Letter to Harold

Dear Harold –

I got your email seeking my opinion about the need “to advocate for dramatic legislation towards racism and reparations for black people in America” in light of the recent mass murder at the Tops Friendly Markets in Buffalo.  Since that event, I’ve had little to say about it because, frankly, I haven’t known what to say.  Your email has prompted me to try to pull together my thoughts about it.

At its core, the assault in Buffalo (like the massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas just ten days later) was a human tragedy on a large scale.  In each case, the lives of thousands of people, probably tens of thousands of people, have been forever changed by the insane behavior of one child.  The world is full of human tragedies – it’s in the nature of life, but those that are inflicted by another human being are the worst, because they are so unnecessary.  A tornado, a hurricane, an earthquake – they are truly in the nature of things, but deaths at the hands of human beings are of a different order.  We like to think that they could be avoided, if only people would behave better.

I have not doubt that as a Black man, the horror of what happened in Buffalo, and the horror of the countless deaths of Black men, women, and children that preceded, weighs on you constantly.  I understand that, but I see those events differently.  I see the murders and the related trauma as a subset of what people have called “man’s inhumanity to man.”  History is a continuing stream of inhumane behaviors, and modern times have offered no relief.  Jews have yet to recover from the Holocaust, and anti-Semitic hate continues.  Russia visits almost unthinkable and pointless death and destruction on Ukrainians.  Jews and Palestinians are terrorized by reciprocal hate.  We like to think that we’re modern and enlightened, but racial, religious, and cultural persecution (including America’s unique form of racism) shows no signs of becoming a strictly historical behavior.

So, no, I don’t think we need “dramatic legislation towards racism and reparations.”  How much more dramatic could legislation be than the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the U.S, Constitution, and what did we get from that legislation?  Ninety year later, the Civil Rights movement stimulated a second round of “dramatic legislation.”  Did those laws solve the problem?  They helped, no doubt, but events of the past several years have made it clear that despite new laws, the beliefs and behaviors of millions of people in this country have not changed.

And for white individuals who take offense because they think the preceding sentence labels them as racist, they should just stop.  Forget the labels.  Simple observation of social interactions in the United States makes it clear that millions of white Americans continue to create an environment that limits Black access to the true promise of America.  When white people acknowledge that truth, we will be able to move forward and actually begin creating a world where Blacks can experience freedom as white people do.

No, more legislation is not the answer (although a serious national reconsideration and revision of the Second Amendment is essential, to reduce both mass murder and the carnage in Black neighborhoods).  No wealth transfer to Black people will stop hate.   Another hate-crime law is not going to stop hate-driven people from doing hateful things.  No resolution adopted by the League of Nations would have stopped Hitler, and no principles adopted by the United Nations stopped Putin.  We have outlawed genocide, and genocide continues.

Attempts to legislate solutions inflame us – we can see it in abortion legislation, voting rights legislation, the efforts to impeach Donald Trump and the threatened impeachment of Joseph Biden if Republicans gain control of the House.  People, liberal and conservative, Black and white, are tired of having the government tell them what to do, and their response, liberal and conservative, Black and white, is to try to gain control of the government so they can tell the others what to do.  Legislation is not a solution, and electoral politics, although important, is not the solution.

Increasingly, I’m convinced that there is only one way for change to occur, and that’s by positive, good-faith, compassionate interaction among people, so that we learn to behave differently.   We need to connect, one on one, and learn to acknowledge our differences so that we can move forward together.

The answer is to be found in the hearts of people, in how we teach and learn from one another, how we build community among us.  It’s a long, slow process.  It takes generations of building bridges, of people coming together and rejecting hate and accepting love and compassion.  It’s not enough for white people to say and believe, “I am not a racist.”  Blacks must help white people understand and have compassion for the environment that this country created and maintains, an environment that regularly tells Blacks that they are different and excluded.

In his Commencement Address to Oberlin College in 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr, stated the proposition clearly:

All I’m saying is simply this: that all life is interrelated, that somehow we’re caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be – this is the interrelated structure of reality.  

Human hearts have to change at the places where Black and white meet, face to face.  Well meaning people have to work together to create a society where we treat each other with compassion and understanding.  That’s a matter of changing the behaviors of people; as our behaviors change, our hearts will change.  We can’t do that by creating laws that require people to behave in certain ways.  It can happen only by Black and white living together and recognizing that we live “in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”


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