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Amid Continued Racial Violence, America’s Empathy Deficit Persists

Ozier Muhammad Jul 13, 2016

Starting in October 2007, I had the unique opportunity as a staff photographer for the New York Times to go on a 15-month journey with then U.S. Senator Barack Obama as he pursued his campaign to become the 44th president of the United States.   

When I began following Obama's journey to the White House I was skeptical of both the possibility of his winning and that he had the wherewithal to be a good leader for this nation. While traveling with Mr. Obama I got hold of a copy of Dreams From My Father. After reading that extraordinary exploration of the elements that made Mr. Obama who he is today, I became convinced that he was profoundly humane and intellectually brilliant. I was even offered a job as a White House photographer, which I had to turn down because it would have separated me from my family at a minimum of 4 years.

Fast forward to 2016. It has been a week since a terrible spiral of events began with the killing of Alton Sterling by Baton Rouge police officers, the subsequent police killing of Philando Castile in the suburbs of Minneapolis-St. Paul and then the senseless assassinations of five Dallas, Texas police officers.

I have been at a loss to find the words to express my reaction to this horrible week of violence. One thing that I am certain of with the killing of Philando Castile is that the officer who pulled the trigger was preternaturally fearful of him, even though he, Castile was not angry or hostile, and he had a child and  a woman as passengers. People he loved and who loved him.

Free at Last?

President Obama, has been in my opinion, justifiably, severely criticized by a cohort of African American intellectuals for his lack of outrage and leadership in dealing with the problem of racism which so many African Americans and Latinos suffer from in this country.

I was on assignment for The Times in Chicago's Grant Park on the night of Nov. 4,th2008 when Obama was elected president. When he was declared the winner, an estimated 240,000 people who were standing in the park cheered. As the crowd dispersed and headed home at the end Barack Obama's victory speech a middle aged white man shouted "Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty we are free at last!”

I can only speculate what he meant by that. Perhaps he meant he was finally being relieved of the collective guilt of this country’s white citizens for benefiting for 400 years from the presence of blacks in the Americas. Like so many Americans I thought that this would be a cathartic moment in which those, mostly white, who held prejudices against blacks as being dangerous and inferior would somehow change.

Sadly, in spite of Barack Obama winning two campaigns for the White House that hopeful, cathartic moment of change has not occurred. This country is stuck in a vortex of racism that often manifests in the encounters between African Americans and law enforcement.

The proof of our present condition is now available for anyone to examine in real-time on social media.  The recent cataclysmic events are only an extension of the racist brutality and violence African Americans have experienced in this country since the first cargo of blacks arrived in colonial Virginia in the early 1600s. We have lifted our voice in anguish many times. Still, too many whites deny that we still suffer this sort of violence, or insist that we somehow have it coming to us.

There is a lack of collective will in facing the fact that we are a nation that thrives on racism. We elect politicians who exploit racism in communities where racism still thrives and resentment at lost privileges simmers to this day.

What Needs to Be Done

We should know that modern day law-enforcement evolved from slave catching in the years preceding The Civil War. We should also know that the words police and policy are both derived from the same linguistic root. For those of us who demand fundamental change in how the police conduct themselves, this is what needs to happen:

1. Police departments around the country must tear down "The Blue Wall of Silence.” There should be severe penalties for cops of any race who cover up and lie about the actions of fellow officers who engage in unnecessary and deadly force against unarmed civilians or non-threatening armed civilians who are legally permitted to have guns on their person.

2. Police officers must be rigorously tested and interviewed to weed out those who are racist or live in monolithic racial bubbles. Some questions to ask: Do you have black friends? How many? And how long have you known them? Do your children attend segregated schools? Is your neighborhood integrated? What is the percentage of integration in your neighborhood? Are you afraid of blacks because you believe that they are predisposed to violent behavior?

3. Police officers must also elect union leaders who are mediators not myopic agents provocateurs like Patrick Lynch of the New York City Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association or Dean Angelo Sr. president of the Fraternal Order of Police Chicago, and many more of similar antagonistic disposition who lie to protect their own.

Changing the terrible situation we are in is the responsibility of the citizenry of this country, which is still almost two-thirds white. If you are white, recognize that among yourselves there is a substantial empathy deficit among you. Too many whites perceive blacks, especially African-American men as being dangerous, biologically prone to violence and criminality, or not quite human. This has been the case throughout U.S. history from the colonial era that gave rise to 250 years of slavery to the pseudo-scientific arguments that arose after the Civil War that proselytized the idea that blacks were, afflicted with all sorts of innate pathologies that made them unfit to be allowed constitutional protections like the rest of civil society. It’s no wonder slavery by a different name in the form of convict leasing were derived from the black codes, or legislation which were written mostly in former Confederate states to keep blacks in some form of unpaid servitude.

In my own experience of coming-of-age in the latter part of the of the 20th century I witnessed the vestiges of Jim Crow, which was protected by the 3 branches of government until President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act on July 2nd 1964.

It saddens, frustrates and gives me tremendous anger that these extrajudicial killings of blacks by police officers in this country goes mostly unpunished, especially on President Obama's watch. We’re far from where we should be as a society. We’re not exceptional. Too many people in this world are backwards and lacking humanity. Think of the far-right parties that are gaining ground across Western Europe and in the former Soviet Bloc countries as well. Racism and xenophobia can be found across tremendous segments of Chinese and Korean society and on across to the Middle East.

Words from W.E.B. DuBois

At Harpers Ferry, West Virginia on August 16, 1900, W.E.B. DuBois spoke to the fallacy of racism. His words are as true today as they were more than 100 years ago.

“We want the law enforced against Rich as well as poor; against capitalist as well as laborer; against white as well as Black,” DuBois stated. “We are not more lawless than the white race: we are more often arrested, convicted and mobbed. We want justice even for criminals and and outlaws. We want the Constitution of the country enforced.”

He further said: “in the past year the work of the Negro-hater has flourished in the land. Against this the Niagara Movement eternally protest. We will not be satisfied to take one jot or tittle less than our full manhood rights. We claim for ourselves every single right that belongs to a freeborn American, political, civil and social; and until we get these rights we will never cease to protest and assail the ears of America. The battle we wage is not for ourselves alone but for all true Americans. It is a fight for ideals, lest this, our common fatherland, false to its founding, become in truth the land of the thief and the home of the slave a byword and a hissing among the nations for it sounding pretensions and pitiful accomplishment.”

The character of the person that I read about in "dreams from my father," inspired me, in his courageous journey of self-realization, and his inspirational speeches on the campaign trail over the course of those 15 months. You could see it in the several hundreds of thousands of faces in the course of that presidential campaign. When he said, "I will be the president of all the people.” The hundreds of thousands of African-Americans who were in those campaign arenas had hoped that he was speaking of them too.

I'm afraid that the message after 7 1/2 years of his presidency has been that the status quo prevails.

A Culture of Racism

What prevails is there is still a culture of racism in law-enforcement to a large extent. It's not a few bad apples it's pervasive and deadly.  A substantial segment of white society chooses to elect men and women who are political careerists, who hold onto white privilege by attacking affirmative-action, public education, and fair housing.

President Obama, you have nothing to lose with 6 months left in office, and everything to gain. You can do something. It will require a selfless courage with no hidden agenda or hidden selfish rewards. Simply put, it will require a leadership on President Obama's part to have the guts to take on racism with the kind of singular commitment that we saw in the first half of the 20th century from W.E.B. DuBois.

Perhaps President Barack Obama should consider these words written by the late historian, novelist and author Margaret Walker:

“For my people standing staring trying to fashion a better way from confusion, from hypocrisy and misunderstanding, trying to fashion a world that will hold all the people, all the faces, all the Adams and Eves and their countless generations; let a new world rise. Let another world be born. Let a bloody peace be written in the sky. Let a generation full of courage issue forth; let a people loving freedom come to growth. Let a beauty full of healing and strength of final clenching be the pulsing in our spirits and our blood. Let the martial songs be written, let the dirges disappear. Let a race of men now rise and take control.”

Allegiance to such a pledge would be true American Exceptionalism.

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