She told him she didn’t want him in her class. He just wasn’t smart enough. A few years later, there were the constant, unexpected beatings. Groups of kids waited to ambush him on the playground or in an empty classroom. Assumptions about how ugly and stupid he was dogged him throughout high school. Within weeks of his arrival at college, roommates told him he was “3/5s” of a person, and, later, a student beat him with a nightstick for using a nearby pay phone. The torture and abuse did not match the depth shown in the independent film, “12 Years a Slave,” but the fundamental thinking remained the same across nearly a century and a half. Racism shapes a language that undermines community by encouraging bullying and violence.
The rhetorical boomerang that cast aspersions and epithets at African American students since 1965 came back to haunt the segregationist-powered Republican party, especially its most recent president, George W. Bush. Beneficiary of a Supreme Court ruling, not an election, in 2000, President Bush overlooked the warnings about an Al Qaeda attack on American soil, squandered international goodwill in favor of a second war in Iraq, watched New Orleans drown from a lack of infrastructure investment, and sabotaged the world economy by neglecting responsible regulation in the financial services and energy sectors. His colossal failures reflected his utter incompetence as a leader and the bankruptcy of “states’ rights” conservatism.
Yet the boomerang came back around as Barack Obama led the national process of healing and recovery. His pursuit of compromise became the foundation of his opponents’ outright rejection of everything associated with his name. President Obama’s moderation demanded an exercise in reactionary politics that has persisted from 2010 through today. The constant drumbeat of division and disunity fed on the illegitimacy of the Bush administration, but it has been sustained against an Obama administration committed to national unity. Worse, the rejection of the president and his policies has rendered the African American experience both silent and invisible on the global stage.
While films like “12 Years a Slave,” “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” and “Django Unchained” have entertained audiences with stories based on past human rights struggles, serious engagement with present inequalities nearly disappeared. Books on cable televisions shows like “Duck Dynasty” get more readers than the most prominent new analyses about racial inequality. These studies offer an essential moral compass to navigate a media landscape littered with cynical pundits, politicians, and editors. Some of the best new work includes “The History of White People,” “The Forgotten Dead,” “Ages of Heroes, Eras of Men,” “God’s Crucible,” and “In the Crossfire.” If you’re especially interested in the growth and contraction of communities like Norristown, Phoenixville, and Reading, works like “The Path to Freedom” and “Suburban Erasure” will provide helpful insights for greater success in 2014.
Most directly, everyone reading this column has an opportunity to make sure that African American students do not continue to suffer like the young man described at the beginning. Understand, first, that being African American is a specific historical experience that is not always shared by recent immigrants from the African continent, Latin America, or the Caribbean. African American identity is rooted in the survival and success of families against both enslavement and racial segregation from 1529 to 1965. It references the absence of a clear ancestral link to a particular nation or ethnic group in Africa. Thus, any person who could identify as Nigerian American, Egyptian American, or Zimbabwean American is not part of the same experience that African Americans live. Unity on this point requires respect for a unique history that lays at the foundation of the modern world.
Next, embrace the opportunity to celebrate the institutions that made an inclusive America possible in the twenty-first century. On December 7, the Norristown Men of Excellence will partner with the State Farm Insurance Company to honor several organizations that value and protect Norristown’s families. Join us for the occasion as we present the next stage of the region’s economic and educational development. It will show your commitment to life, liberty, and equality worldwide.
Dr. Walter Greason is the Executive Director of the International Center for Metropolitan Growth and author of Suburban Erasure: How the Suburbs Ended the Civil Rights Movement in New Jersey. His work is available on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).