Why all this unspeakable violence in our Selma, in our nation and in our world at large? Selma is part of the nation and the world at large. Why are our children killing each other? Why is it becoming almost common in this little town for parents to bury their children? That is backwards, not the way it should be. Who, in the final analysis, is responsible for all this unspeakable bloodletting and black-on-black violence? What is desperately wrong in our little town? How can we fix it?
I begin with an observation that a white friend was surprised when I said some black cab drivers in New York City act white and ignore blacks trying to hail a taxi even in the rain. My white friend recalled that Jesse Jackson once said if he were walking alone on a dark city street at night and heard footsteps he would pray it wasn’t a young hip-hopper with baggy pants hanging down below his hips. I said if Jesse is walking late at night in a white neighborhood for any reason he better pray even harder that the steps behind him don’t belong to two so-called conservative white cops.
Much inner city violence (like everything else) is learned from the larger society, and the police and the government have historically been excellent teachers in poor minority neighborhoods. Oppression breeds violence. Some Jews collaborated with Hitler’s depraved SS troops and helped murder innocent Jews. During my childhood, at least one white appointed “Clarence Thomas type black” resided in each black neighborhood and they served oppressive white political interests by selling out the rest of us. One even gave correct directions to a lynch mob. Poor white Southerners, who died by the tens of thousands during the Civil War, were little more than slaves themselves. Violence is not new to Selma or America.
In addition to the low self-esteem component in oppression, a small oligarchy in this country has always controlled the wealth, the education, the business, even the opportunities, indeed the life of this nation, and they have used bloody violence to maintain the status quo, and will use it again. That is what “Bloody Sunday” is really about? The vote is merely the icing on the cake, not the cake!
Warehousing more than 4 million angry people today in dehumanizing prisons (more than 60% of them of color) is as violent as any act on the bloody streets of Baghdad. More than 90% of these angry people will, sooner or later, return to inner city streets and are usually then more desperate than ever; however, to keep them in prison in perpetuity would bankrupt the nation.
Even in this stacked game of special privileges conferred by birth, by accident, by education, by luck, we African-Americans suffer an additional handicap, our skin color. The “playing field” remains tilted against us because we, our history and out status is different than other immigrant groups. We are the only immigrants brought here involuntarily, in chains, enslaved for 350 years, and to this very day, this very minute our skin color makes us highly visible and unique. We and one other people, also of color, Native-Americans, are the only people in a perpetually untouchable class. We are alone together. (Repeat).
A white caller to this show pointed with pride to the difficulties her European ancestors overcame. Bill O’Reilly, the most successful shouter on the least fair and balanced celebrated Fox News, speaks with pride about how his Irish ancestors made it. The underlying message for we blacks, I gather, is to get over it, quit being a victim. You can achieve your dreams in this country. It is dishonest and insulting to compare the travails of white immigrants with the continuing, contemptible nightmare of African-Americans.
170 years ago, the Irish and the Germans were seen as the “unmeltable ethnics” along with, oh yes, a handful of free blacks. 125 years ago, the Italians, Jews, Poles, the Russians and, of course, of yes, the recently freed blacks were added to the unwanted list. All these people were vilified, excluded, abused and discriminated against and portrayed as less than human and much less desirable than the Anglo-Saxon white majority.
Today in 2005, every single one of these groups, except, oh yes, the freed blacks, has been assimilated into the mainstream white American culture. Even Hispanic and Asian communities assimilate in relative rapid fashion, but not we blacks. Aside from a different taste in food and music, most second and third generation Hispanics and Asians are now almost indistinguishable from the grandchildren of other immigrants.
Throughout American history, second-generation immigrants (except of course we blacks) became truly American. In 2005, the eighth-generation of involuntary black immigrants to these shores remains just black people, standing in a long line, and seemingly waiting forever on assimilation and true citizenship. Comedian Richard Pryor was only half joking when he said the first citizenship lesson taught white immigrants was the correct pronunciation of the word “nigger.”
This is much more than a “perception gap” or political disagreement. America’s ugly race relations are built into all the daily interactions between blacks and whites, they shape what we are, how we see the world and how the world sees us. Blacks face that bitter truth every day, and I am often astounded by whites who themselves appear astounded after blacks have reacted with deep anger over a remark or incident that whites see as innocent. I also have little patience with pliable, self-serving blacks and whites who claim I place too much emphasis on today’s and yesterday’s race and racism.
During the O.J. Simpson trial, a white politician tried to turn me against Simpson, but I wouldn’t say a word. White folks made a hero out of this nutty “ethnic turn-coat” and a white politician didn’t need to know I despised Simpson long before he and many whites had heard of him.
Likewise, our past seems to have a stronger grip on Americans than does the future. A black father is speechless when his ten-year-old son asks why only a hand-full of white kids is left at his school. A conscientious white mother gropes for words when her daughter asks why Alabama passed laws that forced black people to use different bathrooms and drink from different water fountains — and then the child asks the million dollar question why are we still separated if the laws no longer keep us apart.
A white kindergarten teacher consoles my pretty grandbaby, the only black student in the school, after the child asks if brown is ugly and if that is why a little girl who isn’t brown wouldn’t play with her. Adults, black and white, try to remain numb to all the ugly racist realities in life and refuse to move beyond the myths, the evasions and the excuses. They would rather not plumb the ugly, disturbing depths of the racial chasm dividing us, but our dear innocent children deserve much better and they deserve honest answers.
All things considered, my friends, the black taxi driver in Times Square with a strong sense of right and fair play who dares to serve black passengers is a sort of hero. Cabbies, black and white, who refuse to serve black people are, in a real sense, just being American and buying into America’s huge racist inventory. It is not we blacks who need so much to get over it. America desperately needs to get over it! (Repeat).
But now please understand, black folks, notwithstanding everything I just said it is also a fundamental, inarguable fact that no one is more responsible for our current and debilitating plight than we blacks. (Repeat). In the ultimate sense, it not so much what white folks do or don’t do but what we do or don’t do.
And, it is absolutely imperative that we begin now to learn for the first time to really love one another, learn to really trust each other, learn to really work with each other and learn even to rely on one another — and we must do so though that flies directly in the face of 500 years of brainwashing. In the end, only we can save us. We are already doing some of this, thank GOD, but not nearly enough, and don’t fool yourself, we can’t do it with our head stuck in the sand and running from the ugly truth day and night.
In the end, only we can fix it. In fact, we are the only ones who should fix it. And, that is as it should be.
J.L. CHESTNUT, Jr. is a civil rights attorney in Selma, Alabama. He is the founder of Chestnut, Sanders and Sanders which is the largest black law firm in Alabama. Born in Selma and, after graduating from Howard University Law School, he began practicing law in Selma in 1958. He started as the only black lawyer in the town and has been challenging the establishment since then. His law firm now owns two radio stations in Selma and Mr. Chestnut hosts a radio talk show three days a week touted as the most popular radio show in south and central Alabama. He is the author of “Black in Selma” with Julia Cass (1989 Farrar, Straus and Giroux), and writes a weekly column called the “Hard Cold Truth”. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.