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“African America Has Promises To Keep”: Sometimes, You Simply Have A Duty To Bear Witness

We are gathered here today not to argue about some policy prescription, nor to excoriate some public figure. No, we are gathered because sometimes, you have no choice, sometimes, you simply have a duty to bear witness.

A child was killed last week in Chicago. He was shot to death.

It is a measure of America that the statement is, of itself, unremarkable. Children are shot all the time in this country. But what makes this shooting stand out is that 9-year-old Tyshawn Lee was targeted. Police say the child, who was black, was lured into an alley and shot multiple times.

According to them, the execution was part of an ongoing dispute between rival street gangs and was intended as retaliation against Tyshawn’s father, Pierre Stokes. They say Stokes, 25, is a gang member who has refused to cooperate with the investigation. Stokes, in turn, told the Chicago Tribune he doesn’t believe the killing had anything to do with him and that anybody who wanted to hurt him could do so easily enough without going after his son. “I’m not hard to find,” he said.

Twenty-one years ago, a 5-year-old black child named Eric Morse was dropped 14 stories to his death by a 10-year-old and an 11-year-old because he would not steal candy for them.

It is, however, the death of another black boy from Chicago that paints all this in shades of irony. In 1955, Mamie Till Mobley sent her 14-year-old only child, Emmett Till, down South to spend the summer. After he was lynched for supposedly flirting with a white woman, she recalled ruefully how she had warned him to be careful; told him Mississippi was dangerous for black children.

But six decades later, there are few places more dangerous for black children — for black people — than Chicago itself. In 2014, 411 people died there by murder or non-negligent manslaughter. New York City, with three times Chicago’s 2.7 million population, only recorded 333 such deaths. An overwhelming number of the victims were (as always) African-American.

Black lives matter, we say. Indeed, a lifetime ago, black people decided they mattered too much to sit helplessly by as they were poured out like water by hateful white men in places like Mississippi, Florida and Arkansas. So six million strong, they fled the South in a Great Migration, seeking “liberty and justice for all,” “all men are created equal,” “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and all the other promises that comprise America.

Chicago was one of their major destinations. It was the pot of gold at the end of the railroad tracks. It was the exhalation of hope heard as the bus doors sighed open.

But black people soon found that in Chicago — as in other cities — America’s promise offered them only mop buckets, chauffeur’s caps and ghettos teeming with vermin, the constricted parameters of their lives patrolled by police with batons and bankers with maps crisscrossed by red lines. Eventually, the parameters would also enforce themselves: miseducation, teen pregnancy and crime.

Small wonder, in that sludge of human malfunction, that someone became cold enough to target a little boy for execution. Or that a 25-year-old father now mourns a 9-year-old son.

And bearing witness feels like impotence, but like duty, too, a reminder that there are promises America still owes African America, and that African America also owes itself, promises life owes to life and that the price of the ongoing refusal to keep those promises is too often paid in children’s blood.

Five days after Tyshawn’s murder, a boy named J’Quantae Riles was shot to death shortly after visiting a Chicago barbershop. He was 14.

 

By: Leonard Pitts, Jr., Columnist for The Miami Herald; The National Memo, November 11, 2015

November 12, 2015 Posted by | African Americans, Childhood Deaths, Children | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Crappuccino With Good Intentions”: Before ‘Conversation On Race’, We Need Education On Race

Am I the only person in America not making fun of Howard Schultz?

The Starbucks CEO bought himself a ton of ridicule recently when he attempted to jumpstart a national dialogue on race by having baristas write the words “Race Together” on customers’ cups of Cinnamon Dolce Light Frappuccino Grande or Caffe Misto Venti with extra coconut.

On Twitter, the campaign was dubbed “patronizing,” “absurd” and “a load of crap.” On The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, Rosie Perez said, “I don’t want to be forced to have a conversation. Especially early in the f—–g morning.” Some folks questioned the wisdom of calling for racial dialogue when your executive team has all the rich cultural diversity of a GOP convention in Idaho.

Starbucks says there will eventually be more to the campaign, but what we’ve seen so far has been epically bad — naive at best, dumber than a sack of coffee beans at worst. Give it this much credit, though: It came out of an earnest conviction that the future health of our country requires us to solve race. In other words, Starbucks had good intentions.

You may say that’s not much. You may note that good intentions are the macadam on the road to hell.

Me, I think we dismiss good intentions at our own peril.

Besides, Schultz’s biggest mistake was not in having baristas write a trite slogan, but in his failure to realize that much of the country is simply not equipped for the conversation he is inviting them to have. Last week, even as “Race Together” was being lampooned, I spent 41 minutes I’ll never get back on the phone with a white, Jewish reader who had insisted she wanted to have the “conversation on race” I have often said this country needs. It was not a productive encounter.

She starts on a spiel about blacks and drugs. I point out that only about 15 percent of drug use in this country is by blacks and that the vast majority of dealers are white. There is a silence. She says this is something she had not known.

We move on to the fact that Jews were footsoldiers and financiers of the civil rights movement, so she is offended that black people never attend Holocaust remembrance services. She has no statistics to prove this, but insists her observation is valid based on her lived experience. I point out that her lived experience is in Tucson, which has a black population of maybe 17.

And so it goes.

What it illustrated for me, and not for the first time, is that often, when people think they’re talking about race, they really aren’t. They are talking instead about the myths, resentments, projections and suppositions by which they justify half-baked notions about who those “other” people are.

You can’t wholly blame them. Who can speak sensibly on a subject he doesn’t understand? And we’ve been foiled in our quest to understand by an institutional conspiracy of ignorance. Race is the rawest wound of the American psyche, but somehow, you can graduate high school without knowing who Emmett Till was or that Martin Luther King ever said any words other than “I have a dream.” Race has done more than arguably any other social force to shape this country, yet somehow news media do not cover it, unless forced to do so by crisis or controversy.

So here is what I’ve come to realize: Before we can have a fruitful “conversation on race,” we need to first have education on race. We will not be a well nation or a whole one until we cease to fear and begin to understand this force that has made us who and what we are.

And how dare we reject from that cause any good person who earnestly seeks the same end, even if his solution is as dumb as a slogan on a coffee cup? Yes, I recognize the limitations of good intentions.

But they sure beat the heck out of the other kind.

 

By: Leonard Pitts, Jr., Columnist for The Miami Herald; The National Memo, March 30, 2015

March 31, 2015 Posted by | African Americans, Race and Ethnicity, Racism, Starbucks | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“What’s Old Is New Again In Ferguson”: The Tensions In Missouri Are Part Of A Too-Familiar American Story

Ferguson, Missouri, has opened our eyes to old and new unpleasant truths about the U.S. of A. First, a small Southern town burning over race – that’s a story we know by heart. American history and literature foretell it over and over: the South is the South is the South.

What’s new to our eyes is the extent to which police forces have become militarized against the citizenry. Why we should tolerate police officers on tanks, looking like warriors, wielding heavy artillery, is beyond me. It’s another outrageous gift from the presidency of George W. Bush, who founded the Department of “Homeland Security.” The word “homeland” was not even in American usage before 2001. Now with military surplus hardware going out to law enforcement, the face of policing at home has changed to become more hostile in a post-9/11 posture. Violence on civilians is thus more likely to happen.

Because of Ferguson, black anger and grief at white power and force is now in starker relief than the nation has witnessed in years. As our collective conscience registers the death of an unarmed youth by a police officer, this is a good time – a crisis – to look back as well as forward. Michael Brown was slain, shot several times, caught in the crossfire on a summer night, like many other young black men before him. Emmett Till, a Chicago youth of 14, died a brutal death in the oppressive heat of Mississippi in 1955. All they did to deserve dying was nothing.

Missouri has always been contested ground, a border state with Southern slavery and culture, much like Maryland. It’s the setting of the greatest American novel, all about the crucible of race. Mark Twain, a son of Missouri, wrote in “Huckleberry Finn” about runaway Huck and fugitive slave Jim seeking freedom, rafting on the Mississippi River, away from the slave state Missouri. How stark is that imagery in our shared memory? If you’ve ever seen Hannibal, the riverfront town that was Twain’s boyhood home, you can breathe that languorous Southern air that keeps people in their place. Missouri is far from the self-reliant Midwest in origins and character, contrary to reputation. It’s more Southern, not so much heartland.

One thing I will say in Missouri’s favor is that President Harry Truman, a native son, desegregated the armed forces soon after World War II. Good for Harry.

Missouri was a slave state in antebellum America and the focus of festering debate in Congress during the bitter divide between North and South. The “Missouri Compromise” of 1820 was just the first skirmish. In the 150 years since the Civil War, in the 50 years since the landmark civil rights acts, we are still prisoners of the past. Reconciliation is far from complete. Racial relations still smolder in the former slave states – known as “the Slave power,” among the abolitionists who resisted it. Philadelphia Quakers and Bostonian Unitarians shone as anti-slavery leaders from the 1830s to the 1850s. These decades were our darkest historical hours.

We still have an unspoken fault line, descended from the Mason-Dixon Line that separated freedom and slavery. Not all states were created equal, let’s be honest. The leading states standing against slavery were Ohio, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New York. That’s just the truth. But old Missouri still has the weight of slavery hanging over it, our own American “peculiar institution.” It remains somewhere under the sun, painfully re-enacted in variations to this day.

Just ask Michael Brown.

 

By: Jamie Stiehm, U. S. News and World Report, August 18, 2014

August 19, 2014 Posted by | Ferguson Missouri, Racism, Slavery | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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