A friend asked me recently if I ever wrote about anything other than Donald Trump. The short answer is no, I’d like to, but it’s hard to get around him to write about anything else. Sooner or later he manages to make everything, every story, every incident, about himself.
Now, speaking of Donald Trump, the question is, why hasn’t he spoken to the nation about George Floyd, racism and police brutality? The answer is he can’t.
Trump has painted himself into a corner, and he can’t get out without leaving very noticeable footprints. He has made remarks, veiled and not so veiled, that are racist and anti-Semitic (yes, even though his daughter and the First Son-in-Law are Jewish). Trump is what he is—a leopard can’t change its spots, etc., etc. Trump has encouraged police not to be too gentle with suspects, and, one suspects, he thinks they’re all guilty. The concept of civil rights and civil liberties doesn’t seem to carry much weight with America’s first magistrate. He can’t be the Law and Order President he promised to be and also counsel treating African Americans gently, as though they should be presumed innocent until proven guilty.
That’s one of the reasons why Trump speaks only of George Floyd when he talks about what happened to George Floyd, as if that one incident were sui genesis, a terrible thing, but something that happened once to one person, and not the most glaring, public example of a phenomenon that has gone on for generations, centuries and only now is seeping into the collective white consciousness of our country.
The most generous, benign interpretation is that Trump is clueless, that he simply doesn’t know what’s going on and what has gone on for centuries. That may be true. One suspects, though, that he is aware, however dimly, but just doesn’t care, not simply in the way that he doesn’t care about anything but himself, but a deeper lack of caring, more like contempt for the black victims of police brutality and mayhem.
The notion that any mother or father has to worry about letting their teenage or older children out of the house, especially after dark and especially sons, is beyond comprehension for most of us. We may worry, but not about their being randomly stopped by police, interrogated and potentially have their lives put in danger or taken, too often for no apparent reason.
We can’t forget the original sin of America’s founding 400 years ago. “The past is never dead,” William Faulkner said. “It’s not even past.” We are still living it, despite the centuries of struggle, despite the affirmation of equality of all in the Declaration of Independence, despite the bloodiest war in our history, despite the passage of constitutional amendments, civil rights legislation, countless promises—often broken—to right the wrongs done, and despite all the sacrifices made.
It ought to be clear by now that there won’t be peace for each of us until all of us have justice and fairness,
John F. Kennedy addressed this same issue 57 years ago, almost to the day, in a speech to the American people:
We face, therefore, a moral crisis as a country and as a people. It cannot be met by repressive police action. It cannot be left to increased demonstrations in the streets. It cannot be quieted by token moves or talk.
This issue is not going away. It will not magically disappear like a novel virus. It may ebb for a time, but it will always be with us, under the surface, like the shifting of tectonic plates that cause earthquakes, disrupting our lives and potentially wreaking horrendous destruction in our communities.
The human condition is such that we all have grievances and resentments. We can look at our lives and find ourselves the victims of unfairness and injustice. But for most of us, who are white, the grievances, unfairness and injustices aren’t systemic. Our problems, whatever they may be, aren’t a result of our being white. We can’t say the same for African Americans. Ultimately it is all a question of pigmentation.
The Constitution may be color blind. Our laws may be as well. But the men and women who enforce them are not. We have to find a way to recognize our own race consciousness, take it into account in our daily lives and find the fairness that must be our standard. “…if, in short,” President Kennedy said, ” [an African American] cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place?”
That was 57 years ago. We still haven’t found the answer.