For three straight mornings, I’ve eaten breakfast sprinkled with madness. Throughout this week that started with July 4, I’ve woken to horrible news that was tough to swallow.
Like everyone else, I watched videos that captured the nation’s racial angst — two black men shot by police officers for no apparent reason, and a peaceful demonstration to protest those slayings that dissolved into the revenge murder of five police officers.
The details of what happened this week are still being pieced together by investigations in three cities, but what is clear nearly eight years after the election of the first black president is that the idea of a post-racial America was a fantasy.
I covered racial trends and demographics for The Washington Post for eight years ending in 2009, crisscrossing the country to write about segregated schools, crowded prisons and huge immigration marches, and I left the beat thinking that President Obama’s election in 2008 might bring at least a margin of the hope and change he embraced.
But America hasn’t changed. You could argue persuasively that the racial climate has become worse. While addressing a joint session of Congress in September 2009, Obama was heckled by a white congressman who shouted, “You lie!” His birthright to even sit in the office was challenged by many, including the current presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump.
Two-hundred forty years after the first Independence Day, Americans still live by the same color codes established before the nation’s birth. We mark each other by complexion. We assign meaningless stereotypes to people according to skin color. We adore and fear and hate people on the basis of how light or dark they are.
Race, as many scientists will tell you, is not real, but racism is.
Neighborhoods and schools are increasingly segregated. Through Obama’s nearly eight years in office, attention to shootings of unarmed black men by police officers has increased, giving rise to the Black Lives Matter movement that is challenging the status quo.
BLM was trying to force a difficult conversation that many Americans refuse to have: How does racism drive inequality and fear, and how can we overcome the problem? But after the shooting in Dallas, BLM’s ability to push that conversation in an environment that is more charged and divided is an open question.
As things stand, African Americans feel they’re the only people talking about race. On Facebook and other social-media platforms, some African Americans lamented that white people seemed to engage only when the police officers were shot.
It is a difficult conversation we refuse to have, even as it eats at us from within. We tiptoe around the subject or ignore it altogether until tensions boil over.
The last three days have shown once again how divided we are by race.
On social media, some African Americans criticized “our black president” as failing to speak out when Alton Sterling was shot by police in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile was gunned down in a suburb of St. Paul, Minn.
But they were wrong. He did speak. “When incidents like this occur, there’s a big chunk of our citizenry that feels as if, because of the color of their skin, they are not being treated the same, and that hurts, and that should trouble all of us,” the president said Thursday. “This is not just a black issue, not just a Hispanic issue. This is an American issue that we all should care about.”
Those remarks were immediately criticized, and the condemnation was renewed, especially on social media, when the police officers were shot in Dallas.
African Americans were divided between those who expressed disgust at what happened in Dallas and those who expressed anger that the reaction to white police officers being shot was stronger than the reaction to the police killings of two black men before them.
Many African Americans are certain that an act of racial violence happened Wednesday in Baton Rouge when a white police officer shot Alton Sterling as he and another officer pinned him to the ground.
And the governor of Minnesota could not dismiss race as a motivation for what happened to Philando Castile outside St. Paul, when an officer who pulled him over for a busted tail light shot him four times as his girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter watched in horror.
“Would this have happened if the driver were white?” Gov. Mark Dayton (D) asked after Castile was shot. “I don’t think it would have.”
Racism can twist and shape us into people we never wanted to be. The police officer who shot Castile didn’t start his day wanting to shoot someone in front of a child.
Warped, too, is the intent of a peaceful demonstration in Dallas to mark the two police shootings.
The twisted and raging anger of Micah Johnson, the black man who pulled the trigger, is unrecognizable to many in the black community. African Americans cowered like everyone else during the onslaught, and reacted with fear, dread and praise for the Dallas police once it was over.