As posted: Sunday, August 14, 2016 2:00 am in The Roanoke Times Op-Ed section
Shortly after the killing of policemen in Dallas, I was watching Don Lemon’s CNN Tonight during which there was a wonderful interview with a black policeman who talked about the two worlds that he lived in: the one where he and white police officers worked together building collegial relationships as fellow officers, and the other in which he connected with black civilians in their communities. Though one might never fully understand as an outsider looking in, the tension between these two different worlds as part of the police officer’s everyday life was palpable.
Charles Blow, a CNN political commentator who also writes for the New York Times, was also part of the conversation. Blow shared that there are two different lenses for looking at race: There is the one in which individuals learn to work effectively with those of another race. This is clouded with personal biases and preconceptions that we can work through individually. Then there is systemic racism, which has to do with social and political systems and is easily ignored because of a deeper racism that refuses to acknowledge it. As Blow put it, systemic racism is essentially “a system that allows individuals not to have to worry about whether or not they are racist…”
William Julius Wilson, an urban sociologist, addressed systemic racism and the plight of center-city black communities in his book “When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor.” After reconstruction, poor blacks in the South moved from rural tenant farms to center cities — often in the North — where the robust manufacturing economy offered wages that allowed them to support their families. In the 1980s those jobs disappeared as our manufacturing base eroded, leaving black families in urban poverty. Often, this societal racism made it difficult for urban blacks to move out of the urban center, leaving them further stranded.
American public policy never dealt with the issue of how to create the jobs necessary to sustain the uplift of urban populations throughout America. Blinded by the notion that all things can be solved by the free enterprise system and rugged individualism, the assumption was that the situation will work itself out. Instead, public policy focused on the spotlighting of a few welfare queens, most often black, in an AFDC system that represented the smallest segment of national entitlements.
Investments were made not in partnership between government and business in renewal of the infrastructure or rapid transit, but in building the largest penal system with the largest number of prisoners in the world. Aided by a failed war against drugs with a racial bias that led to unnecessary arrests and longer sentences for blacks using crack than whites using powdered cocaine, urban blacks quickly assumed a higher incarceration rate than others. Of course, even after release and restoration of rights, the mark of a felon precluded them from many occupations.
The reality is that when there are few employment opportunities, people resort to the underworld economy just to live. The system of violence that often accompanies the underworld economy is undergirded by white prejudice and failure to see how the loss of manufacturing jobs in our center cities created a pall of joblessness among former rural blacks who had sought to improve their lives; how racial redlining and discrimination made their escape difficult; how the growth of the penal system invested billions that would offer little help; how the prevalence of guns in our society feeds violence in center cities; and how more prosperous whites are little concerned as long as the violence is cordoned off in black communities.
I have had the privilege of working with more black families and individuals than most whites. I have a sense of what it is like to be black in America but I admit that I do not, nor will I ever, have the full reality of what that means for even my closest black friends. A real dialogue on race begins by acknowledging that we do not yet live in a post-racial America and proceeds by deep listening to those whose world we think we know but do not yet fully understand.