Friday, October 9, 2020

Why America Can't Breathe

Perhaps the world wonders what exactly is our problem. The recent killing of a fellow American George Floyd by police has ignited a massive response in protests, destruction, violence, and a prompt offensive for political organization and action. Chants of "Black Lives Matter" have echoed in our major cities across the country and throughout our social media; protesters have zeroed in on a few unifying targets: the police, White America, and of course President Trump. We all want justice, but some of our loudest voices have prevailed: "F- Trump!" "Burn It Down!" "Defund the Police!"  People want change, and they are angry. Unfortunately, even in a moment when the whole country should come together to address a horrific act, we find reasons to default to animosity.

No, the United States is not racist at its core.

Hardly unique even to this continent, a past of slavery and history of minority oppression still tortures the American soul. Protesters accuse our national identity of complicity to an enduring racism that most specifically targets African-Americans with unfair practices and violence. Many claim, largely unchecked, that our country is inherently racist. I disagree.

The birth defect of slavery which our founders were not able to cure - but bequeathed us a nation with the intellectual foundation to address - compels us to continually seek what often seems impossible in practice. Sins of fellow citizens from the past 244 years have followed us, and Americans alive today must face a prospect that not only are we an imperfect union, but perhaps an unjust one as well. However, inspired by our national creed, most Americans do believe that all men are created equal. Our founding convictions were a mission statement. Just as in any organization, you embark with an idea and the best team you can assemble, and you work toward your ideals every day. Our Constitution and related founding documents are some of the few things that bind us and define the core of America.

The United States' advances in racial equality, acceptance, and opportunity - from the time of slavery to the Civil Rights Era until today - have undoubtedly vastly improved. We persevered to abolish slavery and affirm rights for those whom Thomas Jefferson proclaimed in principle, but failed to secure in his time. We continue our tradition of welcoming new immigrants year after year as full citizens. We have opened up opportunities for individuals of minority groups to excel in education, business, entertainment, and government. African-Americans now finally represent an equal proportion in our Congress to their percentage of total American citizens, and we already have elected a Black president twice in this young century. We have come a long way in battling our demons, working in deed and in spirit to hold fast to the truth of equality as self-evident, and the proof is in our accomplishments.

Our economic system, based on the principles of capitalism, has helped us not only to thrive as a nation, but to continually provide opportunity unreliant on racial origin. Despite some backlash over the decades, often from places of economic ignorance, capitalism is remarkably democratic, colorblind, accessible, and rooted in liberty. Currently, the United States is home to five of the world's 13 Black billionaires - more than from any other country. Four of them - Jay-Z, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, and David Steward - came from meager beginnings; all worked for and achieved their wealth and the American Dream empowered by capitalism.

Distinct to the core of America is the belief in a Creator whose promise of equality of rights is indispensable. How do we reconcile this principle with the oppression by myriad means that has occurred throughout our history? If it is truly God in whom we trust, likely it is because of some foresight that humans would perpetually be inclined to behave badly, especially in a place where freedom is so highly prized. Our founders understood (perhaps more than we can comprehend) that life can never be fair for every person, but equal basic human rights for all must be what we seek to achieve and protect as a people. However fragile or hypocritical the American promise may appear at times, we have a universal rejection of tyranny and an interminable quest for redemption - both based on divine inspiration. The soul of our nation exists to coerce individuals, not to abandon our desires of self-interest, but to continually recognize our liberty as a universal gift.

Has the Definition of Racism Changed?

As a child, I was taught one concept of racism in regard to behavior: prejudice is a thought process that prejudges a person or a group based on stereotypes or other notions, while racism is an action that discriminates based on prejudice. To be just, or to renounce racism, one should act in a way that judges people on the content of their character rather than their immutable traits.

"Institutional racism" - an inherent structure based on power and reinforced by history - appears to be the overriding definition of American racism today. Questioning the theory of institutional racism at all can be met with repudiation, rancor, and even abrupt branding as racist. The conviction of many in this country (mostly on the vocal ideological left) is that America is a racist country at it's foundation - evidenced by slavery and tainted ever since by white supremacy. If we are to define racism as a factual American trait rather than an individual behavioral choice, that may be expedient in identifying causes of injustice, but I fear we do so willfully ignorantly and perilously.

A contemporary interpretation of racism appears to be rather complex and makes several claims. Due to power structure, only certain people can be (or are inherently) racist, based on some calculation of genetic makeup that has yet to be explained to me. In spite of this inevitable power structure, there is still possible manipulation of racism via such activities as silence, self-realization of unearned irrevocable privilege, and even through unconscious behaviors. Racism can and ought to be resisted with an appropriate social media post such as a plain black image, setting a building on fire, or destroying a statue. Adding to this conundrum, it would logically follow that a certain segment of our country are immune to the curse of racist behavior and culpability (i.e. cannot be racist), hence seemingly innocent in all quandaries possibly related to race. In short, according to some, only White people can be racist, and everyone else are their victims.

The Effect of the Theory of Institutional Racism

A destructive consequence of the blind adherence to the theory of institutional racism was the Ferguson Unrest of 2014, in which a community-inspired fiction became an overwhelming narrative. Officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown to death in self-defense - even conceded by then-President Obama's Department of Justice - contradicting a significant portion of America who had already jumped to the conclusion of murder. Unfortunately, Brown's name and image remain prominent features in subsequent high-profile deaths of African-Americans, deemed useful to the broader agenda. Inevitably, the case of the killing of George Floyd - having no specific evidence of racial motivation - has been taken as fact an illustration of racism. A man, and indeed a nation, can be judged racist based solely on the theory of institutional racism; the color of one's skin is automatically a factor of malicious intent. One might argue that skin color has always been considered such a factor, but isn't that something from which we have been hoping to depart?

*To be clear, it does appear and is my opinion (and that of most of America) that Floyd was unnecessarily and unjustly killed.

Proponents of this theory will cite a long pattern of abuses by police against African-Americans. However, they often omit or obscure if any illegal activity or resisting arrest occurred in these encounters. Point being, it has become difficult for the public to discern what exactly happened and who shared in any fault for use of deadly violence if it is always immediately deemed racist. Truth, it seems, is not always a top priority with these cases. Maybe it never has been - on one side or the other. In the end, if the system does not convict a cop, it is further proof of the narrative that law enforcement in this country is institutionally and interminably racist. If institutional racism remains an unquestionable given, we have entered the age of blind retribution, in which there can be little national conversation about how to move on from the enmity of our fathers' fathers; indeed, we have created our own.

What Racism Cannot Explain

We the people of the United States have not primarily a racism problem, although it certainly exists, as it does in many other countries. America has a hatred problem and a power struggle. Police brutality exists, and it is a problem - though not nearly to the extent of what we do to one another that require the existence of police. Injustices occur in our country's institutions and in everyday life, but there is something else dividing us other than a supposed one-sided malevolent system.

It is obligatory for all Americans to temper our judgments and carry the burdens together of a heterogeneous union. Unfortunately, there is a poisonous sub-cultural trait in America that might make reconciliation impossible - disdain. If racism is our original sin, disdain is what continues to divide us and degrade our national soul. While disdain for racism is certainly warranted, these past few weeks have shone a spotlight on people looting stores, destroying businesses, attacking police officers, and showing a general contempt for law, order, and rational debate. One person walking out of a destroyed building with a bag of stolen shoes may not be cause for grand speculation, but just ride the Metro transit system in DC, and you will observe ride-looting daily - both examples routinely (dare I say "systemically"?) ignored by authorities. While most Americans carry a healthy balance of restraint with disdain and just want to live their lives in decency, a fair amount of hate seems to be boiling over that cannot all be blamed on centuries past, and no skin color holds the monopoly.

Entering Our 245th Year

Racism may be at the root of why America cannot breathe, but our essence is far more a living mosaic than a single plant. Some of us cannot breathe because we feel racial oppression on a regular basis, while others cannot breathe because we perceive a tyranny of some overly woke vocal majority who are actively undermining America. Ridicule the latter if you please, but there are untold numbers of reasonable people who feel they cannot speak for fear of being denounced. Racism has morphed from a power structure that discriminates, dominates, and prohibits upward mobility, to an inherent trait of anyone who does not fit the designation of a "person of color." What is a person of color anyway? Nearly all Americans are of divided heritages - oftentimes plentifully. Our history is replete with stories of unwelcome immigrant - and indigenous - populations, yet we have a bounty of stories that show a people mightier because of how we have chosen to find ways to thrive together. Against our true nature as a people, some have worked to create a permanent state of oppression, and the antidote is unclear. One thing is certain - we have always sought to divide ourselves from within. Hence, the complexity of the source of our woes grows so as to obscure any possible reasonable accord. Furthermore, I fear an emanating chronic disdain for America - our culture, our systems, our history, our ideals - may be our collective emphysema.

Our national respiratory epidemic is self-inflicted. We caused our problems, and we can fix them if we choose. Many of us do! Many of us see the air pollution every day, but still decide not to smoke... and maybe even not to own a car. We have to be a people of ideas and not of blame, who seek goodness rather than dwell in disdain. We have achieved so very much, but it will only endure to the world if we decide not to destroy ourselves in the process of reconciliation.

Let's Breathe.

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