My generation of Black people identified strongly with both the suffering and the victory of the Jews. So it wasn’t strange that, as a student, I vacationed with friends in Israel and visited the Holocaust Museum in Haifa. The docent was an Auschwitz survivor, broken in body and spirit.
“Why,” asked a friend, “do you spend your days in such a gloomy place? Life is
wonderful for Jews here in Israel.”
“So they will remember,” she replied. “This horror occurred in my lifetime.
Many of the perpetrators are still alive. It could happen again”
My friends and I returned home and resumed our ambitious pursuits, riding the tide of improved treatment of both Jews and Blacks in America, and giving little heed to the old woman’s predictions.
The America of my youth shielded and protected me in a Northern suburb. Oh yes, discrimination did exist, although Northern Whites pretended otherwise. Up North, discrimination was defacto; in housing, country clubs, universities, and private sector employment. But there were no laws supporting segregation.
In Safety Harbor I am shielded and protected just as in my home town. “Today is hug a cop day,” as I playfully throw my arms around a policeman friend guarding the entrance to Main Street on Third Friday.
But a mere four states away, the headlines read, “Holder Prepared to Dismantle the Ferguson Police Department” following the Justice Department’s revelation of “numerous instances of racial discrimination and constitutional violations within the force.”
With close proximity to the Deep South, Ferguson was birthed in the Southern history of separate but equal Jim Crow laws, designed to place Black people in a position of inferiority. The Ferguson Police Department mentality defines the Black man as a criminal and reserves for him a level of suspicion, aggression and degradation not inflicted on his White counterpart.
Ferguson is but a blatant example of what has been going on in cities across America, reference the practice of stop and search in New York City.
As a social worker in the early nineteen eighties, I walked into a probation office, and there on the wall was the silhouette of a man painted in black and riddled with bullet holes.
“Oh that’s just the prop used for target practice to keep our skills up to date.”
The subliminal message I read that day said, “If it’s black, shoot it.” And this is the subliminal message pressed into the minds of many White law enforcement officers across America.
Those of you who follow my blog, know that my focus is on how far we’ve come, and the positive direction in which we’re moving. Rarely do I join in the chorus that the bad old days are still with us. But there’s a distinction between paranoia that says there’s been no progress, and complacency that says the ills of the past are all gone. Ferguson taps into Black America’s PTSD when some police officers wore a badge by day and a white hood by night.
In a given locale, law enforcement’s perspective reflects both the positive and negative climate of the community at large. Vigilance reminds us that even as we acknowledge progress, we are aware of unfinished business: we face up to its presence, rather than remaining steadfast in denial.
In the face of injustice it causes us to speak out to make our viewpoint known through letters to our legislators or to the editors of our newspapers. It prompts us to demand that the images depicted in police target practices are racially neutral. As parents we can petition our school systems to promote curricula that address the accomplishments and contributions of Black America throughout the year, not just in Black History Month. Vigilance instructs us to dialogue with our children concerning the newspaper accounts of injustice, and to make it clear that we do not tolerate inequality, so that we do not perpetuate bigotry through our children. Vigilance causes us to inform our friends that racial slurs against any group are not welcome to our ears.
Like the old woman who stood vigilant in Israel, we must stand vigilant in America. Ferguson has taught us that it could happen again. Vigilance, combined with a good heart and positive action tells us that it need not happen again.
Author of You CAN Go Home Again
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