I spent an afternoon last week at the American Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn. The museum is built around the Lorraine Motel, where just outside room 306, Martin Luther King was assassinated 40 years ago.
It's an emotionally draining experience.
The museum begins with a look at slavery in America, starting with the first importation of slaves in the 1600s, then continuing up through the Civil War and the period of reconstruction in the south. The institution of slavery is of course an abomination. And though parts of America's founding on the principles of equality before the law will always be tainted by our early reliance upon the forced labor of other human beings, there's nothing uniquely shameful about slavery's role in early America that couldn't also be said about its presence in other parts of the world, and throughout most of human history.
Indeed, the United States probably deserves some credit — we were the second major power in the modern world to abolish the practice, though we trailed Great Britain by about 50 years. (France abolished and reestablished slave practices several times in the 18th and 19th centuries).
It's when the museum gets into the 20th century and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s that it begins to get especially emotionally taxing. You pass by wrenching photographs, grainy video, and firsthand accounts of lynchings, bombings of black churches, and slayings of civil rights workers.
The museum also features the charred remains of a Greyhound "freedom rider" bus, set ablaze after its occupants were arrested in Alabama for attempting to integrate the state's bus station. One exhibit features a section on the 1957 barricade at a public school in Little Rock, including that intense photo of young, white Hazel Bryan — her face wrenched in hate and contempt —heckling the young, black Elizabeth Eckford as she attempted to enter the all-white school.
As I walked through this part of the museum, it struck me that this isn't the past. It's the recent past.
Eckford and Bryan are still alive (the history of their reconciliation and subsequent parting again is a fascinating story in its own right), as are many of the civil rights leaders who look down from the museum's walls. It was only a generation ago that Bull Connor unleashed his fire hoses, attack dogs, and goons on civil rights protesters in Alabama. As late as the early 1970s, the city of Memphis chose to close its public swimming pools rather than allow white and black children to cool off in the same water.
This isn't ancient history. My dad grew up through all of this.
It seems to me that it's a bit premature, then, for us to insist — as one conservative pundit suggested to me last month over dinner — that black Americans "just get over the whole racism thing." That pundit was referring to the controversy over Sen. Barack Obama, and the intemperate and ugly statements made by his longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
I have no interest in defending the substance of what Wright has said over the last week, or of the passages that have been pulled from his sermons and played over the Internet and cable television. There are a few things he has said that I would defend. There are many, many things he has said that I find objectionable, abhorrent, and twelve kinds of crazy.
But it's worth keeping in mind that for 200 years, hundreds of thousands of black people were imprisoned in this country as slaves. For another 100 years, in most of the country, they were second-class citizens, subject to rapes, lynchings and beatings; denied the right to vote; forced into segregated buses, schools, parks, and public facilities; and denied due process in the criminal justice system.
Bizarre as some of Rev. Wright's conspiracy theories may sound, there actually have been some pretty bizarre conspiracies against black Americans over the years.
I can't begrudge black Americans if for three hours on Sunday they want to indulge in a bit of righteous indignation within the walls of their places of worship. Even if that indignation sometimes expresses itself in hateful or nutty ways, or in ways I'll never quite understand.
America has come a long way with respect to race, but it would be foolish to say that the remnants of racism aren't still with us, or that — as I've heard some commenters suggest — that the only discrimination that matters any more is the kind of elitist reverse discrimination we sometimes see in affirmative action programs (for the record, I'm opposed to state-sanctioned affirmative action).
We aren't "over" race, nor we should pretend to be.
Just this week, a new study showed that of the 350,000 low-level marijuana arrests in New York City over the past decade, over half the arrestees were black. This despite the fact that blacks make up only about 25 percent of the city's population, and that according to survey data, black people are actually less likely to smoke marijuana than white people.
Jack Cole, a former narcotics officer who now heads up the anti-drug war group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, has noted that there are a higher percentage of black men in prison in American today than there were in South Africa at the height of apartheid. Blacks make 15 percent of drug users, but 45 percent of people incarcerated for drug offenses. One in three black men between 20 and 29 is either in prison or on probation or parole.
These statistics are terrible.
Many on the left attribute them to institutional racism in the criminal justice system, and to discrepancies and bias in sentencing laws. Many on the right say they're the product of a culture of criminality and hoodlumism too common today in many black and urban communities. There's probably some truth to both theories.
It seems unlikely that we could in just a few decades purge the criminal justice and legal systems of centuries of ingrained, systemized racism. It seems just as unlikely the pathologies inculcated and deep-seated hurt inflicted on black Americans by hundreds of years of abuse, neglect, and oppression could, likewise, be erased in little more than a generation (not to mention the harm done by well-intentioned but devastating destructive public assistance programs such as AFDC).
So where does this leave us with respect to Sen. Obama and Rev. Wright?
I guess I find it hard to hold Sen. Obama's choice of churches against him. There are plenty of issues where I have fundamental disagreements with Sen. Obama. But nothing in his career, public statements, or actions suggest he believes in black liberation theology, or that he subscribes to Rev. Wright's wackier theories. And I see nothing contradictory or hypocritical when some contrast Obama's rhetoric on race with his membership in Wright's church.
On the contrary, it suggests a particularly human, honest, and realistic approach to race and civil rights: We should be striving to move forward — to the point where we one day might "get beyond race." But it would be foolish to blur the recent past, or to gloss over the anger, hurt, and resentment still lingering — on both sides — from the civil rights struggles of just a generation ago.
We are finally entering an era where we can talk about these things openly, and without fear of retribution. Given America's history, I'd say black Americans have earned the right to take advantage of the era to express some anger — even anger I personally may find unfounded, ill conceived, or misdirected.