The story Spike Lee didn’t tell

Sam Smith – Watching Stokely Carmichael pictured in BlacKKKlansman brought back memories of sitting in a Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee meeting in the mid Sixties listening to Carmichael tell us that white SNCC members were no longer welcomed in the civil rights movement. As he had put it elsewhere, “Integration is an insidious subterfuge for white supremacy.” And he told a crowd in Greenwood, MS, “We been saying ‘freedom’ for six years and we ain’t got nothing. What we’re gonna start saying now is ‘Black Power.'”

The voices of black power of the time were varied. Two months after being replaced as SNCC chair by the more militant Carmichael, John Lewis had explained:

I support the concept of black power and I have tried repeatedly to articulate it to people in terms they can understand, so that they will know it is for civil rights, not against whites.

For me being kicked out of SNCC meant months of frustration and the loss of black friends. But once segregated DC, unlike the rest of the south, was already emerging as a multi-cultural city in which ethnic differences were complex, and often also based on neighborhood and class, and ethnic similarities were discovered from time to time in striking ways. Thus even as black power was in ascendancy, blacks and whites were joining in a major successful campaign against freeways and later forming a movement for DC statehood that now has the support of 80% of the city. And DC hasn’t had a white mayor in over four decades.

One of the things I learned from this experience is that while you have to fight for civil rights, anger and conflict can only reduce wrongs; it doesn’t build the decent culture that must be part of lasting diversity. The latter comes from a community of fairness, concern and enjoyment of ethnic variety.

In recent months I have been struck by how much time the media have given to ethnic conflict and how little to ethnic solutions. This is not to say that a tale like Spike Lee’s is not important to know and understand, but as I watched it in a nearly all white crowded theater in Maine, I wondered how many people in that room might be encouraged, but didn’t really have to be convinced, by Spike Lee. But I also imagined what a white nationalist might think seeing David Duke surviving four decades to once again become a major voice in America.

The answer is not to deny history but to also improve upon it, and this requires a media that tells us not just the worst of the past and present and what the future could look like.

As just one example, only 3% of marriages in 1967 were cross-ethnic; by 2015 the figure was 17%. Public approval of such marriages was 5% in the 1950s and 80% in the 2000s. This gets virtually no attention in the media. In fact, Barack Obama was consistently described as black when he actually spent more time at Harvard Law School than he had with a black parent.

The reason this plays into ethnic nationalism is that one of the gross errors is to ignore the real complexity of ethnicity. In truth, race is scientifically a racist concept, unsupported by biological informatIon such as DNA. It oversimplifies factors that are not only affected by marriage but by one’s nation,, community and class. If we taught our children to understand this, their view of cross-cultural experiences would be much different than it often is now.

Spike Lee told an important story well. But we need to match it with tales of how a cross-cultural society can function better. It’s far from a perfect story but it is one too often lacking these days.

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