Why race is still a burning issue

IN 1988 ORION PICTURES RELEASED THE FILM "MISSISSIPPI BURNING," A FICTIONALIZED VERSION OF THE WEEKS AND MONTHS FOLLOWING the brutal murder of three civilracism-rights workers in 1964. The film was controversial—critics charged that historical accuracy was tampered with—but undeniably moving, bringing to vivid color images that previously had been seen only in the vague, comfortable distance of black and white.

The frames from the movie that remain most powerful in my imagination concern the burning of churches, one after another, throughout the two-hour running time. The thought that made watching those images bearable was the hope that that time in our history was over, that we would never have to see such pictures again.

That Technicolor horror has been on my mind the last few months as the nation has observed and endured what appears to be a plague of church burnings in the Southeast. Millions of Americans, white and black, have been outraged, President Clinton has spoken forcefully on the issue several times, and—countering these reactions—there has been a serious national effort to downplay the fires' significance.

The known facts are few: from Jan. 1, 1995 through July 2, 1996, 98 arson fires at American churches were investigated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which has jurisdiction in these matters. More than half of the fires—58—were set at predominately black churches.

Significantly, the rate of arson fires at white churches has remained steady during this time while that at black churches has skyrocketed. Another way of thinking about it is to note that while the greatest percentage of these fires were set in black churches, black churches only make up roughly 10 percent of churches in the country. That is a great imbalance, indicating that something is going on.

As the arsons spread, there was a substantial amount of public bickering over their cause—some claiming conspiracy, others coincidence—but in the spring of 1996, as fire after fire was reported, the nation reacted in horror and outrage, wondering, then worrying, whether a new phase of racial violence and conflict was loose in the land. Was there a conspiracy? Was the Klan, as it had threatened for years, rising again and striking back at blacks and their liberal allies?

It also became the subject of a national debunking campaign, as news and editorial outlets ranging from The New Yorker to The New Republic to Rush Limbaugh began offering detailed analyses as to why the story was not all it appeared to be. If, perhaps, there was too great a rush to infer the existence of a nationwide racist conspiracy to terrorize blacks, the great rush to discredit this theory is doubly disturbing as well.

In its July 15, 1996 issue, The New Republic stated in an editorial, "Who's doing the burning is unclear . . . The arsonists range from bright line racists to blacks with lots of drunk and crazed teenagers in between." The New Republic criticized the NAACP for failing to accept that some of the fires are not racially motivated, and implied that the civil-rights organization was demagoging the issue for its own benefit.

The trouble with the debunking is not that the arguments are untrue—too much is still unknown about the actual causes of the fires for any accurate statements distributing blame to be made—but that the critical arguments are only half true, that there is much they fail to take into account. What is disappointing, and even maddening, about the attitude of the critics is that they react to the nation's horror as if it were happening in a vacuum. They pay lip service to the civil-rights movement of the '60s—which, apparently, after being quite controversial in its own time, is now held up as a time of exemplary public behavior on the part of blacks—but don't seem to want to acknowledge the psychic trauma and absolute terror that the imagery of burning churches and the like can call up in the minds of African Americans like myself.

It wasn't that long ago. There are still millions of blacks with a living memory of Jim Crow, the brutality of the Old South, the violent toll of the 1950s and '60s. Those millions have children and grandchildren who have heard these stories and have read them. Couple this with the antiblack tenor and code of much of the country's recent political rhetoric and it becomes easy to understand why blacks might be justifiably upset at even the hint of a resurgence of racial violence.

The arson of the Matthews Murkland Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina is cited again and again by critics as evidence that the media and blacks in particular are overplaying the racial aspect of the fires. A "troubled" 13-year-old local white girl was arrested and charged with the crime. After questioning the child, local law enforcement officials stated that they are satisfied her crime was not racially motivated—black leaders are not so sure.

Who is to say, given the long and sordid history of racial violence in the South, which view is correct? Given the violent past and the largely segregated present of places like Charlotte, how can anyone state definitively that race had nothing to do with the child's choice of a black and not a white church, however troubled she was? And how can black communities be expected to take at face value the pronouncements of law enforcement agencies that have often been indifferent, at best, to their needs?

In the July 15, 1996 issue of The New Yorker, Alabama Fire Marshal John Robison gives a detailed and rational analysis of the church arsons, black and white, in his state: "Of the 34 known arsons, we have made arrests in 20 cases. We have arrested 32 suspects in those 20 cases. With regard to the black church fires, we have arrested 4 blacks and 7 whites. With regard to the white church fires, we have arrested 5 blacks and 16 whites. Of the known motives in the 20 cases, we have 10 attempts to conceal the crime of burglary and/or theft, 4 acts of vandalism, 2 firefighters setting fires so they can put them out and be the big hero, one juvenile fascinated by fire, and one case where the suspects were drunk and decided to burn down the first building they came across."

This statement, even if fully accurate, illustrates the difficulty of gaining any insight on this issue. Robison conflates black church fires with white church fires, as if in the state of Alabama, of all places, they could possibly carry the same symbolic weight to both victims and perpetrators. Should blacks and all other Americans who are concerned about the possibility of racial motives in the rash of fires accept such cloudy information as the truth? Might it not be in the public and private interests of the officials in Alabama to downplay racial aspects of the case? This difference in perception, between Robison's reading and the black community's, ties directly into many of the questions surrounding the Rodney King and O.J. Simpson cases—in all of these instances different groups staring at the same set of facts see widely disparate scenarios.

We have a national consciousness, consisting, in large part, of the electronic media. Everybody knows everything everywhere when it happens, and stories can assume a self-perpetuating reality. Assume that this is what has happened with the church fires. These fires aren't isolated, and again, they don't happen in a vacuum. They happen, in fact, in the American South, which has a history of this sort of thing, as recently as 30 years ago.

Might there not then emerge something of a de facto conspiracy, a situation whereby people—perpetrators and victims—who have no actual physical connection to each other, become participants in a widespread drama that plays out on TV and in their minds? This is what I think happened in the black church fires: people of ill will saw the crimes that were being so widely covered, imitated them for their own twisted reasons, and then implicated into the growing tragedy the innocent victims who carried the memory of similar brutalities, organized and sanctioned, all-too-clearly in their memories.

It does not matter, in the end, whether the Ku Klux Klan is meticulously plotting the terror in a war room somewhere because that is its effect. It does not matter whether the fires are being set in an organized conspiracy, by "troubled" teens, or a bunch of copycatting racists. The churches are being singled out as black institutions, and from the early 1800s onward it has been common knowledge that churches are the heart—socially, economically, and politically—of the black community in small Southern towns. That act of violence against a place of such deep resonance is trouble for everyone.

The conflict over interpretation demonstrates that there is a lack of civil discussion on matters of race, not to mention a lack of the sort of sincere and hardheaded consensus that would have to exist for true progress on the problems left by the legacy of race in America. The general air of contentiousness, on both sides, and the rampant desire to discredit and dismiss preempts any possible exchange.

In the end, all of this becomes a national and personal Rorschach test, in which one's reaction to what is presented is more revelatory than the actual problems and issues at hand. Rather than being examined and analyzed as a discrete event, the church fires become the latest in the series of footballs tossed back and forth during arguments about race.

It is almost as if Americans do this because we know, subconsciously, just how hard it will be to achieve progress. The direct problems stemming from our mishandling of the legacy of race—our divided society and millions of angry, alienated citizens, black and white—along with the attendant problems of crime, dependence, poor public education, and contentious disagreement over virtually every important public issue will not be solved by a mere holding of hands and singing of spirituals. People, black and white, will have to change, will have to give up something, materially and psychically, if we are to move forward from our current impasse. And it is questionable, given our history, whether we will be able to do so.

The near impossibility of progress has its origins in that as we as a nation have grown, the question of race has become infinitely more complex. So many of our fights are no longer over race per se, but rather, what we call "race" has become the battleground upon which many of our contests over values and allocation of government resources take place.

I don't underestimate the continuing power of simple racism in our society—its presence is made manifestly clear every day—but it is equally clear that great gains have been made toward racial equality. Progress, though not nearly enough but nonetheless real and substantial, has been made in the quality of life available to large numbers of black Americans—and in the willingness of large numbers of white Americans to accept those blacks as equals and partners in society.

One moving aspect of the church fires was the response of thousands of whites from all over the country—including in those same Southern communities where the burnings occurred—pitching in with money, labor, and moral support for those faced with rebuilding.

In a similar vein, a recent New York Times story reported that the number of black-white married couples in the U.S. is increasing rapidly, with 12.1 percent of black marriages in 1993 being to white partners. It appears that in the personal, intimate sphere, Americans are getting along much better than the nightly news would indicate. This is real and relatively recent progress. The Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court case that struck down laws banning black and white marriages was handed down in 1967.

While we must acknowledge and celebrate progress, at the same time we cannot be deceived by it. There are massive and ongoing problems concerning race in this country, and many seem to be getting worse. The drive to dismantle affirmative action, for example, seems to be seen on the part of many whites as some kind of magic bullet that will alleviate much of the legitimate pressure they now feel in their own lives. The U.S. economy has been in a steady climb of expansion since 1990 and may now be stronger than it has been at any time since the 1950s. Investment in the economy is growing faster than it has since World War II. But where is the benefit to the heads of the average American family trying to live the life their parents knew growing up?

Middle-class whites feel under siege—and they should—but the solutions to their woes are not to be found under the simple heading of race. After affirmative action is dismantled, after the borders are sealed, after "blacks" are thrown off welfare and taxes are cut (which they won't be because welfare makes up only a minute portion—less than 5 percent—of the federal budget), after all the barriers many whites feel blacks create for them in society are gone, white Americans will still be living in a ruthless, competitive national and global economy designed to benefit stockholders and a very few elite corporate buccaneers. This is the society that the majority of the middle class—based on its performance at the polls—desires. But after we change welfare, affirmative action, and immigration laws, technological advance and the push for profit will still rule the day, and the problems represented by our society's failure to deal with the needs of large numbers of blacks will still be there.

The importance of understanding the way in which economic pressure on whites drives much of the nation's racial conflict cannot be underestimated. We live now in what the economist Lester Thurow has termed "The Zero-Sum Society," a society in which no gains on one side can be made without concomitant losses on the other. In our multiethnic society, this conflict over resources and profits has tended to be racialized. It could as easily be looked at in terms of class.

Middle-class whites are losing ground economically, with the boom from 1945 to 1970 beginning to look like a blip rather than a trend. People are working harder for less. Between 1973 and 1995, productivity—output per worker—rose 25 percent, but wages fell 12 percent. Between 1990 and 1995 productivity was up 10 percent, but wages remained flat. A great deal of money is being made somewhere, but not by workers and middle management.

Is it any accident that the furor over affirmative action has heated up in this climate? That is the meaning of "racialization": issues that are not racial in and of themselves come to be seen in racial terms because of our tendency to be tribal in allocating opportunity and blame.

A dispassionate analysis of the causes of economic malaise in the middle class would reveal greed and technology as the culprits and might enable us to see that (for the first time since the Depression) more people are being harmed than helped by our economy. This fact would prove a serious political and cultural problem even in a homogeneous society, but in one as various with potential scapegoats as the United States, it is a time bomb, especially when given the American tradition of displacing white economic fear onto blacks, other minorities, and recent immigrants. All of this trouble—economic, social, political, racial—is driven by market forces and technological advances. It is not going to stop. It is how we live.

Downsizing and global competition have become the standard paradigms of American business. In light of this ruthless, dog-eat-dog, Darwinian struggle for survival, racial justice might seem like a quaint relic of the past. One of the tragedies of our racial quagmire is that we spend so much time fighting about tangential issues that we fail to concentrate on or even be aware of what needs to be accomplished to save everyone. Neither blacks nor whites can be saved apart from each other—we are too bound historically, socially—but we can very easily all go down together. We cannot separate our fates, as seems to be the suburban dream.

We need to be arguing about education and how to expand the economy to provide meaningful work for all citizens, but each one of these discussions inevitably becomes mired in the language and semiotics of race, which guarantees no progress.

Since 1968 the Republican Party has consciously, both explicitly and implicitly, used racial appeals to mobilize a broad base of white supporters in national campaigns: law-and-order rhetoric, the constant reiteration that welfare is the source of all evil in the nation, Willie Horton. This drumbeat, combined with white reactions of revulsion and fear to the social unrest—riots—of the '60s and after, has created a climate in which true healing of the scar of race in America is impossible because the wound is kept fresh. Let us imagine a country in which the leadership—Nixon, Reagan, Bush—had preached cohesiveness and mutuality and one America, rather than cynically motivated division. What would that country look like?

Much of the current racial backlash represents nostalgia for a simpler time, a time when things seemed to be in control. One of the many tragic ironies of the black freedom struggle is that just as opportunity was coming about for blacks, the society and its traditional strengths began to be unmoored.

Our strength, as a people and a nation, has come to betray us in a crucial hour. The American ability to forget, to put things behind, to move on and start anew on a new frontier won't help now. The frontier of American infinitude is closing down, everyone is squeezed. Where are we going to find what we need to give, be it government assistance, money, opportunity, or simply time? We are in a situation whereby what is in the best interests of our society as a whole is not necessarily in the best interests of single individuals, particularly whites who feel they have something to lose. Do whites, does anyone in our society, have the time to care about these problems anymore? Do they have the economic space?

This brings us back to the question of affirmative action, an issue now because it dramatizes the changing economic circumstances in which most Americans find themselves. It is almost as if economic life has become a game of musical chairs, and for whites, there are fewer and fewer seats. But what many Americans will fight against acknowledging—viciously, it seems—is that not everyone has had access to these seats. Why are the seats so much more dear now than they were, say, 20 years ago? If our society is fair and equal and in no need of remediation, why are so few blacks qualifying under the old standards?

The simplest and least accurate answer—but one that is intensely attractive to those who hold positions in society that would be threatened by fair competition—is that blacks are simply inferior and unfit. Hence, there is the popularity of books like The Bell Curve by Charles Murray, with its spurious, pseudoscientific "statistical" analyses and charts intended to prove that blacks are at the bottom of society because this is the position for which nature has suited them.

What such arguments fail to take into account is that the playing fields in America have never been level. Blacks are where they are now—and it is quite varied—due to a vast complex of historical and economic causes we as a country have not even begun to examine. It is easier simply to will this complicated past and present out of existence. Look at the inferior, segregated schools that most blacks, 40 years after Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, are still forced to attend. Why can't we at least educate all children fairly? Or is that the plan? Handicap them as children, then lock them out as adults, all in the name of "color blindness"? This has never been the case in America, why is it so urgent now?

How can a child whose school district spends $500 dollars a year on her be expected to have the same level of skill as a child on whom $5,000 a year is spent? We must frame the terms of this discussion better, with a wider angle that enables us to see all that is involved, or else the elimination of affirmative action will merely be the final admission of the dollar value and privilege that white skin has historically carried in our society. Much is made of "preferential treatment" in colleges and the workplace, little of how it works in early education and housing.

American society has to begin to decide whether or not blacks are to be a full equal partner. But how can this be accomplished if no whites are to give up their "spots"? Perhaps it would be progress if whites were to admit their desire for privilege, that they want, as political scientist Alexis De Tocqueville delineated in 1831 in his Democracy in America, the possession of white skin to pay the dividends that it always has in America. If whites do not want this, and I don't think they do, then how are we going to bring in all blacks who want to be brought in? What will work better than affirmative action, and when can we start?

Last December 14, Cynthia Wiggins, a young black teenager from Buffalo, New York's inner city was hit by a dump truck on a busy road as she struggled through the snow and cold to reach her job as a cashier at the Walden Galleria Mall in suburban Cheektowaga. She died on January 2 of the massive injuries she received.

By all accounts she was a serious and dedicated young person who had grown up very poor but dreamed of being a doctor. Wiggins was walking in this dangerous spot because the mall owners, the Pyramid Corporation, refused to let Buffalo city buses pick up or unload on mall property to make it as difficult as possible for inner-city blacks to reach the mall.

According to Margaret Weir of the Brookings Institution, an independent and nonpartisan organization in Washington, D.C., "there is a tendency to want to form separate localities so you can regulate who lives there and who shops there. Communities can't do it by racial restrictions because that's illegal. But they can do it through other rules and regulations." These are common, if quiet, practices in the suburbs today—becoming, however, more noticeable with the growing prevalence of private police and gated subdivisions.

Recent events in Connecticut bring all of these trends into sharp focus. On July 9 of this year, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that the racial segregation in Hartford's public schools—whose student bodies are virtually all black and Hispanic—is unconstitutional and must be remedied. "The existence of extreme racial and ethnic isolation in the public school system deprives schoolchildren of a substantially equal education opportunity," the court stated. The court concluded that the cause of the segregation was the way in which school district boundary lines had been drawn along town lines—in other words, lines dividing the city from the surrounding suburbs.

In the 1950s and '60s, whites decamped virtually en masse from Hartford proper. This sort of racial segregation is not against the law, as it is considered a choice made by individuals. Opponents of the ruling are threatening to amend the state constitution—de facto segregation, they claim, is not unconstitutional. There is no Connecticut law demanding that blacks and Hispanics live in Hartford, and so it is not against the law for all the whites to live in West Hartford and Simsbury, if that is what they choose. And if the town is all white, why is it wrong for the school to be all white?

Hartford and the surrounding towns have a choice here, and an opportunity. Is the status quo what the people of the state, particularly the whites, as they have the power, want? Or will they seize this chance (how many more will they have?) to create a more just and equal Connecticut? At the risk of sounding cynical, it would be safe to wager that they will fail to take advantage of the opportunity. The governor has already vowed that there will be no forced busing in the state as long as he is in charge. (How do the children in rural schools get to school? Aren't they "forced" to take the bus?) A state senator asked whites not to panic. Panic over what? Black schoolchildren?

Why are the same battles with the same rhetoric being fought after all this time?

In 1963, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, "I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to 'order' than justice. . . . Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection."

I am sure that most of the whites of suburban Hartford sincerely believe they are not racists, but will that claim of tolerance manifest itself in reactions to the court desegregation decision? Will the minority children of the city be seen with as much worth as the white children in the suburbs? Or will it all come down to privilege, maintained at any cost?

And there will be a cost. The children in the city know they are not valued as much by their society as are children in the suburbs, and they carry that knowledge with them into adulthood. They see that the wider society doesn't care whether or not they are educated, that it is willing to let them live in appalling conditions, that it will not even stop them from killing each other in epidemic proportions. The wider society has tolerated, on a routine basis, a level of lethal violence in cities such as Atlanta, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Hartford that exceeds the violence of Belfast, San Salvador, and Soweto even during times of conflict, knowing this breaks some, and makes others full of rage and violence.

It leads to Jesse Jackson's central question: do we want to build schools or prisons? How do we, in the midst of economic pressure and change, include everybody? And I would include in that question the random, rowdy, racists setting the racially motivated church fires. They are excluded as well, and this is one of the reasons why they hate blacks—displacing their rage and frustrations at the system onto the more personal (and less terrifying) target of blacks.

If there is a solution to the racial conflict in the United States—and I'm not sure there is, as too much has happened for too long—it will come from recognizing that there is no longer one single problem in the country, but, rather, many, and many kinds. There is the problem of "underclass" blacks in the inner city, and there is a similar problem in rural areas, which manifests itself differently. There is the problem of middle-class blacks looking for a fair shake at advancement and who need access to capital and mortgages. There is the whirlwind of drugs and violence that is consuming young men, and the diminished life prospects of the young women who are left behind. The list goes on.

Then there are the problems of whites. How to adjust to the new economy? How to balance justice and self-preservation? How to come to understand the true causes and roots of today's ruthless society? How to understand that personal and familial struggles to rise, brutal as they may have been, might be qualitatively different from the struggles of blacks, onto whom the struggle of most rising immigrant groups were displaced?

What gives me hope is that there is a possibility that enough individuals will, through experience and soul-searching, begin to disengage from the facile and knee-jerk opinions and positions of race for which life in the U.S. often seems to program us. We have to realize that when we try to understand anything in this country, we are shooting at a moving target, a large, ungainly differential equation in which the variables—time, history, race, place, economics, media, and so on—are constantly changing. e all must also, as author Ralph Ellison said, grant people their complexity. On a trip to Atlanta not too long ago, I was met at the airport by a business associate, a white woman of around 50. While we were riding into the city in her spanking new BMW, she asked me if I had ever seen the Martin Luther King Memorial. As we walked through the black neighborhood where the tomb is located, I realized that my friend, was saying, "Dr. King said this . . . and Dr. King said that . . . and do you remember when Dr. King went . . . and what he did . . ."—speaking about 90 miles an hour in her Georgia drawl. And I thought to myself, what is going on here, all this talk of Dr. King? Then it occurred to me that he belonged to Mary, a blonde, white woman from Macon, Georgia driving her fancy car just as much as he belonged to me. She had, in fact, heard him better than a lot of black folks I know.

Something else I thought about, as I stood by the reflecting pool surrounding the tomb, was something King said the night before he was killed: "I just want to do God's will. And he's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."

In this metaphor King, who had seen all the hate and death, and burning churches of the civil-rights movement firsthand was describing himself as a sort of Moses, who didn't make it to the promised land, either, but had to remain behind and watch as the Hebrews crossed over. Most of the things King said have turned out to be true, and the implications of what he said the night before he died are, for those of us who remain, chilling: where are the Joshuas, Deborahs, Gideons, and Samuels—in the country's Hartfords—willing to lead the rest of the way?

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