raises important issues about race that need to be discussed." Wide racial differences also are evident in opinions about of whether local police went too far in the aftermath of Brown's death, and in confidence in the investigations into the shooting.

The new national survey by the Pew Research Center, conducted Aug. 14-17 among 1,000 adults, finds that the public overall is divided over whether Brown's shooting raises important issues about race or whether the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves: 44% think the case does raise important issues about race that require discussion, while 40% say the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves.

By about four-to-one (80% to 18%), African Americans say the shooting in Ferguson raises important issues about race that merit discussion. By contrast, whites, by 47% to 37%, say the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves.

In a summary of the poll, Pew recalls that in its survey after Trayvon Martin was gunned down by George Zimmerman, "60% of whites said race received more attention in that case than it deserved." 

Years ago, I heard a speaker discuss how the history of the United States cannot be viewed through a focused lens unless one considers the legacy of slavery, the suppressive humiliating period of Reconstruction, the plantation ghettos of cities in the north and south, and the criminalization of being a black male. All of these require an open racism among many whites and a sub-conscious racial bias among many persons who think of themselves as liberals.

Yes, there are black males who have made it in the world of the white ruling elite, such as the president of the United States and the attorney general. However, there are two major caveats to consider in this regard.

First, it is clear that even though Barack Obama has the academic pedigree, intellectual capabilities and irrepressible desire to accommodate whites by not pressing on the pedal of assisting African-Americans who have - as Eugene Robinson notes in a commentary on BuzzFlash today - been left behind, he is still vilified by a large segment of the white population in the United States because he is black. 

Second, the number of black men and women who have made it through the racial barrier, while significant, is miniscule in relation to the number of blacks (and other people of color) under siege by police and a criminal justice system that works on the principle of guilty until proven innocent for most non-whites. This is why the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

Yes, there is a class issue in race bias, but the racist backlash to President Obama's presidency (symbolized most blatantly by the "birther" accusations that morphed into the war on "Obamacare") indicates that the white racial prejudice of thinking blacks more violent, more disinterested in working, more dangerous to society has long been - and still is - an institutionalized racism that permeates the US economic and criminal justice system.

It is sadly ironic that President Obama came to national prominence with a speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention that claimed that the United States was not composed of red and blue states, but that we all belonged to one blend of red and blue mixed into a unified purple nation.

As the events in Ferguson - joining a long list of daily acts of police-sanctioned racial brutality, harassment, arrests and murder - indicate, the racial gap in the United States about what constitutes justice and freedom is still as wide as the Grand Canyon.

The Pew Poll does raise a glimmer of hope in the wider recognition among young people - as compared to the older population - of the racial implications of the Mike Brown shooting:

By a wide margin (55% to 34%), adults under 30 think the shooting of the unarmed teen raises important issues about race. Among those 65 and older, opinion is divided: 40% think the incident raises important racial issues while about as many (44%) think the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves. [These figures represent the overall polling group not broken down by racial category.]

That is a foundation to build upon in a moment of mourning, police militarization and racial rancor among those in the US who have been stigmatized, stalked by police and economically left behind, but only if ignorance is counteracted by an active uprising of social justice.

The poet Gwendolyn Brooks described in a famous lyric how truth is not always welcome. It makes demands upon us to change, to encounter the uncomfortable. Supposing, Brooks ponders, our lack of self-knowledge one day encounters the enlightenment provided by the shining clarity of the sun? 

Though we have wept for him,

Though we have prayed

All through the night-years—

What if we wake one shimmering morning to

Hear the fierce hammering

Of his firm knuckles

Hard on the door?

Brooks does not think we would welcome what we had so long sought:

Shall we not shudder?—

Shall we not flee

Into the shelter, the dear thick shelter

Of the familiar

Propitious haze?

Sweet is it, sweet is it

To sleep in the coolness

Of snug unawareness.

The murder of Mike Brown and the disastrous aftermath of police oppression in Ferguson, Missouri, reminds us all that we cannot continue as a union in a state of "snug unawareness" if we are to achieve the equality that is part of our national narrative, but is still parceled out with institutionalized racial selectivity.

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