MANIFEST RACISM OR CULTURAL IGNORANCE: America’s Indisputable Legacy and Suspended Dreams

Backstreet Djeli 5“When white Americans frankly peel back the layers of our commingled pasts, we are all marked by it. Whether a company or an individual, we are marred either by our connections to the specific crimes and injuries of our fathers and their fathers. Or we are tainted by the failures of our fathers to fulfill our national credos when their courage was most needed. We are formed in molds twisted by the gifts we received at the expense of others. It is not our “fault.” But it is undeniably our inheritance.”  (Douglas A. Blackmon, “Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II”)

When I retired a few years ago, I imagined myself easily returning to the pre-working-career, post-family-raising dreams of someday documenting my life experiences in a “hyphenated America” from the waning years of Old Jim Crow, and those awkward school desegregation years, to the Black Power-vs.-Integration paradoxes that African-Americans faced in those pre- and post-Civil Rights struggles, victories and discouragements.

I didn’t realize, until the spring-and-summer of my life, that those years of growing up and working mostly in the South, before and after an enlightening overseas military stint, were probably unique, compared to others in my forever-changing multiracial group of peers, including athletics and business. However, various issues within life’s daily challenges seem to have quenched my thirst or impeded the environs for writing the way I once envisioned. Yet, it’s still amazing how my childhood observations and life-long experiences with racism and cultural ignorance seem not so different from what I see around me, today, in the fall-and-winter of my years, six grandkids later..

Statutory Bigotry on Parade

Frankly, I feel that you would have to travel back in time, before you could even begin to understand the inherent racism and/or bigoted racial bias associated with today’s judicial system in the United States; perhaps, as far back as 1857 and the U.S. Supreme Court’s “Dred Scott Decision” (Dred Scott v. Sanford, 60 U.S. 393). Historians say it ruled that African-Americans had no standing to sue in federal courts. Back track even further and you’ll find the so-called “Three-Fifth’s Compromise,” from the 1787 Philadelphia Convention, which divvied up slaves within the backroom politics of “proportional representation” and allocations of political power, according to other historians.

But, in my opinion, even the Emancipation Proclamation, several years in the wake of the “Dred Scott Decision,” did not resolve the issue of slavery, the way our history books like to brag.   The way I see it, slavery did not end. It was just redefined, as in “re-enslavement.”  And, the long parade of injustices, still evident within our legal system, simply fell in behind the band.

It’s a parade that marched in support of various forms of structural racism, like plantation slavery, “Slave Codes,” prison farm industries, “Black Codes,” Jim Crow-ism, racial segregation and some fanciful notions of “white privilege” in a nation of dwindling white demographics, and the creeping cancer of “white supremacy.”

More recent, still, take the outrageous outcome of Florida’s recent Seminole County Case, State of Florida v George Zimmerman, coupled with the presumed-guilt of an unarmed, African-American, hoodie-wearing teen.  In my opinion, systemic racial and cultural bias was not the only factor contributing to how our tarnished system of justice failed young Trayvon Martin.  Plain ol’ common sense seemed to be playing hooky, as well as a seasoned prosecution team, the day that Mr. Zimmerman was found “not guilty” in this murder. Furthermore,  the defense team audaciously argued that Zimmerman was “justified” in killing young Trayvon because he had somehow “armed himself with the concrete sidewalk” they were said to be scuffling on. Tragic stuff.

Even the simple legal concept of proximate or direct cause (a cause which produces an event) seemed to be conveniently on “vacation,” too, as this gun-toting neighborhood night-watchman and mixed-martial arts novice (who reportedly fancied a career in law enforcement) opened his car door in hot pursuit of his own imagination.   

From jump, half-baked opinions, stereotypical assumptions and knee-jerk reactions to this case spiraled. The potential for counterproductive, racial violence once again raised its ugly head. But, the lessons of our repugnant judicial history seemed to quell the angry voices and hot-heads across the land.  In some ways, it seemed to kick-start new efforts for prudent legal, social and political change, more conscious of the growing needs and changing demographics of our nation.

However, I don’t believe that racial and cultural bias will ever fully go away, without major shifts in the way we think. But, hopefully, neither should common-sense and common decency within the quest for equitable justice and fairness for all of our nation’s citizens. Yet, we remain a pathologically sick nation due to the relentless drip of systemic racism associated with our ugly past and national sin- the sin of stealing this land- by hook or crook and broken treaties– from the Native American Indian tribes. And, various hypocritical, situational interpretations of the Bible only contributed to theological contradictions, in my humble opinion.

We don’t seem to be able to come to grips with our past, let alone our future.  And, the way our government functions- or doesn’t function– these days, only seems to exacerbate lingering racial tensions, contributing to even more racially lopsided opinion poll results, as the probability for a so-called, much-needed “conversation on race” fizzles and burns, much like the gunpowder that ignited old muzzle-loading rifles, long before the Civil War.

Shameful Social Decay

From growing up and playing high school sports in the South, during the early years of school desegregation, I’ve experienced how quickly those angry, loud voices of ignorance and hate can turn to brutal and bloody exchanges of fear and vile attacks on each other’s imagined realities. Afterwards, like little children caught with their hands in the proverbial cookie jar, I’ve seen faces aglow with unabashed guilt and shame, as all parties involved retreated to their own tiny corners of shame and faulty justifications. 

In the process, I also learned some bizarre lessons about racial harmony and group trust when white football-and-track teammates began to stand up and help us fight a few racial skirmishes, while being ostracized, themselves. The way I was beginning to see it, there probably wasn’t much difference between defending the honor of one’s school colors, team colors or, whatever race or belief system one ascribes to or is assigned at birth.  

Similar lessons were later learned, while stationed in the Mediterranean Basin, playing soccer (and, eight-man flag football) with other “hyphenated American” teammates, like Jewish-Americans, Italian-Americans, French-Americans, Hispanic- or Puerto Rican-Americans, etc. Interestingly, many opposing teams (military, university and industrial-league soccer clubs) were seeing an African-American for the first time in their lives. But, after traveling among, and competing within various progressive European and African environs, in the Mediterranean Basin, I’ve come to truly despise the racial silliness that increasingly saps our energy and thwarts our ability to become the great nation we tend to preach and teach about. Yet, these were lessons which helped shape my view of America’s true potential, as well as my own brand of patriotism, for the rest of my life.

On the other hand, we seem readily able to construct critical thinking and social analysis on the decline and fall of the Roman Empire and Ancient Egyptian Civilization, while being completely oblivious to the symptoms of social decay and moral decline swirling all around us. Meanwhile, a proper analysis and dissemination of facts for the rise and fall of great Ancient Ethiopian and African Empires, not to mention the lost contributions and hushed genius of the Australian Aborigine, remain strategically scanty and bleak. Even the fading of Western Hemispheric civilizations, like the Ancient Mayans and the cliff-dwelling Ancient Pueblo Indians, are still calculatingly mystifying, at best.

And, here, in modern-day America, our nation has yet to come to grips with the idea that an American-born citizen, President Barack Obama, of African and European ancestry, can rise from humble beginnings to become the 44th and current president of these United States of America. Judging from the whiny rhetoric of Tea Party Republicans, you’d think that his election was a slap in the face, rather than electoral enlightenment and ray of hope that many in the rest of the world saw it.

To put it bluntly, borrowing a phrase from one of my heroes in the Civil Rights Movement- Ms. Fannie Lou Hammer– perhaps like most decent-thinking Americans, today, “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired…” of how President Barack Obama, popularly elected to the most powerful office on earth, is constantly treated by the dueling political factions and right-wing race mongers.  The lack of respect in many circles for our First Lady, Michelle Obama, is equally atrocious. This right-wing, mealy-mouthed spewing of negativity and trash-mouth, race-baiting flies in the face of our national conscience and goes against the true spirit of freedom in America.

I’m also disappointed at what we, as a nation, now seem to be teaching our children about morality and ethics, and a somewhat pompous classroom history view of times past, within the pluralistic society we profess to be. It’s become nauseating to see politicians, and various caucuses on both sides of the aisle, trotting out behind public podiums for press conferences in front of logo-filled backdrops, flanked by political flunkies, to spout off groupthink rhetoric rather than bipartisan reasoning. This includes all political theater and other nonsense designed to appease the frivolities of wealthy campaign contributors and/or extreme-leaning special interest groups, rather than the electoral majority which elected them. 

Miscalculated Fury

Since his 2008 inauguration, the Republican/ GOP brand has constantly snapped at the heels of our president, undermining everything he attempts, sabotaging any policies he puts forth and torpedoing significant judicial nominees and appointments.  Then, unbelievingly, they flip the scrip to blame the president for being unable to get anything accomplished.  But, the way I see it, it’s likely their own pea-brain stupidity and short-sighted inability to sit down at the table of reason, like real grownups, for decision-making discourse and dialogue which is to blame. Instead, they seem more apt in dedicating themselves to further stuffing the pockets of, or running point for, an obscenely wealthy elite, often as well as themselves.

Similar to the way Southern politicians use to miscalculate the seething rage and political will of the American populace, black and white, during the Civil Rights Movement, I feel the Republican Party and their Tea Party cohorts have greatly miscalculated the deep-seated anger and resolve of the American public. This seems evident within the mounting wrath against surreptitiously slick attempts by Republicans to destroy the effectiveness of the Voting Rights Act, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to strike down certain provisions of this heralded civil-rights legislation.

Right now, our economic and judicial systems appear rigged for the status quo power elite. But, in my opinion, it really doesn’t matter. What matters is that a growing percentage of the American electorate, a more racially and ethnically diverse voting public, has increasingly expressed dissatisfaction with various economic and legal inequalities, as well as archaic notions of white privilege. Besides, the days of yore for a majority-white America will soon fizzle and fade and time is nigh for folk to get beyond the transition. Of course, there are counterproductive, romantic die-hards who think otherwise.

But, like the miscalculations of America’s will, during the Civil Rights Movement, the 2014 mid-term election and 2016 presidential election outcomes might come from the unintended functions of the wrath of different, but more fair-minded, progressive coalitions within the voting process. Besides, the very definition of the term, “conservative” (i.e., reluctant to or against change, etc.), is oxymoronic to the ideal of growing “a more perfect union,” in my opinion. The forgotten lessons of the Civil Rights Movement suggest that increasing the level of difficulty to vote, for minorities, merely flames the anger and intensifies the will to “get out the vote,” stimulating an unintended backlash against voter suppression.

Of the People, By the People, For the People

The upcoming elections just may be the opportunity to sweep many of the self-serving, dysfunctional politicians out of office. Behind it, perhaps the long-awaited push for more realistic term limits in Congress can begin in earnest, via bipartisan legislation of individuals more representative of our changing demographics and more cognizant of our nation’s changing social and economic needs.

That’s the real power of the vote, no matter what structural barriers, real or perceived, are rigged against it. The way I see it, the future of racial gerrymandering in political districts might eventually be undermined by a more diverse, multicultural society, where racial coalitions and political alliances along similar agenda might become more profoundly effective than racially or ethnically polarized voting districts. It’s possible that it could usher in a period when the silliness of racial gerrymandering might become moot and academic.  Just a thought, a noteworthy rationale for the next national conversation on race, perhaps…

In any case, a more prudent-minded Congress and a more judicious, far-sighted electorate is a thought worthy of our nation’s commitment to our children and grandchildren. And, my experience with the positive aspects of multiculturalism, and lessons associated with racism and cultural ignorance, makes me feel that it’s the only way America can stem the apparent tide of declining leadership in the world.  

It’s also the way that this land in which I was born-and-bred can “…rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed,” so eloquently stated within the dreams of Dr. Martin Luther King, some 50 years ago this month. His dream is my dream, too, just a tad suspended.

Backstreet Djeli  w.d.s.

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About William "Duke" Smither (formerly, pen name: "Backstreet Djeli")

William "Duke" Smither, author of “BACKROADS TO 'BETHLEHEM': Odysseys of the Maroon Warrior, in the Shadows of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade,” is a Frankfort Kentucky native; Richmond Virginia resident. Retired Public Utility Sr. Investigator and nuclear site worker, Married w/ 3 children and 6 grandchildren; U.S. Navy Viet Nam Era & Cuban Missile Crisis Veteran; Member of "Cuban Blockade Survivors" & The American Legion; B.S. Degree (Business Mgmt) w/ independent studies in Ancient African History and African-American History. Post-graduate studies in Criminal Justice Administration. Former Sports & Feature writer for the weekly Richmond Afro-American Newspaper, during Freshman year of college. Retirement activities include: Freelance writer, playwright, actor and director of faith-based community theater productions; founder of "Backstreet's Blog" ("Talking Drum Dialogues") at and contributing writer for "BlackPast.Org," the international, on-line reference center for African American History. His debut novel, “BACKROADS TO 'BETHLEHEM': Odysseys of the Maroon Warrior…,” is the first installment of a possible historical-fiction trilogy.