Point of View Columns

Fast Backward

When Barack Obama was inaugurated as the first American president of African descent in the history of the United States, many observers proclaimed the beginning of something called a “post-racial America”. By now, in the midst of seven years of Teapublican dog whistle symphonies that have aroused the most malignant racist demons of this country, very few are making that claim. However, in 2009 few would have thought that an Obama presidency would mark a regression in racial attitudes in White America. But that is exactly what has happened.

A facile explanation of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s racist screed in the recent Fisher case would be that he was just channeling his inner Angry White Man. But Justice Scalia simply said what too many people actually think – black people are inherently inferior to white people.

In that regard Justice Scalia was consistent with his ideological ancestors on the Supreme Court who ruled in the infamous Dred Scott decision in 1857 that “a black man has no rights which a white man need respect”. The majority opinion in spectacular and outrageous judicial endorsement of white supremacy was written by Scalia’s fellow Harvard Law School alumnus, Roger B. Taney.

And Scalia’s opinion was also fully consistent with the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision in 1896 which upheld the constitutionality of state laws mandates racial separation in all public facilities. This endorsement of Jim Crow institutionalized and guaranteed the suffering and degradation of black Americans deep into the 20th century.

And now, in the second decade of the 21st century, we are forced to witness the regurgitation of debunked and abandoned concepts of white supremacy and black inferiority by no less than a Supreme Court Justice of the United States of America. By using the selective argument that less prepared black students underperform at predominantly white universities and colleges, he conveniently neglects to note that this is also true for less prepared white students and the affirmative action process has also enabled absolutely prepared black students to evenly compete at these institutions.

A bit of history is useful here. The National Scholarship Service and Fund for Negro Students – NSSFNS – was founded in 1955 in an effort to provide admissions opportunity for qualified black students who were traditionally barred from most predominantly white colleges and universities in America. There are exceptions that can be cited prove the rule, but there are too many pathetic examples of one or two black students in classes of 1000+ white students in the 1950’s and 1960’s to avoid the unfortunate conclusion that there was an unspoken policy in American higher education that black Americans simply would not be admitted regardless of their qualifications.

By 1970 NSSFNS had identified thousands of young black men and women who were qualified to compete with young white men and women at colleges and universities throughout the country, including the vaunted Ivy League schools, those last bastions of presumed white intellectual superiority. The results provided evidence that intellectual superiority was never a matter of racial capabilities. And the sky did not fall. The laws of gravity were not repealed.

The only slightly recognized efforts of NSSFNS that provided the opportunity for change  as well as the basis for further initiatives that opened college doors that had been welded shut when black Americans applied. These initiatives included affirmative action programs that recognized the subjectivity of college admissions and the importance of diversity on the college campus.

The reality is the rationale for affirmative action programs is no different than the justification for admitting veterans, star athletes or sons and daughters of alumni. However, to the extent that affirmative action programs provided opportunities for black Americans, there has been and continues to be simmering outrage in the national white community. And Justice Scalia gave voice to that outrageous outrage while sitting on the bench of the highest court in the land.

It is not the first time, nor will it be the last time, that vile and hateful words are cloaked in the black robes of a Supreme Court justice. It is also clear that the tools of racism and injustice will not be easily pried from the grip of those who stand in the way of justice.

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Point of View Columns

A Matter of Life and Death

It should come as no surprise that there is not much new in this New Year. After all stubbornness is as much a part of the human condition as occasional genius, and neither feature is observant of the calendar.

Which brings us to the societal conflagration in America, most recently occasioned by the tragedies in Cleveland, Ferguson and Staten Island, but the embers of this particular inferno have been smoldering for centuries. The absolute need and desire for enforcement of the law in communities of all color has been in regular conflict with the underlying history of government sanctioned brutality against people of color in this country.

A thorough understanding reveals serious stains and scars on the glorious image that has misinformed and misguided us for centuries. From the Black Codes of the 1600’s to the March of Tears and the Dred Scott decision and the birth of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1800’s to genocide in Tulsa and Rosewood and lynching sanctioned by legal inaction in the first half of the 20th century, there are real reasons why people of color are wary of law enforcement even as its necessity is recognized.

That is why it is logical, reasonable and rational for Americans of all colors to be outraged over the legal whitewashing of the lethal encounters with the police that occurred after the police homicides in Ferguson and Staten Island. There is no reason but racism that makes it plausible for every person of color to fear that any encounter with the police, no matter how innocuous, can have fatal results.

Nevertheless, there is a one ton gorilla standing in the crowds that protest racially tinged homicides that are accompanied by a badge. The outrage and disgust and demands for institutional and cultural changes in this country arise when there is a lethal outcome from an encounter between white police officers and victims of color.

The one ton gorilla stands by quietly as the marches and rallies and “die-ins” proliferate. The one ton gorilla can afford to be quiet because as long as it stays quiet it is seemingly invisible to the protestors who vociferously call for an end to the violation of human rights. The one ton gorilla is quiet because this simian giant represents the ongoing death of black Americans by guns in the hands of black Americans.

The one ton gorilla is ignored for reasons that defy logic or reality. More black people die at the hands of black people than by reason of racist law enforcement. If police were killing black people at the rate that black people kill black people there would be justifiable cries of “genocide”. Yet, a black person killing black people does not evoke a similar response.

In the sad aftermath of another sad murder, some candles are lit, there might be a march or two, but the outrage and disgust are strikingly absent. We are told that unemployment, absence of fathers, poor education somehow justifies the extinguishing of the life of another human being.

We also find that there is a glorification of a culture of violence and killing that is found in too many videos, songs and movies. And the promoters of that culture are idolized and imitated, leading to…………more violence and killing. And as the cycle spins the one ton gorilla sits silently and invisible.

There is no sense in arguing which death is worse….death by badge or death by thug. The victim is dead, the family is bereft and we are all lessened by the needless loss of life.

There is also no sense in ignoring the one ton gorilla.

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Point of View Columns

Lessons from the Zimmerman Trial

There is something about America and trials and court decisions. The 1733 trial of Peter Zenger in New York City laid the foundation for the First Amendment. The Dred Scott decision in 1857 shamefully affirmed the legitimacy of slavery in this country. The Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954 began to finally dismantle the infrastructure of institutionalized racism in this country.

There have been many “trials of the century” – Sacco-Vanzetti, the Scopes “monkey” trial, the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg – but there was something about the murder trial of O.J. Simpson which mixed a rich combination of circus plus drama plus the most prodigious exploitation of racial taboos since the heyday of the Ku Klux Klan. That O.J. Simpson was acquitted of killing a blonde white woman has struck many white Americans as the greatest miscarriage of justice in the history of the planet.

This bit of retrospective is important in looking at the Zimmerman trial because even though a black man is not on trial, the defendant’s perception of black men is a central factor in this case. Unlike the O.J. Simpson case the Zimmerman case is not a whodunit. It is clear and freely admitted that George Zimmerman intentionally fired the fatal shot that killed Trayvon Martin.

The question in the Zimmerman case is whether the defendant had the legal right to kill Trayvon Martin. The defense has argued that his fear and mistrust of a “suspicious” black person caused him to confront the murder victim. The defense has further argued that once he engaged in a confrontation with Trayvon Martin he had a right to kill him since he was in fear of his life.

It is important to note that in the South it was legally impossible for a white man to be convicted of killing a black man until 1865. After that it was virtually impossible for a white man to be convicted of killing a black man and the number of exceptions to this brutal rule would not take up much space in this column.

The Zimmerman case must be seen within this historical context – in the South white men (including Latino white men) have had an historical right to kill black men even if they are the aggressors, the instigators or even the terrorists (see the Ku Klux Klan). The fear of inherent blood lust that resides in every black man has been seen as sufficient justification for killing black men who talked back to a white man, looked askance at a white man or struck a white man.

Seen within this context, it is understandable how the local police did not even arrest George Zimmerman at the time of the murder. It is understandable how the laws and public perception work in another of the benighted former Confederate States so that the killing of a young black man is considered justifiable simply because the shooter said so.

The toxicity of this situation is compounded by the almost ubiquitous presence of guns in America and in Florida in particular. Combined with the “Stand Your Ground” law which no longer requires individuals to try to avoid confrontation, it is perfectly understandable how Trayvon Martin was killed and why George Zimmerman shot him. And it is perfectly clear that if there was no gun Trayvon Martin would still be alive as it is doubtful that George Zimmerman would have ever approached him in the first place.

The only remaining question is whether the jury – a six member panel comprised of six women, five of whom are white – will somehow find George Zimmerman to have some responsibility for the death of Trayvon Martin. It is hard to believe that the devaluation of the lives of black men, a tradition that dates back to slavery, still slithers through the subconscious minds of too many white Americans.

For those who would argue against this assessment consider the Martin-Zimmerman fact pattern and reverse the racial identity of the actors. Does anyone doubt that the “black” George Zimmerman would have been arrested for killing the “white” Trayvon Martin?

The answer may be the harshest lesson that we learn from the George Zimmerman trial.

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