What America Taught Us About Race Relations In 2014


“Some nights I stay up cashing in my bad luck
Some nights I call it a draw
Some nights I wish my lips could build a castle
Some nights I wish they’d just fall off”

I spent many nights this year thinking about the above lyrics from Fun.’s Some Nights. The song can be interpreted in so many different ways. And oftentimes, I’d stop and think about it in a societal context. There are nights it would seem as a people, and sometimes within different communities, we had to cash in our “bad luck.” And there are many nights where we had to call things even. But personally, some nights it felt like the words we recited and repeated and used as our resistance could change the world. And some nights our words felt powerless to the structures and institutions that have been place long before we were here.

Due to the increased importance of social media awareness and activism, and the combination of particular cases that drew our attention to the ideologies and perceptions of the role of race, this year has seemed consumed by race relations. Now of course this is the United States, and in (m)any social contexts, race is always present. But I’ve lived here for almost eight years now and I can say that I have never felt and experienced Blackness in the context of the Americas, like I have this year.

Lingering from the Trayvon Martin story, waiting on the Marissa Alexander case, anticipating the Ranisha McBride verdict, mourning Eric Garner, John Crawford, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, and always heartbreakingly paying attention to the kids on Chicago’s south side; and all the names we remember and forget. This year, in a lot of ways, we have been continuously reminded of the worst of our society. And it’s not just because of these deaths but rather the lack of empathy involved in some of the response to them. Indeed, we have seen some great protests and movements that were needed to wake people up. But we have all seen constant and continuous justification of death. Many of us have seen indifference and ignorance from many we’d call, “friends.”

“He stole cigarettes.” “Why was he carrying a toy gun?” “Just follow the law.” “Do what the police tell you.” As if any of these transgressions would justify an ordinary person’s death. And if we believe it does, individually and as a society, then we still do not know the value of life. Moreover, anyone who knows their history, knows that the law isn’t always right, that people in power abuse it, and that properly-formed conscience supersedes the law. Perhaps Baldwin put it best, “The law is meant to be my servant and not my master. Still less my torturer and my murderer.” It seems that the law has sometimes forgotten this. It seemed this year, we were forced to remember these words time and time and again.

There were many nights I would look all around me, from the people I encountered in everyday life to those we face in our digital experiences, and some other lyrics from Some Nights would come to mind,

“Well, some nights I wish that this all would end.
Cause I could use some friends for a change.”

“But my hand was made strong
By the ‘and of the Almighty
We forward in this generation

These lyrics come from Bob Marley’s Redemption, which I think is often underappreciated, even from a man who was one of the greatest musicians ever. And this song is very much political in nature, with one interpretation being the need to free ourselves from society’s mental cages that we are born into because of history. And indeed when we talk about race, we often talk about privilege and disadvantage. The privileged ask the disadvantaged to free themselves from thinking it is society that holds them down. And the disadvantaged demand that the privileged relinquish their power. And while I believe the latter is most needed, we cannot deny that all of us are in need of mental emancipation as long as we live under these inadequate constructs.

One truth I have found in my political observations and assertions of this country is that Obama’s presidency, which signaled pre-maturely and erroneously to far too many eager people, that a post-racial society was in existence, inadvertently highlighted just how deep and fundamental racism is in the United States. Certainly on a day-to-day basis many of us are not confronted with outright racism. But the nature of racism manifests in this day an age in such subtle ways that its complexity is often missed, but most especially by those who would rather not see it anyway.

From colorblindness theories to the animosity towards progress of previously disenfranchised people as a result of policy change, to the belief that equality exists simply because of extraordinary examples or because “we say it does,” the system perpetuates. And Blackness especially in this American construct, is a convenience for some to put on and take off at will. Whether it’s in music, in fashion, in vernacular, Blackness is a costume for the nation’s popular culture, a culture that is exported to all parts of the globe.

And while Black culture can be celebrated by all, Black skin is not a costume, it is part of the identity of some. Ironically the peoples that create it, seem to still be some of the most despised people. And when the pains of Blackness are felt, there is a double-consciousness that can be understood by those who empathize, but only experienced by those who bear it. Yet we are so unwilling in this nation to believe that difference in any aspect of identity, will affect the social realities we encounter on a daily basis. Moreover, we are so hell-bent on not seeing difference in order to not seem prejudice.

Yet, why can’t we see difference, acknowledge it, and still endeavor to right the wrongs of history? Isn’t that fairness? Because maybe even just the felicity of our endeavors is what sets us free from our societal cages. Seeing others as less human makes us less human. Seeing the humanity in others allows us to see our own humanity.

This generation, I believe, has what it takes. And when I think about that, I think of the heart of Redemption’s lyrics:

“Won’t you help to sing
These songs of freedom?”
‘Cause all I ever have:
Redemption songs.
Redemption songs.”

“There been times when I thought I couldn’t last for long
But now I think I am able to carry on.”

The above song lyrics are from Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come, which was released fifty years ago on December 22nd. It is said to have been an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement of the time. I listened to it a lot this December, and I wondered in my head as so many have wondered, “What do we need to do to move forward as a society?” It is one thing to be able to point out the problems in the way communities and individuals interact, it is another to find solutions.

In the first place, it is important to know what solutions aren’t. Solutions aren’t talking about the racial makeup of those you know. It is well-known that racial integration is more myth than reality and this is especially true for much of White America. Moreover, having loved ones, whether friends, family, or romantic partners doesn’t exempt one from racism or prejudice (individual racist interactions), it just makes the impact of racism more hurtful and more complicated. The solutions are also not in ignoring the pains of those around you or that of different communities. Racism won’t go away by refusing to talk about it or pretending that it doesn’t exist. It seems then, the truth is we must give people the space to tell their truths. And I sincerely advocate that we must start with the historically disadvantaged.

This year I got to teach college students intercultural communication, and I got to dialogue with different groups of people about racism and Blackness and Whiteness. And regardless of my initial reactions to what I witnessed, I believe that I am a better person for it. But it requires putting one’s self in uncomfortable positions, and being willing to have disagreement about things that matter. But also recognizing that fundamentally our humanity is at stake and is dependent on the way we view others around us. Especially those who we think of as different.

It would be quite easy for me as a Black African with the experience and observations I have, to be angry at the world all the time. To be angry at history and the way Blackness has been bastardized, or the history of African peoples who contributed to that bastardization. Or perhaps to live in constant frustration at Western attitudes to African peoples and the continuous exploitation of Africans. It would be easy to use my education privilege to demonize the attitudes of others in failing to understand America’s very real race problems.

And there are times where I am so angry and frustrated and helpless that I find no other recourse than to just express my anger. And that’s okay. But whatever skin you find yourself in, whatever privileges you have and don’t have, and whatever social positions you take on, anger is not a solution. And when it is not accompanied by righteousness, anger can dehumanize you even when you find yourself fighting for your own humanization.

Perhaps as some have suggested what America needs is a new civil rights movement that appeals to the race relations of the time. Which in these times, will likely be a function of proper education so as to confront our historical amnesia, and understand racial contexts in terms of class and gender and media representation so that “we get it.” But among other practical solutions and policy changes, there is need for deliberate individual and community reflections that should have us honestly question ourselves as part of the problem, and yet also endeavor to be a part of the solution. Because history is not just in the past, we create it every day. And when they tell this history fifty years from now, will you have been on the side of justice, fairness, and truth?

If we have to live in the imagined construction that is the nation, and in this nation which is to so many a place of dreams and opportunity, we need it to become a reflection of the best of us. For those who are citizens, and those who are here by choice, chance, or necessity. And in that hope, I repeat those last lines of Cooke’s heartfelt song,

“It’s been a long, a long time coming.
But I know a change gon’ come, oh yes it will.”