In the summer of 1967, I was 13. According to Jewish law, I had come of age, reaching a sufficient level of physical and emotional development to give me the right to be a presence and voice in the community. There was a lot of logic in this, to me, at least, because my awareness of what was happening around me seemed also to have come of age.
I’d say that if any single development that summer caught my imagination, it was the Six Day War. I was different, part of a minority. I was taunted for this. I was learning about the Holocaust and how it had affected members of my extended family. And here was Israel, giving notice that those days were over.
But if any single development that summer caught my attention, it was “Burn, baby, burn.”
The slogan is said to have originated with the riots that engulfed the black Los Angeles enclave of Watts two years earlier, leaving 34 people dead and entire city blocks smoldering. But that was 3,000 miles away, and to an 11-year-old more interested in baseball, the tingling onset of puberty and the parade of long haired musicians coming out of Britain, it was 3,000 light years away.
By 1967, though, Watts was all around. Riots erupted across the US, starting in Cleveland in April and quickly spreading to 158 other venues, most notably Detroit and Newark, where dozens died and entire neighborhoods came to look like London in the Blitz. “Burn, baby, burn” was hauled out yet again, although this time alongside “long, hot summer.”
I was now in junior high school, fully exposed for the first time to the black kids who, for the most part, lived across town. I had learned about slavery, of course, and about Jim Crow, but now was absorbing some of the resentment remaining a century later despite passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. I distinctly remember feeling grateful that I had not been born black.
The riots generally left our metropolitan area alone, at least during that summer, but they left one boy/ man shaken to the core about a country he had always been told was the land of the free, with unlimited opportunity for all.
CLOSE TO 50 years on, a lot has changed. African Americans have reached places where, when I was a kid, they were rarely (if ever) seen, whether at the head of a major city, in a corporate board room or leading a large, fully integrated police force. And they are well ensconced in the middle class (or what’s left of it after more than three decades of government favoritism toward the wealthy).
But a lot has stayed the same, for even with strong representation in the halls of power, be they at the local, state or federal level – even in the White House – there remains a wide gap, especially with those who, for whatever reason, have been unable to extricate themselves from an underclass status that is as unrelenting as quicksand and toxic as any health epidemic we still confront.
And the resentment remains high. It seems to be far less a matter of economics, though, than a perception of your place versus that of The Man, that faceless amalgam of whiteness, power and authority that has always dominated America. A lot of it has to do with the way some police officers – even some departments – relate to members of the African-American community, the latest iteration of a phenomenon long known as “driving while black,” where people of color are pulled over for being in the “wrong neighborhood” or for traffic infractions that others are allowed to get away with.
Some sociologists say it comes from the fact that black communities, still lagging socioeconomically, have higher crime rates, so gut instinct tells white people that there’s a higher chance that the black guy over there poses more of a danger than the white fellow standing right in front of them. Add authority and guns to an existing mix of fear and resentment – not to mention a presidential campaign that has further polarized much of society, particularly across racial and ethnic lines – and you have America, 2016.
Matters are not helped by communities that talk at each other rather than to each other. They are not helped when supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement are not careful with their words. They are not helped when people like former US congressman Joe Walsh ignore Baton Rouge and St. Paul and myriad other places where bad cops go wild, and – in the very midst of last Thursday’s targeted shooting that ultimately left five police officers dead – tweet: “3 Dallas Cops killed, 7 wounded. This is now war. Watch out Obama. Watch out black lives matter punks. Real America is coming after you.”
Getting less coverage and traction, though, was an amazing comment made the next morning by former US House speaker Newt Gingrich. Although long out of power and frayed at the edges, Gingrich, a Republican like Walsh, still embodies that pervasive sense of white authority and privilege, and has even been touted as a running mate for Donald Trump.
But in an informal dialogue he held with a black activist and commentator, Gingrich said the following: “It took me a long time and a number of people talking to me over the years to begin to get a sense of this: If you are a normal, white American, the truth is you don’t understand being black in America and you instinctively underestimate the level of discrimination and the level of additional risk.”
GINGRICH SAID a few other things, too, but they were unnecessary. Those 56 words were sufficient to indicate that he gets it, or at least is beginning to.
They go far beyond the platitudes and hand-wringing that show up when people on different sides of a deep divide are confronted by something seismic and incomprehensible, but then, once the shock waves have dissipated, pick up exactly where they left off.
Could it be that The Man is finally willing to own up to the fact that he is just another member of a society of diverse colors, backgrounds and economic levels that together should be known as nothing more – or less – than The People? No matter. It’s something that everyone in a position of power anywhere should take to heart. Not the words, necessarily, but the fact that they can be uttered at all.