At the memorial service for the fallen officers in Dallas, President Barack Obama observed that “if we cannot even talk about these things – if we cannot talk honestly and openly, not just in the comfort of our own circles, but with those who look different than us or bring a different perspective – then we will never break this dangerous cycle.”
Only through dialogue can any of us ever hope to arrive at empathy and accept the pain of another as one’s own.
Having come of age in the period following the Supreme Court’s Affirmative Action ruling, peers frequently complained that they, personally, had never participated in the oppression of their black neighbors and wondered how it served justice for them to be disadvantaged in any way. They did not see how the “past” still intrudes on the “present.”
Except for those living in homogenous enclaves, it is difficult to comprehend how one might arrive at adulthood not having witnessed acts of racism both subtle and blatant. Whether it was watching a black shipmate be the only one arrested for a fight he did not instigate, or hearing a barber dismiss a potential client because he did not cut “that kind of hair,” or a colleague who asked why I continued to teach “those children” in Prince George’s County, across the years my compatriots have demonstrated on far too many occasions that racial prejudice remains all too prevalent in the world.
It is doubtful we will ever erase hatred from the human heart. Nor does it seem likely that the insidious inculcation of distrust of others can be checked, beginning, as it does, at an early age in the home. Achieving equality will remain no small challenge for a society that has moved far too slowly in establishing economic justice in the wake of emancipation, segregation and civil rights.
We must, however, ensure our social institutions reflect more egalitarian principles and discourage arbitrary discrimination. That may be the only path to abating the institutional racism and white privilege that continue to afflict American society. In this new century, all citizens must devote themselves to being more than innocent bystanders to expressions of bigotry.
If, in any way, we profit from preferential treatment based solely on the percentage of melanin content in our epidermis then we are not much removed from the eaters of animal flesh once derided by Emerson: “You have dined, and however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in graceful distance of miles, there is complicity.” Justice will never arise from inaction.