Editor’s note: This commentary is by John Klar, a Vermont grass-fed beef and sheep farmer, and an attorney and pastor who lives in Irasburg.
[I]n the 1960s, some of our nation’s black leaders, including Malcolm X, advocated a black activism that was violent, separatist and counterproductive to the goals of integration. Groups such as the Black Panthers proliferated, whose motto was often “Black Power.” At the very same time, Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohammed Ali cautioned that the response of blacks to white oppression must be the “high road” of peace and mutual understanding.
Half a century later, we see in our nation a racial tension that threatens still to divide us, and to which we still seek solutions. Wealth and education disparities between blacks and whites persist, and blacks are arrested and incarcerated at higher rates than whites. A pattern of police shootings of young black men has spurred the Black Lives Matter movement, a call for an end to police violence that has often been expressed more dangerously as an almost revolutionary cry to vindicate black oppression. Publicizing police excesses is something Dr. King or Cassius Clay would doubtless endorse, but the more extremist voices in our midst today echo Malcolm X and the Black Panthers.
If we are to have an honest discussion about race in America we must address not just white racism but black racism. Black culture is rife with anti-white references and themes, and this has long been tolerated, presumably because of white guilt – after all, who am I to tell black people what they can say in rap or hip-hop lyrics about their erstwhile (or current) oppressor the white man? And if blacks next to me on the train call each other the “N” word, who am I as a white man to even presume to alert them to its offensiveness?
Recently, some activists have called for confrontation against anyone who displays the Confederate flag. I grew up in a country where people were free to display the Nazi swastika, because our constitutional compact (symbolized by the American flag) protected that freedom; suddenly it is politically incorrect (or worse?) to display the Confederate flag to celebrate the pre-Civil War South, or as a symbol of rebellion, or as "Dukes of Hazard" memorabilia – because someone thinks that flag represents solely racial oppression. But even if the person employing a Confederate flag as expression is a racist, our “higher road” values protect that opinion, however repugnant, even as we have long tolerated Nazism and PETA. Speech which openly advocates violence is prohibited – but flags are but symbols.
Does being intolerant toward a 150-year-old flag somehow accomplish racial unity, while black lyrics and outspoken rhetoric against whites go unchallenged? Because unchallenged, black calls for retaliation against whites, or a sense of entitlement and victimhood toward a white-dominated society, will actually take us backward. First, such thinking encourages black resentment toward whites; second, such speaking inculcates fear and racism in whites. And why shouldn’t it? – Who wants to be hated for their skin color?
The way to break the cycle is to have a two-way street on race, not a double standard where blacks are encouraged to vocally resent and hate whites for past (or current) offenses; not a country where blacks can openly use the “N” word but whites can’t have a Confederate flag on their porch (both of these “political correctitudes” are in themselves racist).
Our longstanding problems, which indeed arose from the tragic institution of slavery, will not be solved simply or quickly.
In Russia, Vladimir Putin has used anti-American propaganda to turn public attention away from a struggling economy. In Saudi Arabia, the royal family was concerned about public resentment of its monarchic privilege in a modern world, so money was freely diverted to extremist Muslim schools that taught hate against America and the West. In George Orwell’s "1984," Big Brother employs vague references to threatening dangerous foreign enemies (“Eurasia”) to keep the proles (the working class) in servitude. Sometimes it appears like the American government fuels racial division more than it resolves it, as if it would prefer to shift our attention toward internal conflict rather than have us organized, black and white proles together, against the common enemy. Regardless, the encouragement of black racism towards whites must not be permitted to flourish.
America is facing huge debts, a failing government, climate change, wealth disparity, a shortage of good-paying jobs, and a host of other challenges. And we Americans – black, white, Asian, Latino – all face those issues, and the foreign nations and forces that hate us, together. Of course black lives matter. All of our lives matter, together. Most whites I have known in my life wish to bridge the gap and help end the disparities that burden Americans of color. We don’t want to be labeled as culprits-after-the-fact by virtue solely of our skin color.
Of the many nations struggling with multi-culturalism, the shining star appears to be South Africa. After decades of horrible oppression by whites, one might expect that democracy – and overwhelming black majority rule – would bring retribution and payback. It appears not. It appears that South Africa’s black population has tired of violence, and has taken the high road of reconciliation and uniting in shared burdens and goals with its white minority.
The American melting pot, with its stew of protected rights of speech, assembly, worship, travel, etc., should be able to manage also to bridge divides of race. Yet our country seems instead to be falling apart along fault lines of income, of ideology and of race. What has become of Martin Luther King’s dream?
If persuading all-white Americans to display their chic enlightenment by saying “African American” would overcome our race frictions, race relations would not be deteriorating. Our longstanding problems, which indeed arose from the tragic institution of slavery, will not be solved simply or quickly. But if there is no challenge to black violence and hostility toward Caucasian Americans, then each generation of black youth (whose lives matter) may be more drawn or directed toward the “low road” of racial retribution and violence. Malcolm X was brilliant, and offered America great insight and understanding, but in his more extreme positions advocated racism as a response to racism. And if blacks are openly hateful toward whites, many of those whites will embrace racism as a response to that racism – the cycle must end. The poverty and hopelessness of our inner cities is as fertile an environment to sow ignorance and hate as the ghettos of Saudi Arabia or the frozen streets of Moscow.
Mohammed Ali and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were right. One a Muslim, the other Christian, both through their faith (and I through mine) believed that love, peace and forgiveness are the virtues we must always hold in view if we are to heal our nation’s old and complex division. The positive steps America has been able to make, especially the Civil Rights Act and related progress of the 1960s, were forged largely if not wholly by people who sought and attained that higher road. We 21st century Americans owe it to that heritage, and to the inheritance we leave our future, to resist calls from both sides that would draw us back, and downwards, into the abyss of racial hate and conflict.