Last weekend, during a writing retreat, I ended up in Mount Vernon, Iowa. Iowa entered the Union as a free state and was a hub for the Underground Railroad, but I wasn’t surprised to see a handful of Confederate flags flying from homes as I drove through towns called Solon and North Liberty. Ours has never been a populace with an honest understanding of its own history.
Mount Vernon itself was quaint and comforting, a small town that seemed like a propaganda piece about an America I’ve never known to exist except in the abstract imaginings of politicians who cynically hark back to “the good old days.” Main Street housed a local health food co-op, an independent coffee shop that sold art and trinkets, a Neapolitan-style pizza shop with a wood-fired oven, and several antique shops.
At one antique shop called Polly Ann’s, I found a bunch of artifacts of our more overtly racist past: a glass with a Sambo caricature playing the banjo; a series of framed Cream of Wheat ads featuring happy "darkies" speaking broken English; mammy-themed salt-and-pepper shakers; cartoons starring big-lipped spear-chuckers. I also found this Aug. 27, 1965, issue of Life magazine, which was a bargain at $7—$10 to $20 cheaper than any of the racist memorabilia. Then again, racism has always been more profitable in America than any genuine commitment of black American life to the historical record.
Black riots in America have always struck me as an amplification of the slow inward riot within our hearts in the face of societal contempt. I planned to frame the cover and hang it—a tribute to and reminder of the complicated history of the black struggle against inequality, racism and oppression. Instead I ended up reading the issue from cover to cover Wednesday night, as frustration and indignation ran its natural course in Charlotte, N.C., and exploded into violence.
Over 50 years later, there is little difference between the frustration and injustice then and now. Black people are still raging aimlessly as the victims of white supremacy pile up, lives ruined at the hands of those who enforce “law.” Then, just as now, many in the media and in the public sphere inverted rhetoric and revised narratives in order to maintain a sense of self-respect and innocence in the face of its moral turpitude. The aggressor becomes the objective observer; the victims the immoral antagonists.
Two weeks before the ’65 Watts riots, President Lyndon Baines Johnson, upon signing the Voting Rights Act, said, “Today, the Negro story and the American story fuse and blend.” The Life editorial astutely acknowledged that “the promise of American democracy has always aroused expectations that take more than laws to fulfill.” Amen. In human matters, changes of policy must been accompanied by changes in attitudes and within individual hearts. Equality for minority groups necessitates understanding and depth of empathy rather than empty posturing. Empathy for blacks has never been a strong point among Americans.
In 1965, as the Watts riot calmed, Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker compared blacks to “monkeys in the zoo.” He doubled down on the condescension and contempt that spurred the riots: “We’re on the top, and they are on the bottom.” In 2016, Rep. Robert Pittenger echoed that tone-deaf condescension and contempt in claiming blacks in Charlotte “hate white people because white people are successful and they’re not.”
Toward the back of the issue of Life, there’s an article on “the U.S. gun problem” lamenting the availability and indiscriminate sale of firearms. The more things change, the more they stay the same. "You Can Arm Yourself in the Five-and-Dime," the headline screams in big, bold font. There’s an accompanying picture of an ad for a gun deemed the “[N—ger Getter],” which comes with a “[N—ger Back Guarantee].” The clerk at the Florida gun store elaborated on the N.R. Davis 12-gauge shotgun: “Shoot a [n—ger] with it, bring it back and we’ll give you your money back—and we’ll let you keep the gun too.” It was like reading a prophecy of George Zimmerman’s killing of Travon Martin.
This was in 1965, a year in which, according to Ohio Trump campaign chair Kathy Miller (who seems either too obtuse to breathe air or too offensive to deserve it), racism didn’t exist.
It’s easy to write Miller off as a kook with an aberrational viewpoint, but it’s also dishonest to do so. Miller’s individual insanity is symptomatic of a significant percentage of white America’s collective insanity. These are people who lack any semblance of accountability or empathy. The media dubs them extremists to avoid reckoning with the uncomfortable and damning truth that the extreme is not so distant in tenor and belief from the norm.
Miller is the campaign chair for a candidate who has drawn substantial interest
and support from the American public. The candidate is a charlatan, a grifter, a sexist and a racist. He enjoys the support of a significant portion of Americans because these people live in an ahistorical vacuum and view American history only through distorted lenses that reflect their own delusions back to them. They live in a world where blacks created racism (racism against whites and racism against themselves), where blacks have had the same educational opportunities as whites as well as unfair advantages, where whites are blameless victims, bewildered by the inferior, dark animals among them. They live in a world that is a direct inversion of reality.
At some point, decent white Americans have to realize the impetus is on them to issue some sort of corrective to these psychopathic monsters. This is not a black problem, terrorized as we remain by it; it is a white problem. It always has been.
When Miller was queried about the civil rights movement, racism and segregation, she said, with a straight face, “I never experienced it. I never saw that as anything.” This militant myopia is not rare among white Americans. Former football coach and recidivist drunk Mike Ditka echoed Miller’s stupidity: "I don’t see all the atrocities going on in this country that people say are going on.”
Before the age of social media and camera phones, blacks rationalized the lack of white empathy and understanding as a product of segregation, propaganda and ignorance. At this point, we have to accept that this proudly professed blindness in the face of research, eyewitness reports, governmental investigations and the increasingly frequent appearance of black snuff films is not blindness at all, but a hatred so stubborn as to appear incurable.
We thought, given the concept of human decency, that video evidence and protests would curb police violence. So far, in 2016, police killings have increased. In our attempts to appeal to the collective American conscience, it seems we have overestimated its existence. A significant portion of white Americans see what they want to see, believe what they want to believe. They live is a fact-free world, and Donald Trump doesn’t play fast and loose with the truth to fool them, but because he has correctly identified it as their native language.
“If you’re black and you haven’t been successful in the last 50 years, it’s your own fault. You’ve had every opportunity; it was given to you,” Miller said.
“You’ve had the same schools everybody else went to," she continued. "You had benefits to go to college that white kids didn’t have. You had all the advantages and didn’t take advantage of it. It’s not our fault, certainly.”
The day before Miller provided this false, pitiably idiotic sound bite, the Economic Policy Institute reported that black-white wage gaps are larger today than they were in 1979, and that neither education nor good intentions have been able to bridge that gap: “Our research reveals that changes in black education levels or other observable factors are not the primary reason the gaps are growing.”
Martin Luther King famously asked, "Where do we go from here: chaos or community?" Our optimism of spirit yearns for the answer to be the latter; our pessimistic experience knows to expect more chaos. There will be more shootings, more protests, more riots. White America has an insanity problem, and remedying it is beyond both the expectations and the capabilities of those who have been victimized by it.
The supposedly liberal, decent white Americans have to speak up, and speak up loudly. Then they have to bolster their speaking with action. There comes a time when silence is savagery; when indifference is complicity; when carrying on is approval. History will not be kind to the white Americans who sat quietly in 2016. You will be weighed by its scales and found wanting.
It’s difficult to tell if we’re in 1965, 2016 or George Orwell’s 1984. One percent of the American population possesses 40 percent of the nation’s wealth; 3 percent of the population owns half the guns. If the wealthy elite were a single person, it would be Al Pacino in Scarface, sequestered in a giant mansion, gripping an M-16, a paranoid and psychotic criminal. Racial income disparity has grown. American citizens are increasingly disposable, and the specific disposability of blacks has progressed from the insidious machinations of societal policy to physical action. Premature death is almost an inevitability among black Americans.
At some point, white America will have to reckon with itself. The Kathy Millers, Mike Ditkas, Steve Clevengers, Robert Pittengers and Donald Trumps of society are beneath contempt. They have centuries of inherited blood on their hands; we cannot wash it off for them.
To paraphrase John Cheever, what do you do with a society like this? There is no magical root to pick up and use to bash the figurative Tifties in the media and society at large. But we absolutely can and must point out contempt when we see it, challenge twisted ethical systems that rationalize the killing of innocent black citizens, and shout down the demagogues and ideologues among us who view Black Lives Matter protesters and darker skin as grist for propaganda mills and justification for atrocities. This is a time for accountability, not allowances. White America has a moral obligation to heal itself, before it sinks irretrievably into a morass of inhumanity.
T.D. Williams was born and raised in New York City, where he spent his youth in a welfare hotel for the homeless in Times Square. He has been a soda salesperson, camp counselor, a parking lot attendant, a waiter, a bartender, a civil rights activist, a dean of college admissions and an adjunct professor. He is currently finishing his first novel, and his writing on sports and societal issues has appeared in various publications, including Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter.