It has been a struggle to capture in words the conflicting emotions churned up by the George Zimmerman verdict. The discussion that erupted online and on television in its immediate aftermath seemed dominated by voices from the extremes.
Those who believe the problem of racism in America is just as intractable and severe as ever came barreling in from the left to prove they were always right. The election of Barack Obama meant little, in their view. It was a momentary blip in the history of a racist nation that has only improved in cosmetic ways. Let's call these people the "Cloud Chasers."
From the right, came the opposite position. The election of Barack Obama proves that racism is over in America, one person tweeted. How can the country be racist and elect a black man president? Instances of harassment are individual aberrations that happen to everyone, some believe; and black people are profiled because, well, more black people commit crimes. These people I will call "Sunshine Fakers," because they are willing to overlook all evidence of systemic problems in pursuit of their false narrative.
Regaining my equilibrium required remembering that only 15 percent of Americans online use Twitter and only 8 percent use it daily. Most Americans are too busy living their lives to tweet about them.
Most Americans who are realists know the story of African-Americans and their treatment is complex. There are two sides to the coin of black progress. On one side there is incredible promise. Blacks are now able to do anything in the country whites can, from living in any neighborhood (they can afford) to marrying someone of any race and becoming the CEO of a Fortune 100 company, president of an Ivy League university or president of the United States.
Many commentators have discussed "the talk" that black parents have with their sons about how to comport themselves in public to avoid trouble from profiling. Every black man I know has a story, even those in positions of great influence. In 2000, before we came to know the name of Trayvon Martin, then White House personnel director Bob Nash was driving his SUV around a Maryland suburb with his wife when he was stopped by police looking for a stolen car. Six (!) officers got out of their cars with guns drawn. He was handcuffed and frisked before they even checked his identification.
In addition to the profiling talk there is another talk black parents have had with their children. As one black congressman recounted a few years ago, adults told black children they could be anything they wanted if they tried hard enough, but they knew deep down they were lying just a little bit. There were some jobs that still had "whites only" signs on them. After the election of Barack Obama as president they can now tell black children they can be anything and tell them the truth at the same time. The Cloud Chasers dismiss this progress.
On the other side of that coin there is incredible peril dismissed by the Sunshine Fakers. Black people face daunting statistics when compared to whites. We live sicker, die younger, get far fewer degrees and make less money for the same work. Median black household wealth is less than $6,000. Blacks face far harsher punishments, getting longer prison sentences and (according to the Civil Rights Project at UCLA) more frequent suspensions from school for the same offenses as their white classmates.
Staking out extreme black and white positions like those of the Cloud Chasers or the Sunshine Fakers is easy. The harder path lies in confronting the cognitive dissonance presented by the facts of black life in America. African-Americans are forced to face them every day. On one level we must tolerate a certain cognitive dissonance, holding opposing facts in our head about promise and peril in America for people with dark skin. At another level, we must try to resolve that dissonance not by erasing facts that are disturbing but by doing the hard work required to make America better. That was the message of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. America is exceptional in its promise and it is our job to make her live up to that promise.
In the wake of the Trayvon Martin tragedy and the Zimmerman verdict we can't let the voices of acrimony and resignation take over. Instead we must do the hard work of clearing away the clouds so the real sunshine can beam more brightly than ever.
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