Chaos or Community?

Racism remains a major force in the US. Those who employ the dog whistle of race on the right have known how effectively race can work as they vie for power. Nixon knew it with his southern strategy and Reagan knew it when he launched his first successful bid for the presidency in 1980. His first campaign appearance was in Philadelphia, Mississippi, near the site of the murder of Mississippi Summer workers Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner. Try to imagine that level of inhumanity!

Trump being less sophisticated than someone like Bill Clinton, who largely ended traditional social welfare and began the mass incarceration of black people, is a bald-face racist who equated white supremacists with anti-fascists in Charlottesville, Virginia where Heather Heyer lost her life to the forces of hate.

Reagan added to his brand of racism with his attack against “welfare queens,” and George H.W. Bush used Willie Horton as a club against Michael Dukakis. All during this time, mass incarceration against black people expanded exponentially through Reagan’s war on drugs, which was really a code word for war on black people and others. Some disaffected whites and others gain sustenance when vulnerable masses of people that they view as “cutting in line,” or getting what they don’t deserve, are harmed.

I taught students from all backgrounds at community colleges for several years, but it was the campaigns for the president and a member of Congress in 2016 that brought the reality of racism home for me in a real sense. Coming back from basic training in the military by rail in 1969, I saw the ravages of racism along the tracks in Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina. I had known that segregation was a force in how society was organized in those days, but I had been removed from it on a face-to-face basis. That stark reality leaped out from beyond the train’s plate-glass windows. The reality of slavery morphing into Jim Crow with its lynch mobs, then mass incarceration and the rampant police brutality and murders that we witness today.

The 2016 presidential and Congressional campaigns put political workers on the ground all across the US. And it was in towns and cities across several states that showed just how entrenched racism was and how little had changed since the inception of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society as a reaction to the movements for civil rights and black power in the 1960s. I knew that schools had become resegregated since the heady days of school integration in the 1950s, 60s, and early 70s, but that doesn’t necessarily prepare one for the reality of enforced deprivation.

Coming into towns and cities in Massachusetts, New York, and Connecticut to work in campaign offices and canvass in neighborhoods, the demarcation lines of segregation jumped out from the landscape in unmistakable ways. Either by driving, or on the ground in neighborhoods going from door-to-door, I could easily determine where people were being forced to live in ghettoes that had once been identified in social programs in an attempt to integrate the US. There were places where sophisticated culture and high levels of literacy did exist, but it was more than apparent that masses of human beings were living in areas easily delineated on a map that have existed for many decades. Other means of official policies of segregation were urban “redevelopment” and housing projects.

I knew that a black middle class had grown since the era of Jim Crow, but that middle class, in some cases, was not apparent among people with whom I spoke with about candidates. I often wondered whether or not the people I met believed that the political system and economic system that had largely disenfranchised them as much as voter suppression had, had a reasonable chance of improving their lives? Even the reality of a two-term black president had not measurably improved the lives of black people, and indeed, the Great Recession has stolen an untold amount of cash right out of the pockets of black people. The economic policies of deregulation and laissez-faire dating back to Clinton and George W. Bush stole directly out of the pockets of those whose most significant asset was their home. Those too big to fail, however, were treated like the crown princes of Saudi Arabia for their part in tanking the economic system through financial games of Russian roulette. A global economy with its race to the bottom took the wind out of the sails of income equality for masses of people.

With the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., some are tempted to consider what Martin would have thought had he survived and continued working for peace and justice and workers’ rights. I think he would have stayed in the fight because the alternative is a moral or spiritual death and that is poison to those who work for substantive change in a system that brings all of its substantial power to thwart change and progress. I recall coming into Atlanta, Georgia by bus a year after King’s assassination and going to his tomb that was then located just outside of his family’s church, Ebenezer Baptist Church, where both he and his father had preached. I had spent the hours of the previous night reading his seminal and last work Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? as the bus raced through the Georgia landscape.

Where do we go?… It will either be complete and irremediable chaos or a livable world of community! Programs that Martin Luther King, Jr. called programs of “social uplift” are one way of achieving some measure of equality for people. But those programs have been decimated by the engines of greed and military spending and hate! Police shootings of unarmed black people has given rise to Black Lives Matter and a revulsion against barbarism!

The daily news brings with it incident after incident of confrontations with black people who are simply going about their daily lives. In California, four people were arrested coming out of a rented home (New York Times, “A Woman Said She Saw Burglars.They Were Just Black Airbnb Guests,” May 8, 2018). In St. Louis, three black men were accused of theft in Nordstrom Rack while shopping for prom clothing (Huffington Post, “Nordstrom Rack President Apologizes After Store Accuses Three Black Men Of Theft,” May 8, 2018).  And at the University of Florida, a faculty member “forcibly rushed them (graduates) off state” for taking part in a fraternity graduation tradition (Time, “University of Florida Apologizes After Black Graduates Were Manhandled at Commencement,” May 7, 2018).

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).