By Lewis Redding
Brown vs. Board of Education was decided in 1954. (My brother and I had an uncle who had something to do with that.) Think of it as a positive marker: the idea of separate but equal education became unacceptable – it always had been an oxymoron. Despite positive progress in Black/white relations in the decades that followed, including the national election of the first Black President of the United States, American life remains separate and unequal. If one accepts that we are all human beings, we are all just as likely to be sinners as well as saints, dumb as well as brilliant, criminal as well as law abiding, gracious as well as curmudgeonly, sane as well as insane, competent as well as incompetent, or good as well as evil.
Where, though, does that leave us? The nation remains heavily segregated even now. Consciously, or unconsciously, the vast majority of the white population have never worked alongside people of color, have never been supervised by a person of color (the military might prove an exception), haven’t really attended school with people of color (nor have their children), have never lived in a neighborhood with people of color, don’t worship with people of color, have never shared a meal with a person of color, have never been in the home of a person of color, have never been close and/or best friends with a person of color and have never had a person of color in their homes. I worked for some 44 years primarily in institutions of higher education or in laboratories associated with those institutions. During that entire time, whenever I attended a meeting regardless of where I happened to be working, far more often than not, I was the only person of color in the room. It is totally absurd that should have been the case.
During slavery, men, women and children not only toiled in the fields but, on the plantations of many slave holders, slave women also prepared the meals, cleaned the homes, tended to the mistress of the house, cared for and even suckled the owner’s children. Still, the old canard that familiarity breeds contempt, in this case, seems to be false, because for most white Americans alive today, there is little or no familiarity with Black Americans beyond often achingly distorted media coverage.
What, then, is left that might explain the racial antipathy of white for Black? Fear, perhaps? Yet the population numbers, alone, should render that fear absurd; out of a population of some 300,000,000 Americans, Black people make up only about 39,000,000. Regardless, the macho militia types, with their baseball caps, mirror sunglasses, weapons and camouflage clothing, would vehemently deny any such possibility. Yet for whites at the lower end of America’s economic pay scale, perhaps there is a very real fear: the fear that they, themselves, may end up at the bottom of America’s increasingly stratified economic well; the fear that those with darker skins are the only protection that they have from being societal afterthoughts themselves.
Shame might be another possible explanation for the nation’s ongoing racial antipathy, though it is unlikely. Large numbers of the majority population appear to feel that segregation and America’s racial past have nothing at all to do with them despite the ongoing existence of “built-in” structural benefits that accrue only to those with pale skins. Such individuals often declare that Black people need to “get over slavery,” or, that “segregation wasn’t so bad.” People of color are constantly blamed for their own situation despite the increasing evidence that it just isn’t so.
The good news is that despite the loss of life that it has entailed, encouragingly large numbers of Americans of all colors now finally seem to understand that “Black Lives Matter,” does not mean that other lives do not matter, but that the Black experience in the United States has always been qualitatively and substantively different from the experience of others. That difference has been manufactured and deliberate.
Lewis Redding is a resident of Bar Harbor