In the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting, the excellent Bill Moyers hosted political activist Angela Glover Blackwell on his weekly interview show, Moyers & Company (April 13; “An Activist for Our Times”) and in the course of things (12:18 in the program) Ms. Blackwell said, “America does not want to talk about race.” In point of fact, we’ll talk about it all the live-long day, just not very honestly.
The Trayvon Martin incident certainly provoked a broad media conversation about race all over the cable TV networks and the Internet. It’s been an inconclusive discussion because the facts of the case are so muddled and the truth may never be known, or may not satisfy anyone if it becomes known. Mostly, the talk followed predictable patterns of grievance, accusation, and especially hand-wringing – the latter well represented by Bill Moyers, the embodiment of 1960s-vintage idealist Democratic liberalism, who came on the scene as a close aide to President Lyndon Johnson at the height of the civil rights struggle.
The reason the race conversation remains so constricted in America is because the central question makes everyone so uncomfortable. That question is: what accounts for the failure to thrive of such a large percentage of black America? It is uncomfortable for whites (especially Progressives) because it implies a failure of the social justice movement itself, and in particular the watershed civil rights struggles of the 1960s. It’s uncomfortable for blacks because it stirs up immense anxiety over the stigma of racial inferiority.
The crucial moment in this recent history of race relations, it seems to me, must be located in the events between 1966 and 1970. This was the historical moment that followed the deconstruction of legal race codes with the passage into law of the Public Accommodations Act of 1964 and then the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These two legislative milestones, promoted and signed by Lyndon Johnson, were supposed to conclude the unfinished business of the Civil War and emancipation, which had festered so long in the Jim Crow inurement.
The expectation was that the removal of legal obstacles to full citizenship would hasten economic justice and cultural equality, but just then something curious happened: the youth revolt of the late 1960s was underway and young black America immediately opted for separatism. Opposition to anything and everything was the motif for my generation back then. A few years after the 1964 Public Accommodations Act passed, the black students at my college demanded (and were given) their own separate student union building. During the riots that followed the Kent State shootings in the Spring of 1971, somebody burned the building down – a mystery never solved.
I believe the black separatist movement of that time derived largely from anxiety around the issues of cultural assimilation – that is, of black and white America forming a true and complete common culture. In any case, it was at this moment of history that the multicultural movement presented itself as an “out” for white America. Multiculturalism allowed white America to pretend that common culture was not important. It also promoted the unfortunate idea that we could have a functioning civil society with different standards of behavior for different ethnic groups. It has left the nation with the unanswered question of black America’s self-evident failure to thrive, and an enormous body of narrative affecting to explain it away as “structural racism.”
Bill Moyers did not even attempt to address the failure to thrive question in his interview with Angela Glover Blackwell. Both of these people are about as well-intentioned as anyone in the country where race relations are concerned, but neither of them were able to honestly confront the issue. My own opinion is that it’s about behavior at least as much as its about race and probably more, and we continue to make tragic decisions in this country about what behavior is okay and what’s not. Are there proportionately more black men in prison than members of other races in America? Yes there are, and most of them behaved badly enough to get locked up, whether our drug laws are stupid or not. Is something preventing black children from learning in school? Probably a number of things, but I would begin absolutely with the duty to teach them to speak English intelligibly – something that nobody expresses any interest in, especially white Progressives. Do white people fear black males who affect to act as if they are dangerous? Maybe black men should stop trying to scare people. Are these “racist” observations or exercises in reality-testing?
I doubt even that question can be settled conclusively in our time. The truth is that white America is too uncomfortable with the discomfort of black America and white America will do anything, and will bend any view of reality, in order to avoid the most frightening outcome of all, which is the possibility of race war. Well it’s hard not to sympathize with that, but it still leaves us with the burden of all the tragic choices we made since those heady days of 1964 and 1965 when Bill Moyers could stand behind President Johnson signing those landmark civil rights bills, basking in the broad-based belief that real human progress was being made.
I don’t know for sure what Trayvon Martin was doing in the moments before George Zimmerman shot him in the Florida condo cluster. The public may never learn what really went on, even after Mr. Zimmerman’s trial. People don’t get shot for no reason, though sometimes it is not a good reason, or one we want to talk about.