Sekhnet and I found a wallet on the street the other night. I put the guy’s name and address into a search engine on my phone, and websites were eager to sell me his phone number, though I was not eager to pay the fee for what was, until monetized recently, free public information. 311 was no help, outside of suggesting we bring the wallet to the local police precinct. Sekhnet did exhaustive research when we got home, trying to contact the owner of the wallet, a 22 year-old — nada. The next day we drove over to his house, which was not far away, to give the kid back his wallet.
His house was located in a middle class neighborhood called St. Albans, which has long been home to financially successful Black Queens families. I recall as a boy going to visit a classmate whose father was an architect, they lived in a large house in St. Albans . The daughter of the architect, Rani, had been recently admitted to my class, over the long, organized protests of local white racists. Our elementary school had been de-segregated two or three years earlier pursuant to the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling that all public schools must be racially integrated with “all deliberate speed” — which in the case of PS178Q was about a decade and a half.
Yesterday was a beautiful sunny spring day, everything in bloom, the lawns green under brilliant sunlight. We found the address. I went to ring the bell, Sekhnet went to talk to the man working on the edge of the property. When Sekhnet told the man why we were there he said he was the kid’s father. I approached and filled in a few details.
“Oh, his girlfriend lives over there,” the father said, when I told him where on the service road we’d found the wallet.
Before turning over the wallet Sekhnet asked a clever question. “What is your son’s middle initial?” The man looked confused, hesitated. “I’m not good with that kind of thing, I don’t even… see him, I don’t even know his name,” he pointed to his other son, who laughed, and told Sekhnet “N”.
We stood there a moment (the kid wasn’t home, didn’t even know his wallet was missing) exchanging wallet-related pleasantries as the father, his other son and a smiling young woman thanked us. I mentioned that I still felt the pain, from 15 years ago, of losing my wallet, knowing the security guard who’d definitely found it, and being unable to prove it or get the wallet or any of its contents back.
The father, a small, wiry man with a Jamaican accent and dark brown skin, a mechanic and owner of the shop where at least one of his sons worked with him, nodded and told me he’d found a wallet outside of his shop one time. When he went to return it he got no thanks, only suspicion, the people treated him like he’d stolen it, wanted to know how he got the wallet. I looked into his reddened eyes as he said “that’s the last time I return a wallet. I’m going to leave the next one on the ground.”
Sekhnet and I, being two respectable-looking white people (looks are deceiving, in my case), could drive up to a home, walk into the front yard, return a wallet and be thanked, with grateful smiles all around. This guy, a successful entrepreneur who was living the American Dream, with his fine home, his grown kids hanging around as he worked on the property on his day off, was treated as a suspect when he went to do a good deed. The understandable pain in his eyes as he told me the little story had to be addressed.
“No, you did the right thing, you should do the same thing next time, you just met up with some assholes,” I said. He nodded at the word assholes, which his accusers no doubt were, he may have repeated the word.
What troubled me afterwards was whether I should have modified “assholes” as “racist assholes?” It seemed to go without saying, even if the assholes he was returning the wallet to were “nonwhite”. The reality for this hardworking American taxpayer is that he is a hundred times more likely to be confronted by this kind of asshole than somebody like me, a shiftless daydreaming bum born with “white” skin and a free pass not to be profiled by racists, is.
Do we have widespread racist assumptions here in the land of the free and the home of the brave? Is the Pope Catholic? Do Donald Trump and Lindsey Graham bend the truth?
That night I read this excellent op-ed (below), which makes short work of the asshole argument that there is no racism built into our culture. “Nothing systemic,” insist brazen professional liars like South Carolina’s morally dextrous Lindsey Graham, senator from one of two states that had Black majority populations during the Confederacy (Mississippi was the other, Louisiana was close to 50/50 in the 1860 Census). Graham’s South Carolina colleague, the Republican party’s lone black senator (the Democrats currently have two, 4% of their caucus, Booker and Warnock, two of eleven Black senators from either party over the centuries) , made the same point, when he spoke to the nation to rebut Biden’s recent address to Congress.
“Red” states across the country are now in the process of mandating a curriculum for public school students that stresses the uniqueness, freedom and equality of America and its unity, and specifically disallows teaching “controversial” subjects, like slavery, in a way that makes us look bad, and ordinary, and not like an Exceptional Shining Nation on A Hill. This plays strongly to the right-wing base in the all-too familiar double down on demonstrable bullshit for which their recent master is so rightfully famous.
Trump’s Department of Education formed the 1776 Commission, to respond to, and refute, the documentation of America’s long history of racism contained in the 1619 Project published in the NY Times. The first slaves arrived here in 1619, a year before the famous Mayflower brought persecuted, intolerant English Puritans to Plymouth Rock.
The 1776 Commission produced a draft of its democracy-embracing patriotic curriculum, right before Trump reluctantly allowed a peaceful transition of power after the rigged stolen election, and released the report on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, for good measure (in your face, Black racists!). The report strikes back forcefully at the Civil Rights bullies that tyrannize the persecuted, beleaguered “whites” of MAGA nation.
The short report could have been written by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos herself, it was so detailed, so vague, so idiotic and clueless a denial of reality. Biden immediately disbanded the “commission” and removed the report, a piece of white supremacist propaganda citing the New Testament as its ultimate source of authority, and America’s moral strength, from the government website.
Here is just a piece of its inspirational message:
“The principles of equality and consent mean that all are equal before the law. No one is above the law, and no one is privileged to ignore the law, just as no one is outside the law in terms of its protection.”
A principle we saw demonstrated over and over during the presidency of Donald J. Trump.
I’ll give Charles M. Blow the last word on this “controversy”
Last Sunday, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina added himself to the long list of Republicans who have denied the existence of systemic racism in this country. Graham said on “Fox News Sunday” that “our systems are not racist. America’s not a racist country.”
Graham argued that the country can’t be racist because both Barack Obama and Kamala Harris had been elected and somehow, their overcoming racial hurdles proves the absence of racial hurdles. His view seems to be that the exceptions somehow negated the rule.
In the rebuttal to President Biden’s address to a joint session of Congress, the other senator from South Carolina, Tim Scott, the lone Black Republican in the Senate, parroted Graham and became an apologist for these denials of racism, saying too that the country wasn’t racist. He argued that people are “making money and gaining power by pretending we haven’t made any progress at all, by doubling down on the divisions we’ve worked so hard to heal.”
Scott’s argument seems to leave open the possibility that America may have been a racist country but that it has matured out of it, that it has graduated into egalitarianism.
I personally don’t make much of Scott’s ability to reason. This is the same man who said in March that “woke supremacy,” whatever that is, “is as bad as white supremacy.” There is no world in which recent efforts at enlightenment can be equated to enslavement, lynching and mass incarceration. None.
It seems to me that the disingenuousness on the question of racism is largely a question of language. The question turns on another question: “What, to you, is America?” Is America the people who now inhabit the land, divorced from its systems and its history? Or, is the meaning of America inclusive of those systems and history?
When people say that America is a racist country, they don’t necessarily mean that all or even most Americans are consciously racist. However, it is important to remember that nearly half the country just voted for a full-on racist in Donald Trump, and they did so by either denying his racism, becoming apologists for it, or applauding it. What do you call a country thus composed?
Historically, however, there is no question that the country was founded by racists and white supremacists, and that much of the early wealth of this country was built on the backs of enslaved Africans, and much of the early expansion came at the expense of the massacre of the land’s Indigenous people and broken treaties with them.
Eight of the first 10 presidents personally enslaved Africans. In 1856, the chief justice of the United States wrote in the infamous ruling on the Dred Scott case that Black people “had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
The country went on to fight a Civil War over whether some states could maintain slavery as they wished. Even some of the people arguing for, and fighting for, an end to slavery had expressed their white supremacist beliefs.
Abraham Lincoln said during his famous debates against Stephen A. Douglas in 1858 that among white people and Black ones “there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I, as much as any other man, am in favor of the superior position being assigned to the white man.”
Some will concede the historical point and insist on the progress point, arguing that was then and this is now, that racism simply doesn’t exist now as it did then. I would agree. American racism has evolved and become less blunt, but it has not become less effective. The knife has simply been sharpened. Now systems do the work that once required the overt actions of masses of individual racists.
So, what does it mean for a system to be racist? Does the appellation depend on the system in question being openly, explicitly racist from top to bottom, or simply that there is some degree of measurable bias embedded in those systems? I assert the latter.
America is not the same country it was, but neither is it the country it purports to be. On some level this is a tension between American idealism and American realism, between an aspiration and a current condition.
And the precise way we phrase the statement makes all the difference: America’s systems — like its criminal justice, education and medical systems — have a pro-white/anti-Black bias, and an extraordinary portion of America denies or defends those biases.
As Mark Twain once put it: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ’Tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
Being imprecise or undecided with our language on this subject contributes to the murkiness — and to the myth that the question of whether America is racist is difficult to answer and therefore the subject of genuine debate among honest intellectuals.
Saying that America is racist is not a radical statement. If that requires a longer explanation or definition, so be it. The fact, in the end, is not altered.
The visit was memorable because it was the first time I heard a wah-wah guitar (on a Temptations track, Cloud Nine or Runaway Child) — which excited me greatly– and the first time I saw girls dancing in a way that also filled me with excitement, though I wasn’t sure exactly why. My classmate’s little brother and I kept smiling at each other and replaying the record, to keep them dancing.
And check out African-American P.B.S. Pinchback, who would have made an even 12 all-time Black Senators, elected by Louisiana in 1873, but denied his seat, as these things happen. It should be noted, the current Senate has the all-time record for Black Senators at one time, with three.