By Bob Houghtaling
America’s long history with race is presently being expressed by its latest permutation. Kamala Harris and Joe Biden’s recent disagreements have been played out in debates, and the media outlets, with numerous folks chirping in. As usual the issue has sparked conversation, hurt feelings and sent many to their entrenched “camps.” In the end, it appears as though people will be speaking at, instead of with, each other. When that occurs, little occurs–people tend to defend their position.
Without question, race has been one of our nation’s most contentious concerns. Slavery, Jim Crow, a genocide perpetrated against indigenous peoples, Muslim bans, the Yellow Peril, prejudice against Irish and Italian immigrants, etc., etc., are things that stain the country’s legacy. White folk have generally set the tone for who is in and who is out. This is funny of course, because what constitutes as acceptable “white” has changed over time (accepting Italians, Irish and often Jews). Non-whites, in many cases, still struggle for acceptance.
For a problem that has been troubling for years, it is amazing how difficult it is for us to speak about this. Many white folk claim that it is not their fault that generations past were racists and that minorities need to move on from what happened long ago. Some minorities (I hate this term) especially African Americans, indigenous peoples, Latinos and Muslims, have difficulty trusting those they see holding power. In the end, on and on we go.
It is easy to say “move on” when you are in a position of power. And while there are those whites who have faced hardship and disadvantage, in general, slavery, Jim Crow, the Trail of Tears, Wounded Knee, along with other atrocities, represents systemic attempts to hurt populations. In addition, access to property, and oil and mineral rights, is significantly limited if one is enslaved or placed on a reservation.
Longitudinal wealth passed down over generations, is minimal for the vast majority of African and Native Americans. Wealth is still mostly controlled by powerful white people.
Poverty, substance abuse (especially among indigenous peoples) and disproportionate representation in prison definitely impact our black, Native American and Latino populations. There might be many reasons for these issues – one of them points heavily towards racial considerations.
This article could endlessly examine history, social justice and fault regarding the matter of race. And while these all might be worthy of lots of time, that is not my purpose here. My intent is far more simple – that we somehow find a way to seriously speak with each other regarding race. Obviously to do so will hurt. Obviously to do so will require trust. Obviously, without truly being honest about the issue, we will continue to endure the myths, misconceptions and polarization we see today.
Recently, I had the opportunity to travel out to South Dakota and Wyoming for a vacation. While out there one of my stops was at Mount Rushmore. Gazing at the amazing display of technological acumen, I wondered how the four men depicted on the Black Hills would fare in today’s presidential debates. Washington and Jefferson owned slaves. In fact, our third president even had children with one of them. Lincoln wanted to send blacks to Liberia and Roosevelt presided over the Brownsville incident where hundreds of African American soldiers were framed and discharged from the military. Adding insult to injury, these four faces were carved into a place considered sacred by the Sioux. All of this makes for controversial positions on race and civil rights. Could you imagine what the media would do with the Sally Hemmings situation today.
It is essential that we recognize and evolve from these positions. We should also learn from the past. There is enough posturing and blame to go around. Unfortunately, many groups continue to be marginalized. Sound bites, stereotypes and finger pointing incites but doesn’t change much. Perhaps we might begin by admitting our past, while also agreeing to look into ways that progress, along with change, occurs.
Bob Dylan wrote, “All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie.” I wonder, as we retreat towards our security silos, if too much time is spent on believing that one is right than on doing the right things? Can everyone else be wrong on such matters? Does one race corner the market on what is right and what is wrong? It’s hard for change to come when folks aren’t willing to listen and risk understanding. Race will continue to be a problem as long as we ignore it being a concern. America is big enough to embrace change. With hope to the future – we can do this.
Author Bob Houghtaling is the director of the East Greenwich Drug Program, as well as a poet and sometime philosopher.