OPINION: White societies on trial

Editor’s Note: KentWired invited Mwatabu Okantah, associate professor in the Department of Pan-African studies at Kent State, to share a guest column about racial injustices in America. 

“Until the killing of black men, black mother’s sons, becomes

as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a

white mother’s sons, we who believe in freedom cannot rest….”

–Ella Baker

I am a soon to be 68-year-old black man. I have looked down the barrel of a policeman’s gun more than once; looking into the fear in his eyes.  I have been profiled, “driving while Black.” I remember being a teenage boy in my New Jersey hometown and being told by white police officers to, “get back to where you belong!”  America only sees black people when we are framed nightly on TV screens wreaking absolute havoc in the streets.  America is seeing us once again, but, this time, will America be quiet and listen?

Black voices have always spoken truth to power.  Frederick Douglass warned, “Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”  Another generation is burning with the same old rage, and America’s leaders are bankrupt.  Too few leaders are willing to acknowledge the degree to which living in slum neighborhoods reminds people daily of the conditions this nation is so willing to neglect; the same way White America allowed slavery and Jim Crow racial segregation.

The election of Barack Obama as president of the United States could not and did not signal a “post-racial” phase in this nation’s development.  Yet, my experiences performing my poetry before predominantly white audiences, in collaboration with the Cavani String Quartet, have taught me there are genuinely kind-hearted and sensitive white Americans. The emergence of MAGA Donald Trump as president is their true generational test.  The decent—“I am not a racist”—white people are being challenged to stand up in the face of a white backlash that is determined to “take their America back.”

To only focus attention on the more extreme expressions of white supremacy is too convenient.  It allows mainstream Americans, who continue to benefit from a willfully ignorant white-privilege centered way of life, to throw their hands up in shock and to disdain any responsibility for the collateral damage inflicted on the communities of color living just beyond their tranquil, suburban neighborhoods.  The black experience in America is rife with stories that chronicle the inhumanities white people will accept to maintain their American Dream standard of living.

The Martin Luther King that was branded an “enemy” of the White House by President Johnson acknowledged, “For twelve years I, and others like me, had held out radiant promises of progress.  I had preached to them about my dream.  I had lectured to them about the not too distant day when they would have freedom, ‘all here and now.’  I had urged them to have faith in America and in white society.  Their hopes had soared.  They were now booing because they felt that we were unable to deliver on our promises.  They were booing because we had urged them to have faith in people who had too often proved to be unfaithful.  They were now hostile because they were watching the dream that they had so readily accepted turn into a frustrating nightmare.”

People don’t want to remember the King who warned, “There is such a time as too late.”  They overlook the King who wrote, “Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to re-educate themselves out of their racial ignorance.  It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn.

The reality of substantial investment to assist Negroes into the twentieth century, adjusting to Negro neighbors and genuine school integration is still a nightmare for all too many white Americans.”  In Donald Trump’s America, the maxim, “My ignorance is equal to your knowledge” rules.

They do not know the King that sent the following message to Betty Shabazz, the widow of Malcolm X, after he was murdered, “… I always had a deep affection for Malcolm and felt that he had a great ability to put his finger on the existence and the root of the problem.  He was an eloquent spokesman for his point of view, and no one can honestly doubt that Malcolm had a great concern for the problems we face as a race.”  Fannie Lou Hamer put the outrage we are witnessing into proper perspective at the 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City when she declared, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”