Mulhall column: Breakfast in America
A few weeks ago, I couldn’t imagine anything bumping COVID from the news cycle. Then, Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck. Now, COVID’s playing second fiddle to civil unrest.
And just like that, racism is what’s for breakfast in America.
A common thesis about racism is that it’s uni-directional: It emanates from folks with white skin, particularly those in law enforcement, and it targets all minorities, but mostly African Americans.
Of course, the uni-directional thesis is myth. Processing the characteristics of others that make them different is deeply-rooted human psychology. Everyone does it, and it may be one of the few traits humans share in something like equal measure.
For those, however, who view this psychology as discrimination, as the canons of the political left and revisionist history dictate, the fall-back axiom insists, “if you’re white, you’re racist,” even though inferring what’s in the hearts of a population based on skin pigment is genocide’s Rubicon.
A more helpful way of sorting out the depravity of racism may be through the human capacity for good and evil.
Slavery in America illustrates this.
The same folks who will tell you white skin makes you racist will also tell you that racism is systemic in America because slave owners wrote our founding documents.
What’s closer to truth is that what goes with slavery in this country is every evil that came after it: Jim Crowe and Plessy v Ferguson and the KKK and lynchings and every other kind of wretched act that could make a claim to slavery’s place in Hell, including the death of George Floyd.
Less acknowledged but equally relevant are actions in every branch of government arising from the human capacity for good, like the Emancipation Proclamation, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Brown v Board of Education, and more recently University of CA v Bakke, just to name a few.
The big takeaway from this is that every respectable executive action, every regulation, every court ruling within my lifetime and before has fallen short of delivering what’s wanted — not merely for some perceived inadequacy, but also because time ages them out.
“Those old things lack nuance,” someone will say, “because they don’t address the problems of the here and now.”
So you can look at this at least two ways.
Maybe, despite all the failures of the past, the right government measure exists. We just haven’t figured it out yet.
On the other hand, it’s possible that anything government does will never be enough.
I find that over the course of going on 250 years our government is, has been, and will continue to be a dismal agent of racial harmony, not because the founding fathers owned slaves, or because white people are inherently racist, but because even the best government has offered has left Americans short of what the idea of America promises.
Any sufficient or even passable government action would have by now made appreciable progress if not actually hit the moving target of what’s wanted. But government actions, individually and collectively, haven’t done so thus far, and from everything I can tell, they never will.
What, if not government, is there then?
When I contemplate a solution to racism, I often think of a friend I grew up with who has adopted more children by far than he’s sired, and while he’s white, most of his children are not.
Government can’t hold a candle to what, when it comes to “race,” which is to say “skin color,” he knows.
Unless I see all people as God’s children — which I think at least partly sums up what my friend sees — I miss the big picture.
When enough people miss the big picture, the best we can hope for is whatever measure government comes up with to placate outrage.
Some of those who founded America understood this. Perhaps too many of us do not.
Mitch Mulhall is a husband, father and longtime Roaring Fork Valley resident. His column appears monthly in the Post Independent and at postindependent.com.
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