Mourning in America

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I watched the video footage of Eric Garner’s arrest and death last night after I heard the verdict, which shocked me. And now I can’t get those images and the feelings they generate out of my mind and heart.

I find myself thinking back to when Obama gave his acceptance speech in Chicago in 2008 and how those of us who had supported him and worked for the campaign felt that we were witnessing history, that this election was a pivotal event we’d collectively created together. I remember how that night felt suffused with a sense of joy mingled with disbelief. I remember seeing two women in the crowd at the rally at Grant Park hugging and spontaneously falling onto their knees together, laughing and crying, overcome with emotion. They were African American and I’m White but I felt their feelings were my feelings, and that we were both part of a bigger wave that was carrying this country up and out of our history of racial tragedy toward something brighter.

Now it’s six years later and I’ve never felt so dispirited about the state of American society. I read comments about Eric Garner and Michael Brown on social media and am unspeakably dismayed to see endless strings of excuses about why they deserved to be choked or shot by police, as if reasonable people should easily see that this is all perfectly acceptable, not out of line at all. I can’t find the words to adequately express how I feel about this; everything sounds trite.

I want to change those beliefs, but I don’t know how. I think that denouncing people as racists only fuels more reactivity and hate. I believe that education can change hearts and minds, but it takes a long time and supportive circumstances. And that’s very hard to come by today.

I thought through this territory years ago back when I was in grad school and came to the conclusion that until a critical mass of Americans understands that our problems of race and class inequality are and always have been intertwined, and takes action to address both at the same time, we’ll never be able to unwind the patterns that fuel those divisions. Racist beliefs have historically been bound up with the larger gulf between wealth/power/status and impoverishment/disempowerment/marginalization, and that remains true today. But these class dynamics are legitimated and hidden from view, while the racial ones are amped up and distorted.

Seeing this pattern doesn’t give me the answers I want about how to change them. When I was younger, I’d assumed that it would, but it didn’t. I’m still looking.

I so appreciate the people who are out in the streets protesting while keeping it peaceful because they’re showing me that it’s still possible to transform rage and grief into hope and determination. Meanwhile, I’m just sitting here at my computer, feeling lost and depleted and sad. But sometimes we need to take some time for grieving. And so for the moment, I’m OK with that.

But I can’t imagine how enraged and scared for my children I’d be right now if I were Black. My oldest son is 16, and I’m well aware that in the past few years, I’ve felt a sense of worry when he goes around the city with his Black friends that I don’t feel otherwise. There’s no question in my mind that he’s much more likely to get in a confrontation with the police when he’s with them. One, the son of two doctors, was already stopped by the police while driving in Lincoln Park, one of the whiter and wealthier neighborhoods in the city. In that case, nothing bad happened, but it’s still sobering and scary. I could give numerous anecdotes like this.

Looked at from the more positive side, though, I see connections between kids today that bridge racial divides much more openly and authentically than I ever experienced back when I was that age. It may not be the norm, but it is happening. And it gives me some hope.

And I start to think that maybe that the wave of positive feeling I experienced back in 2008 wasn’t a mirage, as it often now seems. I do believe that there are a lot of us – Black, White, Asian, Latino, whatever – that want to create a more just society. I don’t know how that’s going to happen, and am not sure it ever will. But when I remember how much good will there still is out there, it gives me heart. Which I realize seems woefully inadequate. But I’m still hoping that it will somehow lead to something more.

And that’s all I’ve got at the moment.

 

Note: Most people reading this are probably be too young to remember the 1980 election and Reagan’s “Morning in America” themed campaign. But I remember it well and trace many of our current problems back to the negative political choices made during that time. My title for this post is in part a reference to that.

 


6 Comments

  1. Carol, as sad as this situation is, it is refreshing to see an honest portrayal of feelings of overwhelm and confusion that are probably more common than we know for white people, in response to this confounding social dilemma. I also feel that confusion and overwhelm, and as I say that, also feel a need to acknowledge that it is because of white privilege that it is only confusion and overwhelm, rather than the realistic fear and anger at being the target of lethal oppression that I imagine most people of color are feeling in response to the non-indictment of Pantaleo. While acknowledging that, and recognizing the inequity in it, I do believe it is important for all of us white people – if we are to participate in change in any practical or tangible way – to be honest both about how these killings affect us, and about how those feelings are in part a product of the privilege of being relatively unlikely to be the direct target police brutality. Unlike you, in 2008 I did not believe Obama’s election was an optimistic sign of change; I did not doubt because of any wisdom or knowledge on my part, but because I was jaded and pessimistic. While I have shed much of that knee-jerk cynicism in the years in between, I still do not have the sense of hope that you appear to have. But I do hope that you are right, and that we will somehow find our way to a more just society. And the only way it will be possible at all is if we keep the faith and keep trying, so thank you for writing this! It is motivational in a way that much of the more politicized writings are not.

  2. Great post totally agree to much violence we need more peaceful resolutions all around

  3. It has got to be a rough time to be the first Black president or at least represent as a Black president (because I never get how when you are from a White and Black parent you are declared Black).

    In any case, there hasn’t been much respect for the highest office since the way too invasive public questioning of every detail of Clinton’s sexual encounter with Lewinsky. From the top down, the governing bodies morals and public morale are crumpling with rapidity.

    In crisis we know it looks like one body shares one heart. Otherwise there’s good and bad and indifferent in all of us. The biggest problem is the way we get our information if we choose to get any at all. The truth is ambiguous. We are handed what stats show we want to hear. We believe in the institutions we are familiar with. This mess has been coming for some time. It’s not going to stop for some time either. There is strength in friendship though and it is important to have a life where people have your back or share your views at least.

    I’m not feeling too optimistic. But here you are voicing your dismay and here I am listening to you respecting and sharing your feelings and telling you so. That’s how we keep going.

  4. “Black, White, Asian, Latino, whatever – that want to create a more just society” – until the conversation shifts to include all the above, and “whatever” 🙂 focusing on one group as victims, I believe, leaves everyone else wondering – hey!

    “Racist beliefs have historically been bound up with the larger gulf between wealth/power/status and impoverishment/disempowerment/marginalization, and that remains true today. But these class dynamics are legitimated and hidden from view, while the racial ones are amped up and distorted.” –

    Agree totally. And the deflection to “a” group based on color or beliefs, rather than the bank account balance (if any) has been mightily successful.

    But I also can see the change from forty years ago when I was still being stopped in my car, with my kids in the backseat, for a “spot” check. And I don’t see as much of that anymore, at least where I grew up in Houston, or here in Austin.

    Other parts, further west, I don’t know, but it doesn’t sound good. Though I suspect it’s more of info being made available now. And “that” is also hopeful.

    Meanwhile, grieving, I’ve come accept, is a periodic thing in life.

    I appreciate your article, Carol, thank you for continuing to bring forth your thoughts.

  5. aileen

    Thank you Carol for sharing these thoughts. I mourn too and am committed to continuing to work towards a different future for humanity. What else is there worth working for?

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