I came of age in the 1960s. My memories of the early sixties involved sock hops, Ricky Nelson and bubblegum rock. But as the sixties wore on, things changed. By the middle to late sixties, summers became almost a time of dread as America braced itself for another season of race riots. I’m starting to get a strange sense of déjà vu all over again.
Shocking as this may sound to some, electing our first African-American president did not end race problems in America. We are no more in a post racial period than I am a size 10. And, quite frankly, neither of those things are apt to happen in my lifetime. Racial prejudices and hatreds go pretty deep and can’t be wished away by holding hands and singing Kumbaya.
We have certainly come a distance since those days of summer rioting. Mixed race couples are much more common and we have finally gotten rid of the laws that made those relationships illegal. There are more African-American members of Congress than ever before. African-Americans are more visible on our TV screens in parts that don’t involve shucking and jiving or being the help. There is now a better chance that your doctor, lawyer or accountant will be African-American or a mixed race person.
But the events of recent weeks show with disturbing clarity that we still have miles to go in the ongoing battle for equality. Given the inequity in our justice system that sees African-American men incarcerated at rates far beyond their percentage of the population; given that African-American men are more likely to be both stopped by the police and shot by the police; given that multiple experiments have shown that African-Americans are more apt to be hired for a job based on their credentials if the employer doesn’t know their race; given all this, it is clear that America still has a long way to go in becoming a truly just and integrated nation.
I was one of those sixties hippies who participated in sit ins, marches, demonstrations… you name it and I was there. I honestly thought that we could end racism in our time. I thought if enough people marched and sang and held hands together, everything would be ok. I was a very naïve white girl who had no real comprehension of the African-American experience in America or how deep and painful the scars were.
Now here we are, almost fifty years later, and we are facing the possibility of more summers of riots over the very same problems. So where did we go wrong? Or did my generation just get busy with jobs and children and not have time for social issues anymore? Did those issues just slide under our radar as other things like the Internet and gluten took priority?
When I moved to Barrow, for the first time in my life I was a minority – a privileged minority, but a minority nonetheless. I was lucky I was in a community that accepted me despite the color of my skin. Even so, I became acutely aware of what it feels like to walk into a room and be the only person of my race in that room. It’s not an easy gig. And I can’t imagine what it must be like to live with that everyday of your life.
Being white also meant that when my mother told me the police were my friends and if something happened I should go immediately to find one, it was true. I never feared the police. Silly as it sounds, even when I was involved in protest marches, I still felt a certain security in seeing the police around. But if you are African-American, I imagine your mother would have an entirely different conversation with you about police. It would revolve around not giving them any reason to shoot you.
Not all cops are bad. After working with many of them while in Barrow in social services, I can say with some assurance that most are pretty amazingly wonderful. And clearly not all African-American men are criminals. I have no trouble being supportive of both the police and the Black Lives Matter movement. They are not diametric opposites. They are, in fact, opposite sides of the same coin, a coin that stands for equal treatment of all Americans, no matter how they hyphenate their race.