Race relations are bad and will only get better when we deal with issues based on history grounded in truth, not myth.
Most people agree on one important point regarding race in America, and that is relations are bad. We can make the situation better, but to do that we’d have to share a common and accurate understanding of where we are and how we got here.
A New York Times/CBS poll published last week showed a huge increase over the past year in the percentage (now 60 percent) of Americans who say race relations are bad.
The poll was taken a month after the massacre of nine people in a Charleston, S.C., church by a white supremacist. And it follows a year of news about police confrontations with black people around the country. The coverage in both cases has made more people pay attention to racial issues.
The Charleston killings led to the removal of a Confederate battle flag from the state Capitol. In the poll, 57 percent of white people said the flag stands for Southern pride, while 68 percent of black people see it as a symbol of racism.
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In the years after Reconstruction ended, white Southerners reasserted their dominance over black Southerners, changing laws to disadvantage black people, erecting statues and monuments to rebels, and naming streets and buildings for them. As the civil-rights movement began, some states adopted the Confederate battle flag as an obvious symbol of where they stood on the issue of equal rights for black Americans.
In the news stories about the flag removal, again and again history gets distorted, with some defenders of the flag still maintaining the war was not about slavery, and even claiming it was simply about northern aggression. And generally they ignore the modern uses of the flag.
And in all those police encounters, there is a lack of awareness of a long history of police violence against black people. I was warned to be wary of the police when I was a child, and that was a long time ago. Violent encounters happen again and again every year, but for some people it is all new. Videos have made it real and have gotten mainstream media to pay attention finally, but they haven’t convinced everyone that anything wrong is happening.
In every area of American life, there are racial disparities in the way people are treated and in their life outcomes, with the greatest disadvantages usually accruing to black Americans.
The people who founded and shaped this country decided to make race a fundamental part of a social order based on white-male primacy. We have to acknowledge at least that much before we can untie the knots binding us to that past.
We all know that Native Americans were pushed out of the way, then put on reservations; that black men, women and children were harnessed to provide free or cheap labor for most of the country’s existence. We know that the U.S. took Mexican land and exploited, still exploits, labor from south of the border while often disparaging the people who provide it.
Yes, that’s so bad, it’s no wonder the country doesn’t delve much into the details and often paints it over with explanatory myths. Slavery wasn’t that bad, and anyway slave owners didn’t know any better. False.
The Mexicans attacked the Alamo; what were the folks inside going to do? Um, the Alamo was in whose country?
Like most Americans, I got through college with mostly a surface knowledge of American history, dates and names, but very little truth about whys and hows. I had to read and learn on my own, and I’m still learning things that should be part of a well-rounded education.
And the more I learned about black history, the more I wanted to learn about Latino, Asian-American, Irish-American and Native American history because they are keys to understanding the United States in its entirety.
This month historian Quintard Taylor Jr. got a national award from the National Education Association for a website he created at the University of Washington, BlackPast.org, a resource for anyone researching African-American or African history.
In his acceptance speech, he said the nation is in the midst of a racial crisis that can only be addressed by knowledge. He aspires to have every U.S. classroom use the resource. “If we learn about each other, we will respect each other,” he said.
Arguing from disparate personal experiences without factual context won’t move us forward. A broader, more accurate grasp of history would be a good starting point.