Our dysfunctionally violent society transcends the simplistic exercise of pointing to good guys and bad guys. We can look at what happened in Dallas this week as an act of evil—and surely it was—but that doesn’t even begin to dissect the complex web of underlying causation. To get to the blue bloodbath of Dallas, America has traveled a long road of racism, ignorance and violence, a causeway littered with the corpses of innocent victims who never saw justice. If the social psychosis giving rise to contemporary violence is ever to end, we as a society must do something we have never done: face our history fully, honestly and empathetically, with no qualifiers and no “buts.”
Historical change is often initiated by unexpected sources, and the prevalence of video cameras in modern American life is a good example. We now regularly see the shocking mistreatment that people of color receive in daily life, particularly at the hands of law enforcement. The grim reality of life as a racial minority in America—a reality defined by systemic hostility—now often goes viral for all to see, thus bringing new context to social issues such as crime and violence, the school-to-prison pipeline, and the culture of incarceration that disproportionately targets African Americans.
The revelation of this truth—that American racism is rampant, worse than mainstream media ever suggested and worse than the insulated white majority ever imagined—has created the turbulent reality that we deal with today. Before ubiquitous video cameras, plausible explanations were typically proffered (and rarely scrutinized) when black men were subjected to violence at the hands of law enforcement. Such excuses are worth little, however, when video footage allows us to see violence unleashed without provocation.
Although much remains to be understood about the Dallas events, there is no question that the slaughtered police officers were innocent victims of a senseless act. But if their deaths are to mean anything, we need to respond not with simple words, not with just "thoughts and prayers," but with a commitment to examining the deeper roots of racial violence and injustice.
When racism is discussed in America the conversation usually starts with the hundreds of years of slavery that is its foundation, but that should only be a starting point. If racial injustice had ended with slavery, there would undoubtedly be much more harmony in America today. It is important to understand that the continuation of racism—the widespread and gross mistreatment of African Americans since the Civil War over 150 years ago, much of it omitted from the mainstream narrative—is what explains the ongoing social dysfunction that prevails today.
Many of the names of victims have been long forgotten, but some still stand out. Consider George Stinney, for example, a 14-year-old South Carolina boy executed after a sham trial in 1944 for the murder of a white girl. Denied anything remotely resembling due process (his lawyer, a politician running for local office, called no witnesses and the prosecution was allowed to inflame the jury by alluding to the “possibility of rape” even though there was no evidence of it) the boy was convicted in a one-day trial by an all-white jury that deliberated for ten minutes, in a courtroom filled with over a thousand white spectators and no blacks. The helpless lad went to his death strapped to an electric chair that was too big for his little body.
The Stinney case is shameful and dramatic, but cases like it have long given rise to a debate in America over whether such high-profile instances of racial injustice are rare occurrences, as some (usually white) commentators will claim, or just the tip of the iceberg for a problem that is much more endemic. In recent times, video cameras answer that question for us with a steady flow of documented, cringe-worthy injustice.
For those willing to come to grips with the mistreatment experienced by African Americans, one recommended reading would be Just Mercy, a painful but eye-opening book by Bryan Stevenson, co-founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. Stevenson recounts the stories of numerous defendants pushed through the criminal justice system, without effective defense or fair trial, to find themselves on death row. Many Americans have a sense that the justice system is less than perfect, but Stevenson shows that this would be an understatement, that minorities face not just imperfect courts but outright hostility and racism from government institutions and the people who run them. He tells the tale of Walter McMillian, for example, who was at a cookout with dozens of witnesses at the time of a murder in Alabama in 1993, but nevertheless was convicted and sent to death row for six years before being exonerated.
Stinney and McMillian are names that won’t be lost to history, but we can only imagine how many others will never be known. And of course, beyond the numerous extreme examples that leave corpses in their wake, there are the unending instances where African Americans have faced less severe, but nevertheless reprehensible, discrimination and injustice. It’s a phenomenon we’ve all known to exist, but the camera and social media make it impossible to avoid any longer.
It’s also a phenomenon that does not have a converse side, where majority whites can claim any kind of widespread, systemic injustice that validates society's long history of mistreatment toward blacks. There simply are no serious “buts” in the causation analysis. Before we even talk about solutions, it’s important to fully accept that racial injustice in America began with the actions of whites, that the the heinous mistreatment of blacks didn't end with the Emancipation Proclamation, Brown v. Board of Education, or the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
It would be wonderful if the prevalence of video cameras revealed an American society that was fair and just, with public servants who treated everyone with dignity and respect, with a pluralistic citizenry that did the same to one another, but today we know beyond any doubt that such is not the case. In fact, it’s not exactly true to say that things are “getting ugly” in America—the truth is that it’s been ugly for a long time, and thanks to universal video it is now regularly in our faces. Racism, ignorance and violence are realities that have plagued this culture for centuries, and the first step in healing is a full and honest acceptance of that fact.
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Both photos above are in public domain in US. The Stinney mugshot was published in the US between 1923 and 1977 without a copyright notice. The electric chair photo is public domain because its copyright has expired (life of author plus 70 years)