Black History Month: Opportunity to Reset the Button on Race in America

This article originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

Current events in Ukraine, the Sochi Winter Olympics, Hillary Clinton’s probable 2016 presidential run, and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s George Washington Bridge scandal momentarily overshadow what appears to be widespread domestic racial animosity.

Why so much race-based anger? Why do so many people, who oppose or disagree with one or more of President Obama’s domestic or international policies, carry or display Confederate flags as a symbol of their anger and disagreement? If he were not an African-American, would they display a Confederate flag to publicly express their anger at him or criticism of his presidential policies?

Not so subtle racism has even begun to be publicly expressed in comments or conversations in connection with college and professional football, our nation’s most multiracial national sport.

At the end of the NFC Championship Game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks, Seahawks’ cornerback Richard Sherman “trash talked” 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree about how he was so much better than Crabtree. The tweets, blogs, and race-based comments in response to Sherman’s hyper-ventilated statement during his on the field post-game interview by a white woman TV sportscaster was surprising, if not shocking.

Many people tweeted that Sherman was “a thug.” A Stanford University graduate, pursuing a Masters Degree there, Sherman responded by saying that being called a “thug” is the “accepted way of calling someone the N-word nowadays.”

After the Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman case in Sanford, FL we now have the Michael Dunn case in Jacksonville. Michael Dunn, a 47-year-old white computer programmer and gun collector, and his girlfriend, pulled up to a gas station in Jacksonville. A group of black teenagers were in a nearby SUV playing loud rap music. Dunn yelled at them to turn down the volume of their “rap crap.” When they refused to do so they a verbal exchange escalated with Dunn. He pulled out a gun and fired nine bullets into the SUV, killing 17-year-old Jordan Davis, one of the young men in the SUV.

In speaking about the Dunn case, a political scientist, Georgie Ciccariello-Maher at Drexel University, in Philadelphia, commented:

“The way blackness works in the United States is that even to appear as a black person is to be violent, to be too loud, too visible,” Referring to Florida’s “stand your ground law” as a basis for self-defense, he added, ” if one believes he is threatened, to many Americans the new breed of self-defense laws are an attempt to segregate all space and public areas to such a degree that any movement outside of accepted bounds is justification for a violent response.”

This is reminiscent of prerogatives available to ANY white man during slavery (See the movie 12 Years A Slave) in his treatment of blacks and especially black men during those many years in the South after the formal abolition of slavery.

In 2014, however, where is all of this race-based anger coming from? What seems to ignite what appear to be so many smoldering embers of racist animosity?

I have written and spoken ad nausem that the issue of “race” in America is the 24/7, 800 pound gorilla sitting in every household in our nation. White Americans have been unable or unwilling to admit this and deal with it forthrightly, retreating instead into hypocrisy, silence, and/or anger.

All of this is occurring 50 years after Dr. King’s “Dream” speech; 50 years after several game changing events in our nation during 1964. Several of these can provide a moral compass and reference for our current generation as we confront these new instances of 21st Century racism.

In 1964, for example, provides us with a template of hope that maybe, just maybe, we might be able to rise above the resurgence of racism and ubiquitous white supremacist comments and actions towards people of color in 2014.

Sam Cooke’s recording, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” captured the mood of white and black students working for civil rights in 1964.

“It’s been a long, a long time coming, But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will. Oh there been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long, But now I think I’m able to carry on. It’s been a long, a long time coming. But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will.”

In 1964, one thousand out-of-state volunteers participated in a voter registration campaign called “Freedom Summer.” Alongside thousands of black people, they participated in a campaign to register eligible black people to vote in Mississippi. Most of the volunteers were young students, from the North; 90 percent of whom were white. Many were Jewish. They sought to implement Dr. King’s 1963 “Dream.”

The exemplars of the moral commitment to social justice among such students were Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney. Goodman and Schwerner were young white Jewish boys from New York.

Their bodies were found on August 4th, 1964. The national outrage over their murders assisted in the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

To enable readers to better understand what this incident was like in real time, up close and personal, in 1964, I am including an excerpt from my autobiography, currently being written:

“News of the missing civil rights was devastating to the Goodman and Schwerner families. One of my closest friends, mentors, colleagues was Bernard Fishman, a successful corporate and utilities lawyer in NYC. He along with another New York attorney, Martin Popper, was close to the Goodman family.


At that time, neither the Goodmans nor the Schwerners had much confidence in the FBI’s efforts to find their sons and those responsible for their sudden disappearance.


When I met Carolyn and Robert Goodman, Andrew’ s parents, at their home on the Westside of Manhattan, NY, their eyes were blood shot from crying. Their faces were etched in the most indescribable painful grief I had ever seen.


The Goodmans knew my relationship with Dr. King, as his lawyer and a political advisor. On the advice of their lawyers, they asked if I would travel to Philadelphia, Miss ASAP. They planned to provide me with $10,000 in cash “to facilitate” getting any information about the boys I might be able locally obtain from persons in Philadelphia, Miss.


The thinking was that being Negro and having traveled to many cities and towns in the South I might be able to dig up information about the whereabouts of their son and the other two boys as or more effectively than white southern FBI personnel.


Everyone knew I had no law enforcement investigative background. But, they assumed I was savvy and comfortable from several of my previous visits to several segregated communities in the South. I reminded them that Miss, however, was not just another deep south segregated State. It was THE citadel of the most racist state enforced segregation in the nation.


Additionally, I advised them that it would be necessary for me to inform Dr. King of what they had requested of me; and, that I would not be able to go, if he preferred that I not do so.


I spoke with Dr. King and obtained his “clearance” and support. As I was preparing to leave for Philadelphia, Miss, on August 4th, President Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover announced on national TV that the bodies of Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney had been discovered buried deep inside an earthen well.”

Maybe, we should set the pause switch and push the “reset” button back to 1964, and try to rise above the racial animus that seems so prevalent today.

About the Author: Clarence B. Jones is the Diversity Visiting Professor, University of San Francisco; and Scholar Writer in Residence, MLK, Jr. Institute, Stanford University.