In the video above, J. Smooth, at about 1:42, asks an astute and searching question. Why are we more upset and galvanized by racist words than by racist policies and actions? I suspect I know at least part of the answer. The truth is, we’re comfortable with the polite fictions that allow us to sustain our racial caste system, just as we’ve been systematically conditioned to be. When someone candidly exposes the motivations and convictions that underlie that system, it threatens our carefully cultivated illusions. It calls into question our commitments, our values, our entire way of life, no matter who we are, black or white, rich or poor, man or woman. Few people are willing to undergo that kind of self-examination, not in any serious and sustained way. When the veil is pulled back, we rush to put it back into place as quickly as possible. The prevailing message is that what you saw was an aberration, an exception, just foolish and irrelevant words and actions from a foolish and irrelevant person. Let’s quickly hand out the ritual punishment and move on. Nothing to see here.
And that works for a time, until we reach a point where conditions are so unbearable and so glaringly unjust that we’re forced to address them. By then, we’re already deep in crisis, and our mode is necessarily reactive. Commissions are established. Policies to address the worst abuses are put into place. Speeches are delivered. Promises are made. And off we go, full of certainty and optimism that we’ve begun a new chapter in life. Of course, it’s not that easy. We’re talking about a dysfunctional relationship after all, one whose roots have never been adequately examined. The memory of lessons learned and warm feelings quickly fade, and ugly habits re-emerge, until we reach the breaking point again. Rinse, wash, repeat.
None of this is inevitable. It’s the result of a mere lack of will that we conveniently excuse as “human nature”, or “historical realities” (to use Donald Sterling’s words), or whatever sounds plausible. That’s not to say that addressing racial injustice is easy by any measure. But our persistent refusal to even acknowledge that the necessity urgently exists is as sad as it is absurd, and so far beneath what we’re capable of as a nation. At some point, we have to muster up the courage to break the cycle, and begin the process of remaking the foundations of our national life rather than defaulting to a quick patch-up and calling it good. We have to acknowledge the things that are broken between us, and challenge ourselves to understand why they are broken and apply a lasting remedy, and do it in a way that’s compassionate, truthful and just. Or, we can go on lurching from crisis to crisis, living in the shadows of what we could be, if we chose to be.