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A national discussion of race

It seemed improbable that any event would eclipse the combined effect of the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic impact. Yet the brutal, recorded and replayed killing of George Floyd has precipitated events that did precisely that. Once again, and more loudly than ever, it has raised the volume on the discussion of the treatment of African Americans in the U.S.

2019 marked the 400th anniversary of the first forced transport of black Africans to the shores of the U.S. That ignominious milestone suggested that the well-documented maltreatment of America’s black community might be the subject of rational discourse — a national discussion and acknowledgement of persistent racist policies, their effects on that community, and potential policies intended to address those effects.

Unfortunately, much of what was initially written and said by advocates of such a discussion was framed in terms of “reparations,” a show-stopping reference much like “amnesty,” a word that puts a halt to any meaningful dialogue on the topic of immigration. The use of reparations and phrases like “white privilege” conflict with the “sweat of my brow” and Horatio Alger narratives which most Americans have long embraced. The inability of many to reconcile two propositions — that individual success and advancement result from hard work and that a black person of comparable intelligence and ambition has frequently not enjoyed the same rewards — is bolstered by employing labels such as white privilege, and characterizing remedial measures as reparations.

Many Americans are either oblivious to the history of persecution and discrimination experienced by African Americans over the last four centuries or prefer to push those facts into their deep subconscious. It’s a natural (and convenient) tendency of white Americans to focus on the here and now, and to believe that they had nothing to do with that history personally. The problem with that attitude is that it ignores the impact of the past on the present. Regrettably, that tendency is advanced by the seemingly self-imposed conditions afflicting the black community: gun violence, single-parent households, non-functional schools, teen pregnancies and disproportionate unemployment, to name some of the most visible. All too often, these societal afflictions are associated with the color of the skin of those affected — that is, that they are social pathologies that are peculiar to the black population.

That association begs the question of whether African Americans possess inherent racial social or genetic deficiencies or whether these conditions are the residue of a pattern of past discrimination and destructive public policies. Thoughtful consideration of the historical realities would clearly support the latter conclusion. One only need observe the recent deterioration of white social cohesion in rural America to find a relevant parallel. It reveals an unprecedented decline in life expectancy from opioids, alcoholism and suicide in large swaths of the U.S. That decline is accompanied by many of the pathologies arbitrarily identified with the black community, and it vividly illustrates how poverty and despair can tear apart the fabric of ANY community.

As disheartening as the recent destructive forces in rural white America are, they pale in comparison to the discrimination and indignities the black population has endured for centuries. They include over 250 years of slavery, followed by 100 years of Jim Crow (a period during which thousands of African Americans were lynched in public arenas — some that occurred in the lifetime of many living Americans). Those injustices were followed by decades-long employment and residential discrimination, resulting in the ghettoization, the seeding of dysfunctional schools, and persistent under-employment and unemployment; and then by mass incarceration, which further devastated the family structure of black Americans. That legacy, in economic terms, has been the depression of black households’ ability to earn a living (on average 50% of that of their white counterparts) and their inability to accumulate financial wealth (less than 10% of white households). In societal terms, it represents the unnecessary and cruel waste of the community’s and the nation’s human capital.

To date, many Americans prefer to ignore this legacy or to consider it an historical artifact that has nothing to do with them. However, when combined with recurring incidents such as George Floyd’s death, it is the combustible material that has repeatedly resulted in widespread public protest, senseless destruction and the reopening of America’s gaping wound of racial division. Recognition of the facts is not sufficient to heal the wounds of the past, but that aborted national discussion of race would seem to be a necessary first step if the tragic events of the day are not to be continually repeated in the future.

William Gole lives in Lake Placid.

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