Like the great majority of American white people of earlier eras, slaveholder Thomas Jefferson and abolitionist Abraham Lincoln held the belief that (a) blacks probably could not hack it as free men in modern society and (b) white people would never tolerate them as equals, in any event.
Martin Luther King, Thurgood Marshall, and the rest of the leadership of the civil rights movement had no illusions about immediately converting the great mass of angry/terrified white Southerners to the cause of equality so they always pitched their words and deeds to a larger national white audience.
What white people thought about black people largely controlled and constrained the lives of the latter for most of our history. One the perverse, unexpected consequences of that fact is the increasingly weird, magical thinking that what white people think still controls and constrains black lives.
When a African-American cop (working under an African-American police chief) in a city where white supremacists in power are about as common as unicorns (Milwaukee) shot Sylville Smith, an armed African-American suspect who aimed a weapon at pursuing police, there was a three-day riot and a relative of the fallen suspect said “white people are the devil.”
Similarly, in Baltimore, Freddie Gray was killed in a negligent fashion in a police van with an African-American police driver after an arrest by three African-American and three white officers who worked under anAfrican-American police chief responsible to an African-American mayor and majority African-American city council in a country where civil rights complaints were referred to an African-American US Attorney General appointed by an African-American President. Yet for many, the incident was somehow about white racism.
White people actually have constrained and deformed black lives in the modern era but not from malignant racism so much as spectacularly bad social welfare policies designed by white liberals. Our national policies destroyed family life, natural social ties, and solid childhood formation. These programs have had the net effect of fostering crime, poverty, and substance-abuse and thus made clashes with law enforcement vastly more common.
White liberals also found various ideological means to crush substantive academic achievement just in case the deformative process of atomization was not sufficiently harmful.
For the majority of African-Americans who are not part of the poverty culture, white liberals also found a way to undermine their place in society with “affirmative action.” The previous presumption that an African-American with a professional degree is probably at least as good if not better than most whites because of what he or she had to overcome has been replaced with the nagging suspicion that he or she may be in that position only because of affirmative action.
counterproductive stupid NFL protests seem like a manifestation of the fantasy that if only all white people could simultaneously think good thoughts about black people, all social ills would be cured. The hope that just maybe one more broad accusation of white racism (e.g., Eric Holder’s call for a “conversation”) will bring about social nirvana is an increasingly self-defeating delusion.
It is strange to be old enough to remember when white racism was part of the law, to have experienced the change, and now to see angry, ignorant young people raging against racist ghosts while remaining oblivious to real obstacles and causes right in front of them.
It will be painful and require mental and moral heavy-lifting to create a broad understanding of the facts that (a) the segregationists /supremacists no longer control or influence anything in this country; (b) the major existing harms to African-Americans have been done by allegedly well-meaning paternalistic policies, not by the legacy of Jim Crow and slavery, and (c) the magical thinking that it is all still about what white people think instead of what black people think about their own lives and communities has to go.
For 30 years, Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and the NAACP raced to any corporate site where racism could be alleged, however tenuously. It was as if they were saying, “Thank God we still have a one more chance to say that it is still somehow about white racism because we clearly don’t know what to do if any or all of this social pathology really has other causes.” And how desperate and pathetic were the 40,000 mostly white leftists turned out in Boston eager to protest the possibility that there might be a few dozen people who they thought might be kind of sort of like white supremacists. The very people whose ideological and political habits created urban hellholes need to pretend that these ills are the fault of long-dead racists and/or current loser fringe players.
Because the real issues really do require heavy-lifting and would upset too many vested interests in a very bad status quo, I guess we will instead tear down Confederate statues, disrespect the flag, and indulge other futile gestures. As long as we can successfully pretend the threat of white racism still exists we can avoid the real issues indefinitely.