On April 12, two black men walked into a Philadelphia Starbucks. Before placing an order, they reportedly sat down to wait for an acquaintance to arrive. However, the store manager called the police and had the two men arrested for trespassing. They were held in custody for eight hours. The same day, a Michigan teen was shot at after trying to get directions to his school. The 14-year-old had missed his school bus and was trying to walk the route when he got lost. He knocked on a homeowner’s door, seeking direction, but the woman that answered started yelling at him and asking why he wanted to break into her home. Then her husband grabbed a shotgun and started shooting at the teen, who ran and hid. Fortunately, the teen was not injured.
Here we are again. Although we can all sit next to each other on the bus, use the same bathroom, and drink from the same water coolers, we still see very explicit reminders that racism continues to be a significant issue in America - torch waving, violent protests and unarmed black men shot by police.
Despite civil rights laws in this country, how much has really changed? I’m not suggesting that the previous hundred years have been fraught with stagnation. The country took a great leap forward from 1868-1870 and again made significant strides in 1964. Both politicians and civilians have made even further steps in the past fifty years.
While racism has ‘diluted’ somewhat with each passing generation, it should be obvious that blacks are still being treated differently than their white peers. How most people see race in the United States depends a lot on their personal background. People learn to be what their society, their culture, and their upbringing teach them. Everything we’re exposed to gives us messages about ‘good’ and ‘bad’.
Examine for a moment that case of the student who asked for directions. If he was a white teen rather than a black one, how would the woman who answered the door have responded? Would she have yelled until her husband appeared with a shotgun, or would she have sympathetically helped the teen find his way to school? I will go out on a limb here and suggest that this affair would have had vastly different consequences, had the lost visitor been a white teenager.
In my opinion, America is, as it has been since its birth, in a state of perpetual, cultural racism. As much as we hope and attempt to be otherwise, racism is still the norm and not the exception. You don’t have to be black to believe that black lives matter, any more than you have to be Muslim to believe Muslim lives matter. “Black Lives Matter” does not identify or proclaim the virtues or wrongdoings of any specific social identity. It is an outcry for equal rights – for all people.
There is no guarantee, no straightforward way to relegate racism to the pages of history; we must change the way we feel, think, what we say, and what we do. We can start by expressing our outrage over incidents like these. We must continue to destroy perceptions that people of color are, somehow, inferior or dangerous. We must conduct ourselves as, and raise our children to be, responsible citizens who won’t tolerate racism and bigotry. Equal rights for black individuals was first denied by our constitution, gradually became a worthy goal and, finally, thanks to the work of countless civil rights advocates, became the law of the land. Until we embrace our cultural and religious differences, America will never truly be the land of the free.