If Robert Frost was correct in saying “Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence,” then America has work to do.
It takes just three words to make a sizable portion of the American public angry.
Black. Lives. Matter.
That innocent-sounding Twitter hashtag—#BlackLivesMatter—was created to admonish America after seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin was murdered by a deranged racist in Florida, but now it’s seen by many whites as a catchphrase for chronic Black grievance and destructive urban rioting.
What’s the cost Blacks must collectively pay for our supposed grievance and rioting?
Countervailing white grievance, white rioting and urban terrorism.
That’s what broke out last month from a pro-Trump “Make America Great Again” rally in the nation’s capital. An angry white mob called the Proud Boys were drawn from far-off places and dressed in paramilitary gear to stomp around town in barking packs, daring police officers or local citizens to dare say a word.
They make great ambassadors for the outgoing president’s cultural chauvinism that has been iced with compensatory white victimhood. His entire sales pitch to whites boils down to “we are great, but everyone treats us very badly.” Some have believed it more than others.
It’s hard to miss the symbolism in the Proud Boys scourge when they tore down a “Black Lives Matter” banner from Asbury United Methodist (a historically Black church with roots dating back to 1836), sprayed it with lighter fluid, set fire to it and chanted obscenities.
This is the recreation of an old, familiar scene that simmers in the Black imagination:
Like Dr. Ianther M. Mills, pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church, I too see what he says is “reminiscent of cross burnings.”
And, as is the case of another form of fiery nighttime terror from days past, lynching, the act isn’t meant to be a one-time punishment for a single crime. The burned thing—in this case, a church banner, but in the past, a body—is symbolic of the race. Setting fire to the aspirational suggestion that Black Lives Matter is a message to Black people who maladjusted whites see as demanding too much of America. The message is simple: no, your lives do not matter.
The anger that this mob showed toward the banner and the Black church they tore it from is not new anger. The fire isn’t a new fire. This is an incandescent remnant of unfinished white-hot malevolence that was interrupted by Black freedom movements (and the subsequent Black progress).
There was terror after emancipation. There was terror after reconstruction. There was terror after voting rights. There was terror after desegregation. There was terror after Affirmative Action.
And there was terror four years after the first Black president brought his highfalutin language into the whitest house.
In each case, whites justified their terrorism by pointing to Black attempts at being fully human and equal to whites. The blame went to that hopeful nigger that wanted to read. That wanton niggress who dare turn down sexual demands. That bourgeoise nigra that wanted to determine elections by voting or those that wanted to judge good white people from a jury box. Or those uppity coloreds who didn’t know suburban housing was for clean white families only.
If only Blacks would shut up, work hard, obey the law, stay in our place, and never attempt to disturb the status of white supremacy, then we wouldn’t suffer righteous violence.
That’s what you believe if you know nothing about justifications that were used for slavery, Jim Crow, segregation and the counter-Civil Rights movement. It’s the same logic that has returned Black skin and bones to American soil since Amistad and it lives in the Proud Boy and their companions watching approvingly across social media.
Rev. William H. Lamar IV, the pastor of the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington that was also targeted by the Proud Boys, has written a moving piece in the Washington Post calling out the legacy of white violence.
The myth of the American imperium is deeply rooted in falsehoods and forgetfulness, in intentional historical amnesia and obfuscation. Liberty was not the founding American impulse; genocide was. The blessing of God did not secure this nation’s prosperity. The forced labor of my ancestors did. The founders were not committed to a republic or a democracy. They were committed to a racialized plutocracy led by propertied white males.
More than ever I see what Rev. Lamar calls “historical amnesia” about our collective story as a nation-killer. We can’t live this stupid forever. Americans are gravely miseducated about history, law, sociology, and politics, and while our relative prosperity affords us a high level of forgiveness for our dullards, the costs of poorly educated populism are too staggering.
We should heed James Madison’s eloquent warning:
Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives. A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy or perhaps both
In my lifetime I’ve never seen civic deterioration more aptly labeled as both “farce and tragedy.” I might be inconclusive about answers to “fix” the race problem in America, but I’m certain education won’t hurt.
When the Washington Post polled Americans last year with five basic questions about slavery (i.e. “what ended slavery?”), they flunked, getting only two out of five of the questions correct. A 2015 McClatchy poll revealed that nearly 40% of Americans disagreed with teaching public school students that slavery was a main reason for the Civil War.
Less than half of Americans can name the three branches of government.
According to The Center for American Progress, only nine states (and D.C.) require one year of civics education.
That is scandalously paltry in a nation that runs on civic participation, voting, democratic processes and republican government. No wonder we have riots, protests and demonstrations. In the chants of these frustrated Americans, we should hear what Dr. Martin Luther King called the language of the unheard.
We must teach our children—all of them—the truth about the roots of today’s power struggles that are found in yesterday’s structural racialization. And we also need them to have a deep understanding of the legal structures that people of all backgrounds have used to free themselves.
They must never be ignorant about how fragile and endangered Black life has always been in this country. Yet, we can’t push youth into the paralysis of racial nihilism because our true history is as much about overcoming as being overcome.
I’m not naive about prescribing education for complex issues like race. Many Americans are too far gone and can’t be recovered. But for those who claim to be people of goodwill, Americans clinging to the best images of ourselves, people of faith traditions that demand a familial view of humanity—truth and reconciliation is the only path to making our nation as great as it can be.
I’ll augment Dr. King’s quote slightly to say: “we must learn together as family, or perish together as fools.”