One of the important lessons I learned when working to secure my driver’s license as a teenager was the value of a car’s rear view mirror. The mirror is key to mastering parallel parking; since to park perfectly a driver must use the rear view to back into a space and again to estimate the distance necessary to back up and pull out of a space going forward. In order to make forward progress after parallel parking, I had to learn to look at my rear view.
It is a lesson lost on America.
We simply want to forge ahead and act like what’s in our rear view has no bearing on our present or our future. It is why we keep making the same mistakes and ending up confounded about our inability to tackle issues such as race and poverty. We don’t want to look back, to assess where we are and make the necessary adjustments to move forward. As a nation we act as if the past has no connection to the degree of difficulty America faces today. This is particularly the case when the topic is trans-Atlantic slavery, Jim Crow and the persistence of white entitlement and privilege that has become embedded in our society. Instead of honestly confronting our past; we purposefully don’t use our rear view mirror – historical incidences, evidence and factual narratives – and end up parallel parked at injustice.
The reaction to President Obama’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast is a telling example of the shameful state of denial that exists in our country. The President appropriately called attention to the history of religiously instigated violence in the world as a way of suggesting some introspection in the reaction to the brutality of ISIS and warning against transforming the fight against terrorism into an excuse to attack Islam. It was an important moment for an American President, precisely since this presidency has been defined much by the rogue behavior of terrorists who have hijacked Islam to serve their own evil ends. Yet, the over the top and plain ignorant reaction of the President’s permanent opposition exposed again the willingness of some to knowingly deny the truth to gain political advantage and maintain global white privilege.
The truth is in short supply in the recounting of our nation’s past. Our ‘Founding Fathers’ are deemed brilliant without any analyses of the contradiction of their slave-owning status and how it compromised whatever could be considered great in their personal character. Our historical narrative speaks of slaves and slavery, and not Africans enslaved, and attempts to transfer responsibility for the slave trade to tribal factionalism and not a global commerce that marginalized humans and created a market for human bondage. We erase from our rear view the period of the Black Codes and Jim Crow, and refuse to acknowledge how combined with slavery, our nation’s Black population was permanently disadvantaged economically and politically while whites of all economic strata benefited. And that includes poor whites whose status is on par with their Black peers but can still trade on their whiteness to gain some modicum of advantage; from low-wage jobs to the freedom of mobility without fear of police oppression. We are subjected to the ‘it’s in the past’ rhetoric and the denial of any present day responsibility by whites eager to move forward and not look in the rear view mirror and see that our nation really did not start inching forward until 1964 when the monumental Civil Rights Act was passed by Congress and signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
We are stuck between our ugly past that too many deny and the moral obstruction of our present denial that keeps America parked at injustice. What the experience of the Obama years has revealed to me is the intractability of racism in our nation and the infrastructure that is invested in the maintenance of a racial hierarchy, and worse the construction of a rigid system of racial caste that potentially could resemble the wickedness of South African apartheid. There is no honest attempt to assess our historical failings to bring us to a place of resolution. Instead, text books, movies, our politics and economics are all designed to reinforce perceptions of Black inferiority and literally whitewash the truth of America’s violent and evil past. We all have a duty and moral obligation to look in the nation’s rear view mirror, and force the truthful discussion of America’s past if this nation is to have a future.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.