How Do We Move Beyond Our Country’s Persistent Racial Tensions?

By Dan Carson

My wife and I recently saw Selma, the Oscar-nominated movie recreating the series of civil rights protests, led by Martin Luther King, that led to breakthrough federal legislation making it possible for black citizens in segregated Southern states to exercise their constitutional right to vote.

The flick packed remarkable emotional punch, especially considering that it depicted events from fifty years ago. Its abrupt opening sequences captured the national shockwaves from the bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that killed four young girls, amidst efforts to integrate public places in that city, and the tumultuous events afterward that rolled across the South.

Interspersed with actual news television footage from “Bloody Sunday,” Selma reenacts the savage billy-clubbing and tear-gassing by white authorities of peaceful marchers crossing the Andrew Pettus Bridge to protest voter registration practices that had persistently shut them out of the right to participate in their government.

Selma also captures some emotional high points, including the glory of victory for the interracial protesters who were finally allowed to march to the Alabama state capitol, U.S. troops at the ready to protect them, after a federal judge ordered state and local authorities to stand down.

Some viewing the movie will rightfully celebrate the real progress that has been made in civil rights in this country. (These hard-won battles for civil rights in the South are described in greater detail in a trilogy of books written by journalist and historian Taylor Branch.) The poll taxes and “voucher” requirements that hindered black voter registration are long gone. We have an African-American president today, in part, because black citizens are no longer disenfranchised and because a more open and integrated society allowed a poor kid from Hawaii to attend one of the country’s most prestigious law schools.

For me, though, the movie triggered another emotional reaction – the disappointment that our society’s racial tensions persist so virulently after all this time.

The recent eruption of rioting and anger in the wake of events in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York, and the continued infighting over immigration policy, have stirred up raw feelings about the state of racial relations today. We seem intermittently preoccupied with issues of race and ethnicity, such as whether law enforcement practices are discriminatory and whether and how undocumented immigrants should be integrated into the U.S. economy and health care systems.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. I cut my teeth as a college journalist in a racially integrated newsroom. We celebrated the appointment of a young woman as our managing editor, and I took pride in my first-ever appointment of an openly gay colleague to a prominent editorship. Surely, we thought, if we can push aside the onus of discrimination, we would move on as a society beyond such differences once “we” were running things. As a college student and young working adult in the 70s, my friends and I idealistically (and naively) thought that America’s racial problems would fade away once “we “ took over.

Of course, “we” (and I) were wrong, as we now know. The release of Selma seems like a good moment to dwell on what, if anything, can still be done to create the colorblind society many of us hoped for. Is there something in the fiber of human beings that dooms us to be forever preoccupied with our differences instead of our common bonds? Are there specific actions we can take as a society– collectively or as individuals–that would ameliorate these resurgent racial tensions?

One can argue that the hyperbolic world of cable TV news and social media is making things worse by constantly harping on race as a front-burner concern. Are we the collective victims of a media-driven apartheid that divides us by promoting stories about racial conflict as a way to satisfy cravings for attention and good ratings? Would things get better if we quieted down about this disharmony and focused more on…anything else?

I wish it were that simple. This country’s racial divide is not as severe as it was in the era depicted in Selma, but racial problems linger and are real. Ignoring real problems doesn’t solve them, and indeed often makes them worse in the long run.

Part of the solution may be governmental actions that promote an economy that gives everyone a piece of the action, that address festering disparities in educational quality, and that build bridges between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve.

But sometimes well-intended government actions unintentionally make things worse. Sometimes, the most important things we can do are personal and small in scale, our daily efforts to bend over backwards to be even-handed and considerate of others regardless of our differences. Role-modeling positive and non-discriminatory attitudes for our kids might be the most effective way to resolve these kinds of conflicts over time.

What is the root of the problem here? What’s the best approach to solving it? I suspect that Davis Vanguard readers have a lot to say on this subject, and I look forward to hearing your views.

Dan Carson graduated from San Francisco State University with a degree in journalism and worked as a reporter for the San Diego Union for 15 years, including a decade as the paper’s Capitol bureau chief. He also contributed to California’s now-defunct journalism review magazine, called “feed/back,” for many years.

About The Author

Dan Carson worked for 17 years in the Legislative Analyst’s Office, a nonpartisan fiscal and policy adviser to the California Legislature, retiring in 2012 as deputy legislative analyst, and serves as a member of the city’s Finance and Budget Commission. This commentary reflects his views only and does not represent the position of the commission on this issue.

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27 Comments

  1. Frankly

    This is a well-written VG article by Dan Carson.

    Does the movie Selma help or hurt races relations in this country at this time?

    I think it hurts race relations.

    There are a number of real problems that we need to solve.  But most of the them can be traced to a root problem of constantly looking backwards for claims and excuses, instead of focusing on the present and the future.

    As Dan point out, we have a black President… and one that came from humble means.   I cringe to even comment about this because it shouldn’t matter.  It should not matter that Barack Obama is black or white.  It should not matter that he came from modest means.  It should not matter than he is a man and not a woman.  It should not matter.  But it does seem to matter to a lot of people.  And as long as those people have a voice in politics and the media, race relations are going to be continually stirred up.

    I think these people, if not the cause of continuing crappy race relations, are at least the reason we are not advancing.  I have said before that we are stuck on civil rights 1.0 (the accomplishments of a post Selma society) when we need to advance to civil rights 2.0.

    These people are so committed to protecting their old racism templates and narratives that they have concocted a new theory that you, me and everyone else is racist simply because we exist… that our subconscious is racist and because of that we must over-compensate in actions to make up for it.  It is this type of thinking that will prevent that move to civil rights 2.0.

    The solution is economic.  The solution is simply for more black citizens to achieve a middle-class life.  That achievement fixes everything.  How do we do that?  Start answering that question and we will move to civil rights 2.0.

    1. Topcat

      The solution is economic.  The solution is simply for more black citizens to achieve a middle-class life.  That achievement fixes everything.  How do we do that?  Start answering that question and we will move to civil rights 2.0.

      Some statistics: Approximately 12%-13% of the American population is African-American, but they make up 40% of the almost 2.1 million male inmates in jail or prison. A black male born in 1991 has a 29% chance of spending time in prison at some point in his life.

      We can also ask, why is it black males that have this problem with crime and incarceration?  Why don’t black females have the same level of incarceration? What about Hispanics and Asians? Why don’t they have these high incarceration rates?

      It seems that there is something about the way many black boys are raised that is directing them towards a life of crime.  If we could figure out what this is, maybe that would give us an idea of how to change the situation.

        1. Topcat

          Try many young men with no Fathers at all.

          Yes, that is a big part of the problem.  I just saw the movie “Black or White”.  This movie touches on some of the issues affecting black youth including the issue of completely absent fathers in the black community.

          The movie has a very nuanced view of race relations and shows that the situations are much more complex than just blaming every problem on “racism”.  There are some very positive black role models in the movie including an entrepreneurial black woman, a black attorney, a black judge, and a recent black immigrant.

        2. Davis Progressive

          and too many young men whose fathers were put into prison at an early age, attached with felony status and were not able to get gainful employment.

        3. Barack Palin

          Right, because we all can rest assure that if these young men hadn’t committed crimes that landed them in prison that they would be home diligently raising their children.

        4. Davis Progressive

          currently we can rest assured that the 95% of inmates who are incarcerated for non-life felony sentences cannot be home diligently raising their children because felony status becomes a trap against gainful employment.

        5. Topcat

          and too many young men whose fathers were put into prison at an early age, attached with felony status and were not able to get gainful employment.

          Do you have any ideas how society can address this problem of black youth committing crimes and getting incarcerated?

          Perhaps the Head Start program should be expanded to intervene early in the life of some of these fatherless boys to give them some guidance?

          Perhaps there should be more outrage about the glamorization of the gangster lifestyle on TV, in music, movies and amongst our sports stars?

          Perhaps black leaders should speak up and tell teen black girls that it’s not OK to have unprotected casual sex?

          Perhaps the prison system should be changed to provide education and training for inmates?

        6. Davis Progressive

          i have lots of ideas.

          first, change the primary focus of the prison system away from punishment and towards corrections and rehabilitation

          second, implement restorative justice approaches to help offenders understand the harm they have done.

          third, eliminate the lifelong felony penalty – restore full rights when they have served their time.

          fourth, make it mandatory for inmates to receive education and training

          fifth, provide services post-incarceration to help inmates transition back to life.  offer support services so they do not have to reenter the situation where they got in trouble in the first place.

        7. Topcat

          DP said: i have lots of ideas.

          I like your ideas.  I would like to see those things done too.  I would also like to see a lot more done to intervene much earlier in a child’s life to guide them away from a life of crime and towards a more positive outcome.

          The unfortunate truth is that everything we’d like to see happen takes lots and lots of money and we know that money for social programs is limited by the taxpayer’s willingness to be taxed.

        8. Davis Progressive

          right now we spend about $50,000 a year on a system that does not work.  it seems we may have money to play with here both in terms of incarceration and savings from law enforcement.

    2. TrueBlueDevil

      You make some great points, but some of your details are wrong. President Barack Obama grew up in Hawaii, and went to high-priced attended Punahou School, a private college preparatory school. I don’t call that humble. His Mother pursued advanced degrees and chose international causes over raising her children. We know that in high school Obama used alcohol, cocaine, marijuana, and was part of the “choom gang”, but I have yet to hear about him washing dishes, working at McDonalds, or working any job whatsover. He traveled to Indonesia for three weeks, again no mention of him ever actually working a job.

      The media is invested in the Race Game, and lacks the mental fortitude to look into more complex issues. The educational establishment is invested in the Race Game, as is the Democratic Party. We don’t need civil rights 2.0, we need economics 2.0, and family formation 1.0 for the 70% of young black men who father children with no plans or means of raising them.

      1. Topcat

        We don’t need civil rights 2.0, we need economics 2.0, and family formation 1.0 for the 70% of young black men who father children with no plans or means of raising them.

        Yes, the cycle of black boys growing up without proper parenting and then becoming absent parents themselves is a big part of the problem of black crime and incarceration.

        The gangster lifestyle is glamorized in popular media. Violence, guns, easy sex, drugs and alcohol are pervasive in music, TV, and movies. It’s easy to see how some black boys gravitate towards a life of crime and incarceration.

  2. South of Davis

    Frankly wrote:

    > As Dan point out, we have a black President…

    We have a half black president…

    > and one that came from humble means

    He did not come from “humble” means, he came from an “upper middle class” and grew up around the “top 1%” going to the oldest prep school west of the Mississippi.

    Today Punahou School in Hawaii charges OVER $20K/year for elementary through high school. Growing up around people that can pay a quarter MILLION per kid + (in current dollars but Punahou has been where the rich and powerful send their kids to school in Hawaii for over 150 years) before college is not humble (neither is going to school with the “top 1%” at Columbia and Harvard Law School…

  3. Anon

    The flick packed remarkable emotional punch, especially considering that it depicted events from fifty years ago.”

    Unfortunately the movie did not necessarily stick to historical fact, such as the way it incorrectly depicted President Lyndon Johnson.  Secondly, MLK was no peach – he certainly had his flaws as a person.

    But sometimes well-intended government actions unintentionally make things worse. Sometimes, the most important things we can do are personal and small in scale, our daily efforts to bend over backwards to be even-handed and considerate of others regardless of our differences. Role-modeling positive and non-discriminatory attitudes for our kids might be the most effective way to resolve these kinds of conflicts over time.”

    Very wise observation.  However, I would also note racism can be a two way street.  African-Americans can be very racist too.  I remember an incident when I taught junior college.  I had to discipline an African-American student (the only student I ever had to discipline) to keep quiet during class (he was flunking and disturbing everyone else).  He went to the administration and accused me of racism.  Obviously his complaint went nowhere, since I had an excellent reputation, had many, many African-American students who never had a problem w me and sang my praises, and he was completely and totally in the wrong.  In my many interactions with African-Americans (and I have many African-American friends), I can tell you, many carry a chip on their shoulder and assume racism occurs any time they have a bad interaction with a white person.  All races need to live the golden rule – treat others as you would want to be treated.  My guess is, once we have enough interracial marriages over the years, a lot of this nonsense about racism will go away.

    It seems that there is something about the way many black boys are raised that is directing them towards a life of crime.  If we could figure out what this is, maybe that would give us an idea of how to change the situation.”

    Part of the problem has been how we set up affordable housing.  In years past, affordable housing projects were located in one place – the poor section of cities.  So many of these minority kids grew up seeing crime and death as a way of life, and get sucked into a life of crime or be killed by their own for failure to join the local gang.  (An excellent movie I just saw on the subject which I highly recommend is “Life of a King”, about Eugene Brown who started a chess club in an inner city school after being incarcerated for 17 years.)  I think we are becoming more enlightened now, trying to spread out the affordable housing projects into the suburbs, but their is understandable resistance to that policy.  Why would middle class or affluent neighborhoods want to invite crime into their neighborhoods?

    Also, I suspect when you own your home, you are much more likely to take care of it than if you are just renting.  Yet for low income ethnic minorities, home ownership is completely outside their economic reach.  That is why programs like Habitat for Humanity are so important.  I strongly feel the key to breaking this cycle of extreme income inequality and ethnic minority kids that go bad is 1) providing jobs; 2) providing job training; 3) provide after school programs for kids to have a safe place to go; 4) some gov’t safety net programs are necessary – if a child doesn’t have proper nutrition they cannot learn properly.

    Having said all that, I think the racism card is played way too often, when in fact the bigger problem is income inequality due to a lack of decent eduction (including vo-tech training) and jobs.  JMO

  4. Frankly

    It seems that there is something about the way many black boys are raised that is directing them towards a life of crime. 

    I’m sure this question will stir it up, but is there something else?  Some “eugenics” explanation?

    The politically correct song is one that explains all ethnic and racial statistical differences with the argument that social and cultural influences and biases explain it.  For example, the reason blacks are over-represented in professional sports is that they have few opportunities in the communities they are concentrated in and so they pursue athletics in almost desperation to escape an otherwise crappy life.

    But what if there are strong genetic influences on certain traits that at least partially explain the over and underrepresentation of certain outcomes?

    Western Jews tend to test at a higher IQ than do many other groups.  I read a theory somewhere that covered this topic and eugenics.   Apparently there are three primary Jewish tribes/sects that origination the entire population, only one of them, the dominant one, exhibits the high IQ trait.  Of the other two, one is average with the rest of the population and the third is actually lower than the average population.  The theory traced back history to explain the differences as being the source of migration, persecution and survival.   It was an interesting concept to combat the act of genocide because the most intelligent and resourceful people tend to survive and propagate.  The Jewish sect with the higher IQ of course was the most persecuted of all three.

    Are the traits of current generations of African Americans explained by the qualities looked for in their ancestors by the slave traders?  I think this is an interesting question and one that is made more credible by the fact that new black migrants to the US tend to demonstrate much more positive social outcomes.

    Let the angry reactions begin!

    1. Anon

      Who cares what aggregate IQ scores show?  The bottom line is that this country, if it wants to address the problems of our black youth getting involved in crime, needs to give youngsters the opportunity to overcome whatever issues they are faced with, to achieve the American dream, which would include job training, jobs, a safe place to go after school, and proper nutrition.  I don’t give a da_n what a child’s past is or what an IQ test says.  I only see potential, and I want to capitalize on that potential.  The youth of today, no matter their ethnicity or color, are our future.  As I said, see the movie “Like a King” – I suspect it will give you a newfound respect for the qualities of perseverance and determination as more important than IQ.

      1. Topcat

        The bottom line is that this country, if it wants to address the problems of our black youth getting involved in crime, needs to give youngsters the opportunity to overcome whatever issues they are faced with, to achieve the American dream, which would include job training, jobs, a safe place to go after school, and proper nutrition.

        I would say that it is also important that youngsters need a supportive home life that is free of abuse (both physical and psychological).  Ideally there should be two caring parents to provide guidance and education. If we wait until the child reaches school age to do anything, it’s probably already too late.

        1. Frankly

          There are cases of successful kids coming from single parent housholds, but I agree the odds are greater that the kid will be messed up without a father and mother.

          But too, the kid will be better off with a mother that isn’t 16, illiterate and stuck in a cycle of welfare.

      2. Frankly

        I don’t disagree, but you are missing the point.  The point wasn’t IQ only.  The point is that we might need to consider patterns of behavior that are inate.

        And related to IQ, I think that the education system (and this predates NCLB) has moved away from engaging creative intellegence and has narrowed the focus to favor the higher IQ student.  Also, Title IX has reduced the althletic opportunities for boys… something that at least would keep them motivated to keep a C average.  And what if something in the traits demand more physical activity?

        This really would not matter if we could move toward a school of one format.   This is my dream… every student is unique.  Every student gets a custom education path and a custom cirriculim.  And there is copious choice.

        But we also need to ramp up economic policy to create more jobs… and not only jobs, but career paths.  Some people only need a job, but most need a career.

  5. Tia Will

    I agree that this is a multifactorial issue and economics and lack of opportunity play a major role. However, we do not move the conversation when we deny that this kind of racial hatred is still occurring and being passed on to another generation.

    0.kym-cdn.com/entries/icons/original/000/015/736/Screen_Shot_2014-06-05_at_12.47.38_PM.png

    Comments that blacks also display racist behavior does nothing to argue against racism in America. It merely strengthens the premise that racism is alive and well even if not as dominant a force as it was in the time depicted in Selma.

    1. Frankly

      Actually, blacks displaying racism against whites absolutley does impact black achievement since “acting white” can generally mean exhibiting behavior that models success.  Black racism against whites hurts blacks.

    2. TrueBlueDevil

      Always race, always racism, nothing ever different or deeper?

      If this is so, how is it that tens of millions of African Americans have made it into the middle and upper classes? How is it that numerous new voluntary ethnic groups from Africa succeed above the norm?

    3. Anon

      To Tia: Did anyone deny there is racism in America?  No.  Is it occurring in every bad interaction between blacks and whites?  No.  I have no problem addressing racism when it occurs.  I do have a problem interjecting it into issues when it isn’t there but assuming it is.

  6. TrueBlueDevil

    Dan Carson wrote: “For me, though, the movie triggered another emotional reaction – the disappointment that our society’s racial tensions persist so virulently after all this time.”

    “The recent eruption of rioting and anger in the wake of events in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York, and the continued infighting over immigration policy, have stirred up raw feelings about the state of racial relations today. We seem intermittently preoccupied with issues of race and ethnicity, such as whether law enforcement practices are discriminatory and whether and how undocumented immigrants should be integrated into the U.S. economy and health care systems.”

    A lot of people on the Left are invested in stoking the fires of racial tensions. Look at Al Sharpton, an expert at nothing who has become a millionaire based upon a pack of lies about a false accusation of racism. Al Sharpton is the McDonalds meal, easy to access, cheap and quick. But Dr. Ben Carson is more complex, a multi-layed feast, his answers and depth of knowledge not easily transposed into a 10-second sound bite. So the Left embraces a charlatan over a world-acclaimed neonatal surgeon who espouses traditional values and deeper thoughts.

    The Democratic Party, some argue, is a party of grievances where racism, sexism, and homophobia rule the day. Everyone is a victim, except for conservative white males (insert your favorite KKK reference). It is beyond silly.

    Hillary Clinton affects a southern drawl when pandering to a influential black organization, but she and Bill have organizations that are led by managers that are as lilly white as 1950. Likewise, liberal Hollywood continues to put out sitcom after sitcom, movie after movie, oftentimes with little true “diversity”. Friends is all white, Seinfeld is all white, Sex in the City is all white. Hollywood liberal Jewish directors specifically joke via email about the various black-themed movies our president might watch. Hypocrisy? While other leaders would be gone in a nanosecond, these two directors still retain their positions of power, claiming their private conversations don’t reveal their true intentions. Doesn’t the private nature of their email volley actually tell us exactly what their intentions are?

    Ferguson and New York were tinder boxes lit by the far left. We’ve come to learn that billionaire liberal George Soros has funneled over $33 Million into the coffers of liberal groups that helped support these ongoing protests, marches, and demonstrations. I wouldn’t hang any movement on Michael Brown.

    The liberal mainstream press and our educational systems are obsessed by race, it is the cotton candy of politics. It doesn’t take much work to quaf down a mouthful, no research, little insight, no perspective.

    Illegal immigration non-action is incoherently jumbled in with “racial tensions” as another act of discombobulated thinking.

    I saw Selma the first night, and while I knew pieces of the story, I appreciated seeing one event tied together. I really appreciated seeing the civil rights leaders as real people with personal flaws, and how they still struggled and fought to overcome such injustices.

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