Sam Smith – For the past few years I have found myself becoming increasingly depressed about ethnic relations in this country, not because of their actual nature, but from what I read about them. In trying to understand my reaction, I realize that it has been about six decades since I first heard Martin Luther King Jr speak. This then 20 something white guy and his date sat on the lawn outside the Howard University chapel listening to him over amplifiers because the church itself had overflowed. Like more than a few of my buddies of the time, I had become interested in black culture because of playing and loving jazz. Civil rights wasn’t just an abstract moral thing but also how people you admired were being treated.
There was something else: I had been skeptical of the pacifism of my Quaker high school and even annoyed grown-ups with lines like, “The trouble with Quakers is they don’t fight hard enough for their ideals.” Now King had come along and given peace a manly and brave quality. He was helping me as well as blacks.
But most of all, change seemed possible. As King would later say from the Birmingham Jail, “Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”
It is a hope that’s still in the waiting room but it doesn’t hurt to remember how much worse things were back then and how much hope did to change them.
And there was something else. I would live most of my life in Washington DC, a place that for five decades would be majority black – as high as 70% in 1970. For the most part, whites who didn’t like this moved to the suburbs. And for over 40 years DC has had a black mayor.
During that time there were never ending struggles over fairness and decency. But they tended to be over specific changes that were needed, not abstract, sweeping condemnations of white culture as is popular today.
In fact, the only time I felt threatened in an ethnic controversy. was when a non-Washingtonian, Stokely Carmichael, showed up at the local headquarters of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and announced that we white members were no longer welcomed in the movement. Yet it was only a few years later that a local group of whites and blacks started a bi-ethnic third party that would hold seats on either the city council or school board for a quarter of a century. And the two major occupants of those seats were black with white spouses.
The fascinating thing about Washington is that the more you examine it the more complex it becomes. Just a few more ethnic examples:
· As early as 1810, 30% of Washington’s blacks were free, a number that continued to rise to77% in 1860. So even when the town was segregated there was a black establishment. I remember black SNCC members talking about blacks around the well-to-do upper 16th Street who were against the civil rights efforts because it endangered their current status.
· For a long time, there was allegedly a “plan” by whites to take back the city. It seems sort of unbelievable now, but when black activist Marion Barry first ran for mayor, a columnist for the Afro-American newspaper even wrote, “This town must never become another Rhodesia ruled by a white minority. We say to the faceless and nameless people trying to lull us to sleep that race will always be a factor with us as long as Ward Three votes the way it does.” And what sin, precisely, had nearly all-white Ward Three committed? It had thrown its support to the election of black Marion Barry as mayor.
· The Catholic Church integrated its Washington schools a few years before 1954, when the Supreme Court ordered DC public schools desegregated. Ten percent of DC’s blacks are Catholic, one of the highest percentages in the country.
· The mostly successful anti-freeway fight was started by black and white middle class homeowners working together.
In short, there was nothing simple about ethnicity in DC. And while this didn’t solve many of its problems, it also meant that you built your efforts around specific places and specific causes with ethnicity just part of the matter.
As for blacks coming to Washington? Here’s how Natale Hopkinson described her experience in the NY Times:
My own initiation in the ways of Chocolate City came nearly 20 years ago when, after growing up black in nearly all-white environments, I arrived in Washington as a freshman at historically black Howard University. The Washington I encountered then was a strange, alternate universe: I saw black schools taught by black teachers and run by black principals reporting to black superintendents. Black restaurants. Black hospitals run by black doctors and staff members. Black suburbs. Black judges ordering black police officers to deliver black suspects to black jail wardens. And of course a black-owned music industry, go-go.
In Washington, we were not “minorities,” with the whiff of inferiority that label carries; we were “normal.” For the first time in my life, I felt at home.
I eventually moved to Maine, my second geographical love, and since then have been heavily dependent on media coverage of our ethnic situation. What has struck me has been the triumph of argument and interpretation over actual change
The debate seems to be driven in part by two forces:
· An increasingly well educated elite that has a problem differentiating between analysis and action. If you compare the number of words given to critique compared to those for proposed solutions, the former wins hands down.
· An angry minority that, lacking the sort of leadership ML King provided, has become not unlike some of a dysfunctional childhood. They can’t convert anger into action and assume that merely defining the causes of their suffering will produce results. Sadly, that is not true.
As someone educated in 1960s activism, I find the hyper analytical approach disturbing. And as someone who grew up in a dysfunctional family, I am particularly conscious of the difference between understanding the past and being trapped in it.
There are other forces that haven’t helped. For example, we have a mass media that essentially offers the opinions of two groups: politicians and itself. Count the number of educators, ministers, or community organizers on TV discussing these matters and you’ll see what’s missing. I have an uncomfortable sense that King would not get enough coverage these days to carry out his work.
The media also obsesses with problems rather than solutions. Thus, for example, you may not know that, as of 2011, there were 43 black mayors in the country, 18 of them in cities with a non-black majority. When was the last time you saw coverage of a successful improvement in ethnic relations? And has your TV station told you that 17% of couples now marry someone of a different ethnic background?
We also have a school system that has seriously downgraded social studies, history and civics. It is hard to imagine meaningful change without the educational participation of schools.
In short we need realism without despair, the ability to praise the good as well attack the bad, to convert as well as to condemn, to concentrate on the specific rather than the abstract, and create action rather than just more anger.
We need to remember Marti Luther King’s admonition to his colleagues that among their dreams should be that someday their enemies would be their friends.
And , yes, we still need to, as the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell used to say, “Keep the faith, baby.”