A Nation Divided and the Ugly Legacy that Won’t Die

“The chief obstacle to having an intelligent, or even intelligible, conversation across the racial divide is that on average white Americans live in communities that face far fewer problems and talk mostly to other white people.”The Atlantic

A family lost a son, a community rages and a country confronts the hard-to-ignore reality that we are a nation divided. The sins of the past still live with us and in spite of our best efforts of the past 50 years, we have never moved on despite a brief and fanciful dream that we were beyond race.

Race matters. Race always matters and that hard-to-swallow truth prevents us from moving on. As the nation watched Ferguson, Missouri, unravel in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s premature death at the hands of law enforcement, it was clear that how one viewed the unraveling had everything to do with one’s lived experiences. In fact whether or not one even viewed the events had a great deal to do with the color of one’s skin or willingness to see the pain of others as they would see their own pain.


Several days ago a report from the Pew Research Center that was released showed just how stark the divide is between Blacks and Whites in this country. At a time when we are becoming a more racially mixed country, old tensions between Blacks and Whites are still strong. Yet to those of us who study race or in my case work in the anti-racism field, none of this is news. White supremacy is the undergirding which this country was founded on; racism was inextricably woven into the fabric of this nation and constructed into the founding principles of this country. Whiteness is the default setting that we operate on and anyone who is not white learns that lesson early on. Even preschool age kids understand race and understand that whiteness is valued and everyone else is a distant second.  There is a reason that non-white children prefer the white dolls over the ones who look like them; none of this is coincidental.

We don’t typically ask the victims of violent crimes to heal themselves and solve the crime on their own, but in America we expect Black people to do just this. The history of Blacks that is taught in our schools and often talked about publicly has whitewashed the horror that impacted Blacks. The average white American because they have so little contact with people unlike themselves truly believes that Black Americans were freed in 1865 and that life was smooth sailing until a few hiccups in the 1950’s and 60’s when Martin Luther King Jr came along. So there is a persistent undercurrent of belief that that plight of Blacks is somehow the fault of Blacks and Blacks alone and that white hands are clean. Nothing could be further from the truth. In families like mine, people worked the land for white landowners under an arrangement called sharecropping while living under Jim Crow laws  which lasted well into the 1960’s. My father picked cotton as a child well into the early 1960’s on white owned land while being raised under Jim Crow which determined which school he could attend and what water fountain he could drink at. Integration hit my father’s life about 8 years before I was born. Considering that I am in my early 40’s that isn’t terribly long ago. Yet in recent days my inbox has been filled with angry rantings from those who feel that I am a whiner and race baiter but these same people are lacking in their own knowledge of all of American history.

Considering the sheer ugliness of America’s history when it comes to Black and Native Americans, it’s no wonder that we as a nation whitewash history and gloss over the pain of those who suffered mightily in this nation’s quest for success. In many ways it is no surprise that the social and professional networks of White Americans are 91% White (while those of non-whites are far more diverse).  The very setup of how we live does not lend itself to making cross cultural connections at a soul level and unfair funding of our public services often creates a situation where even well intentioned and open whites eventually end up in spaces where everyone is just like them. Often this is under the guise of needing good schools, etc for the kids.  For Blacks like myself who do end up living in white spaces, the psychic burden of always being an ambassador for Blackness often proves too much.

Is all lost on the racial front? No, but to move beyond requires more than Black and Brown bodies doing all the heavy lifting, it actually requires white people to move beyond the the moments of shame and defensiveness that is too often a part of racial discussions. It requires a willingness to acknowledge that for some of us privilege is bestowed upon us through no efforts of our own. It requires a willingness to learn just how American culture privileges whiteness at every turn and a willingness and desire to dismantle and change that narrative that enslaves us all.

When we actively work to dismantle the ugly foundation that we all stand on, it becomes easier to see the systemic inequities and notice the patterns of abuse and brutalization that certain bodies in this country see on a regular basis. When we are actively dismantling the ugliness we no longer “other” the pain of certain communities but recognize that a lost child matters to us all. Dismantling the system means we no longer hear that quiet voice of doubt that says a teenager somehow earned his killing but we become as passionate for that Black or Brown child as we would be for our own child.  We may not all change our life path to become an anti-racist but we can recognize the harm and danger of homogeneity.

Until we as a collective reach that place, we will continue to live this half life of sorts where we think we are all free when in fact none of us are free.  The choice is ours but do we have the heart and the strength to go beyond? That is the question.

Just a quick note for Mainers and those near Maine, on September 9th, white anti-racism activist and author Debby Irving and I will be giving a talk on cross racial discussions at the Portland Public Library, FMI click here.

14 thoughts on “A Nation Divided and the Ugly Legacy that Won’t Die”

  1. I could not disagree with you more. The more we talk about race the worse it gets. This boy who died in Syria, who was recently in the news, who had joined ISIS, recounted the story where he saw the movie, The Help, and then began to hate white people. And yet this was a movie about about an age that took place a long time ago. These Hollywood movies about racism only fan the fires. To get past race we have to stop harping about past injustices. We have to look at commonalities. We have to change our behavior. We have to look at ourselves as individuals, not as members of a group. The best way to combat racism is to act as a beacon that enlightens people by example.

  2. Archer C.:

    Are there any other people on earth who you would encourage to discard and/or forget their history?

    Your list of the ways things should be suggests you have a good heart and good intentions, but there are levels of reconciliations and trust on both sides that must be achieved before we can get to the common ground you hope to see. Wishing does not make it so. It takes a hard look at the status quo to begin to get there.

    Even if we look away from the past for the moment, please look at the present day. Do you honestly believe that the police and the criminal justice system treat black people fairly in this country? Have you spent time really thinking about that problem and the consequences?

    Or, why is it that I, as an older, middle class black university prof. cannot browse in an upscale dept. store without being either followed or at the very least closely watched by security — ever? And I mean ever!

    Can you imagine or even hear that? And that is certainly not life-threatening, just demeaning and insulting. But YOUR job is to acknowledge that reality and decide how you choose to respond to it as a citizen of this nation.

    Your thoughts?

    • I would encourage everyone to discard and forget their history as no one can saved by their history (it’s too bloody). You know, all peoples have been persecuted if you go back far enough. If a man or woman clings to the pain of the past, personal or historical, that past becomes the present.

      Regarding the police, I think the average policeman wakes up every day and wonders if this might be his or her last day on earth; they are far too worried about living. A few years ago, I was stopped by a policeman who thought I was driving off-road (I had left the side of the road from a friend’s house and had kicked up dust, but the policeman coming from farther away could not see this). I could sense right away that the cop was having a bad day. I didn’t try to explain much at all. I just said, “Yes, Sir” and “No, Sir.” Eventually, he was able to work out his frustration, and he let me go with a warning. Do policeman profile? Of course. Cops are people; they make generalizations; that will never stop; that’s what people do. Without making generalizations, we don’t get out of bed in the morning. You put your feet on the floor because every other day in your life, the floor has been stable. Your mind makes an implicit conclusion that the floor will be stable in the future. I deal in realities.

      Regarding the department store, I am surprised you can find an attendant at all. Maybe I need to hang out with you. Every time I go to a store, I have to walk to a different department to grab someone. I assume by upscale department stores, you are talking about stores like Dillards and Nordstroms. I’m not sure what I would do if I were being followed. I might just look around and say, “Are you following me because of my skin color?” or “Are you afraid I’m going to rob you?”

      Now, are you saying that an actual security officer with a uniform follows you? I can’t think of the last time I saw a security officer in a department store. If that were the case, I might say to him, “Officer, I’m not planning on robbing the place. I don’t have a gang waiting outside.”

      I live in Texas. Maybe we are accustomed to living within a racially diverse mix.

      Perhaps the people who live in Maine, having been so indoctrinated by the media, which does portray black people poorly, are terrified. The only antidote to that is a good example. It’s not fair, but in time it will work.

  3. How many times are you gonna use “silo of privilege?” It’s about as worn out, as your using the color of your skin as an excuse for all the world’s wrongs. Maybe it’s just that you’re arrogant, and that’s why whites don’t care for you. And if you hate Maine so much, just leave and move to” black is beautiful” Boston. (BTW: If you dislike Caucasians so much, then why did you marry one? It’s hugely hypocritical.)

  4. Hi, Jamie. Don’t know if my wife will approve my comment or deem it inflammatory and leave it aside so as not to stir the pot, but what what hell? Let’s find out.

    My wife doesn’t hate white people. She hates a society filled with systemic racist policies and practices that jails blacks at higher rates, punishes them more harshly for the same crimes compared to whites, doesn’t want to give them jobs even when they are qualified and educated, gives them subpar care in healthcare settings, and so much more (all proven by research, by the way).

    Oh, also, she hates when white people…most of them in the country in fact…pretend these inequities don’t exist and thus that white privilege is some kind of myth.

    That isn’t the same as disliking white people. She dislikes deliberate and willful ignorance by the people getting the most from the system and the blaming of people most hurt by it.

    Silo of privilege is a perfectly apt term. But if you don’t like it, how about your bubble of denial and unfairness?

    • Sorry to butt in on this conversation when I have another going with your wife, but I could not resist. There probably exists in humanity, and all species, a built-in biological survival mechanism of bias (discrimination) that is subconscious, not intentional, and impossible to remove. As such, no amount of education or “healing” is ever going to solve the problem of racial bias. This is why marches and talking about it only serve to fatigue the mind. What can work is a quiet acknowledgement of that fact as we choose to accept people based upon their behavior. All people can exhibit both poor and good behavior. When we work with that understanding, we see right through the media nonsense that attempts to package and demonize groups of people so that it, the media, can make a few bucks. Actions speak louder than words.

  5. Jamie, if my words offend you, why do you read this blog? Also your choice of words is interesting, historically in the US, when a Black person speaks up it is viewed problematically. You called me arrogant which one might interpret as a modern day version of calling me uppity which once upon a time in this country could have led to adverse actions for me. My take on your words is that it offends you that I don’t/won’t bow to what you perceive as an acceptable place for a Black woman. I am a homeowner and tax payer in this state as thus I believe I am well within my rights to express any dissatisfaction yet you fell upon old tropes to dehumanize me and strip me of my right to speak in a space that I pay to speak in.

    Never at any point have I said I hate white people, I hate inequity and injustice and only want the same fairness for all, no more or less than anyone else. If that offends I don’t know what to say, Yet why must my dissatisfaction be crouched in words that are palatable to whites?

    Thank you for commenting.

  6. May I interject? This is directed to Archer. Your responses are cogent and well-intentioned. In theory I agree with what you say. However, in a real-life scenario I think they are a mite naive. I feel that Shay is doing a service to myself and others like me who until recently have been clueless (unaware) as to the dire need for a two-way conversation about the racial inequities so prevalent in our country. I was not aware (call me naive) of the white privilege I live under until she caused me to pause and reflect on it. Then I began reading other articles and columns on the subject. Finally a bell went off! Yes, I’m probably a poster child for white privilege because I wasn’t even aware of it! Poster child might be a bit of exaggeration since I’m from blue-collar, lower class. My father was a grave digger turned school janitor; my mother was a “domestic” until the 5 kiddos came along. Much of what Shay speaks of resonates with me, although I’m a good 20 years older. Thank you for letting me be an interloper in this dialogue.

  7. P.S. I live here by choice and I’m NOT a native Mainer so I’ve felt the “chill” of exclusion myself. Maine is backward in SO many ways, However, with some exception, I don’t see this as malicious, just ignorant. Ignorance is not always malicious; sometimes it’s even amusing!

  8. Let me introduce an impolite topic that doesn’t often get added to the mix, at least not out loud. Some bulbs are just brighter than others.

    The comments that spew old, tired, name calling and willful ignorance are an indication of limited interest in actually learning or thinking about these issues. Such folks are on a loop, repeating a set of received beliefs and comments.

    They can get meaner and uglier, but they cannot or will not move outside their comfort zone of angry dismissal. And it is comfortable and safe for them there, with plenty of company, so why leave?

    Social media offer such folks a voice and even the illusion of influence, and many good people try to rebut their racist nonsense with reason and insight.
    Sometimes it’s just a lost cause.

    Contrary to rhymes about sticks and stones, words can do considerable damage. We need to care for our selves and each other with reminders to disengage from the the Jaimie’s and even the Archers, and gain strength from the Kates.

    Yes, discussion is 100% crucial, but if it cannot be, or eventually become, genuinely mutual, it will sap our spirit and morale ( and waste our time).

    Ironically, it is our deep-seated belief that reason and documented/established facts will prevail that keeps us making one more reply and getting kicked in the gut once again. We all need to fine tune our sense of when to shut down an exchange.

    Kate, I applaud the way you are working through these matters, I hope you find the journey rewarding.

    • Knowing your background a bit, I appreciate this reply on so many levels. As my dust settles this fall, I would very much like to have that cup of coffee. 🙂

  9. In biblical times, prophets were cursed, maligned and persecuted. Modern social media has just made them more readily accessible to the bruises inflicted by the unenlightened.

  10. I’ve given up on our ever having coffee. I extended an offer over six months ago, but haven’t heard back from you. Clearly, you don’t want any connection. I hope that your work goes well this fall.

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