What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
I remember my first experience with racism in America.
It was during the middle of the day, during my early High School years, when I was desperately trying to get a grasp on who I was as an awkward adolescent. Somewhere between nervously fretting with my acne and hiding from the wandering eyes of the cute girl in class, I hurried down to the Library and rushed to the corner of the room and sat there.
Laid across the table where I sat were a few hurriedly-written notecards along with a copy of Lorraine Hansberry’s ‘A Raisin’ in the Sun’. It was a rainy day, I didn’t want to buy lunch and sit nervously around people I half considered my friends, so I opened up the first pages of this book and dove right in.
From the very beginning, I was enamored by the words, the characters, the depth of emotion that filled every booming cries of an African-American family fighting tooth and nail against an institutionalized system of oppression and racism. For a moment I was a member of the family, for a moment I was sitting in their small living room in Chicago. For a moment, a lifestyle that I never truly knew became the norm to me.
Something about the grittiness of the city that they resided in attracted me. Something about the spirit of the Younger family, resisting a system that saw them only for their wretched blackness, called upon me.
A year and a half later, I accepted my invitation to study at DePaul University in Chicago.
I considered the systemic racism of 1950’s Chicago to be only distant history, long forgotten by the following generations that made up the youth and vigor of this Midwestern metropolis that I was soon to call home. I came from a privileged town nestled amongst forests of evergreens and mountains expecting a city that embraced its mistakes and was presiding over a new era of improved race relations.
Instead, I arrived to find entire neighborhoods segregated by physical barriers of steel and concrete, along with rampant gun violence and crime that ravaged communities of color and the city at large. The pristine acres of white enclaves such as Lincoln Park avoided the troubles, while places such as Woodlawn, the fictional neighborhood of the fictional family that I had become so attached to during that rainy afternoon in High School, was overran with an institutionalized racism that ignored the community’s wishes and overall safety.
Racism was alive and well.
White privilege was myself discovering the roots of American racism in the pages of a classic work of literature, not at the receiving end of a police baton or behind the thick cold bars of a prison cell.
Sure, I had read MLK’s inspirational speeches, had watched the perilous journey of African slaves in ‘Roots’, and had witnessed the once-hoped ‘ending days of racism’ when I witnessed Barack Obama sworn in as the first African American President of the United States in Washington D.C. Surely I had done all of these things, but never had the blunt reality of an institutionalized system of oppression struck me as deep to my core of being as when I walked upon my new city for the first time and saw it myself in the cold flesh.
The cold-hard truth of racism blew over me like a strong wind in the heart of the Windy City. For once, I could no longer hide in the library and retain the worst of these stories and experiences deep in the words of some novel; I had to confront them as a person who had grown through a system that treated me completely different.
I tried to rationalize Chicago’s racism; I looked back upon one of my summers when I sat underneath a city oak tree and immersed myself in Upton Sinclair’s ‘The Jungle’. Surely Chicago, the city of big shoulders, was just a tough city that had taken time to outgrow its racist tendencies towards the Poles, Germans, Slovaks, Irish. Black Americans were next; it would only take time.
“… It would only take time…”.
How much time is enough? Were the first 400 years of their existence on this land not enough for them to be considered ‘true Americans’? Hell, my family escaped here from Nazi Germany in only the 1930’s, and yet I’m still given a prioritized status over many people of color in this country solely because of the color of my skin.
There is no justifiable way to rationalize such a failure of our Democratic system to respond to the need to treat its own citizens more fairly, more justly, more respectfully. I discovered this the more hours and hours I spent probing the heart of these neighborhoods and communities throughout Chicago’s Southside and Westside. I had been told never to walk the streets down there,
‘There’s way too much gang violence down there’
‘You need to be careful Michael, they won’t like you down there’
‘Nothing good can come out of traveling down there’.
Yet the more and more time I spent exploring Pilsen, Englewood, and other communities dotted within Chicagoland, the more my own prejudiced preconceptions of race relations and cultural stereotypes were felled by the axe of truth.
Now in my third year of studying at this wonderful institution in the heart of Chicago’s North-side, I consider myself an advanced novice when it comes to race relations in one of America’s most segregated cities. Instead of peering at a distant fictional tale of racism in a tattered book, I could now safely gaze upon institutionalized racism from comfy seats on the elevated train.
Despite these atrocious conditions of race relations in my own city, I tried to reassure myself some comforting lies that would rest my uneasiness for a brief respite.
‘Surely Chicago is just an outlier’
Chicago is a major city, of course you’re going to get some bad apples’
‘Chicago is incredibly racist historically, the rest of our major cities certainly can’t be this bad’
‘See, SEATTLE doesn’t have this sort of institutionalized racism!’
That last statement was always very comforting to me as a proud native of the American Pacific Northwest, until I came back to Earth and remembered the tens of thousands of Seattle-living Japanese Americans displaced in internment camps throughout the American West during the Second World War. That’s about as institutionalized as it gets.
I quit these comforting lies a while back. The sheer amount of ignorance that it took for myself to utter and think such useless lies was burdensome to not only myself but society as a whole.
Yet these same arguments, regurgitated by talking heads (mostly on the right, I must add) funded largely by interests that wish to see halts to progress in society, reappeared on that somber night in Ferguson when the grand jury shirked its moral duty to seek justice and pursue a trial of facts, testimony, and evidence. That night, no matter where you stand on the issue and the jury’s decision, was a sad night for America; a night where an American community burnt and its citizens called out for justice to no immediate answer. For one fleeting moment, flashes of America’s historically violent racist tendencies and oppression lingered in the flames of those burning buildings.
I was originally one of the ones to condone the violent reaction to the ruling, certainly I rationalized this reaction through the prism of my own understanding of the world and its workings;
‘Burning down the community is not the way to respond to this’
‘We must respond to violence with peace, not love’
These are such easy things to say from atop the white horse of justice that gallops into every discussion such as this. How easy it is for some of us to say this, especially us white Americans, that the only answer to violence is peace and cooperation.
Yet even this belief, though nobly rooted, completely ignores the suffering of African-Americans in this country at the root of this unrest. How can I, as a man who has been blessed with a very privileged lifestyle, dare say to the descendents of slaves and generations that were oppressed, “You must respond to this act of institutionalized racism with peace”?
I believe that the Michael Brown case, though potentially flimsy in regarding to physical evidence, was a severe setback for our perception of ‘justice’ and the basic tenets of rule of law. This Eric Garner decision, on the other hand, is a complete miscarriage of justice and common sense. The very fact that a grand jury viewed that incriminating video and decided not to indict the officer at fault is a severe warning sign both for the state of our judicial system and also the basic cognitive abilities of our judges and jury members. Tossing aside the race element, this act by the cop was a complete breach of protocol and should be grounds for both removal and punishment under the law.
However, the element of race can never be taken out of the Eric Garner case.
People may well look at the protests sweeping the nation now and ask;
‘What’s the purpose of these protests? They’re just alienating average people and creating a mess for not discernable good’.
A mess is being created, that’s for sure. You bet your ass I’d be pissed if I was caught in an hour-long traffic jam on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago.
But tell me this; does this anger that you feel towards the sudden disruption of our daily routine trump the frustration that we should all share over the centuries long oppression of a people based upon the color of their skin? Can we be content with a police force that repeatedly disregards its own protocols and harms civilians in the process, or a justice system that often judges defendants largely based upon their race?
I’ve reached a tipping point in my viewing of this situation, a time where I can no longer falsely justify the failures of our country and its people to catch up with the rest of the world when it comes to providing a free and equal life to all of its people. For so long I hid behind my life of privilege and relative happiness to shelter myself from the confusing, disheartening, yet vital-to-realize realities of racism in America.
No longer can an introverted bookworm such as myself avoid the harsh realities of a racist society that is still alive and well in this country. Even the most evil omens of my favorite works of literature seem to be coming true.