Moving beyond the Rage and the Guilt Toward Honest Understanding

May 17, 1992|By JOHN H. MORRIS, Jr.

If we are still in shock following the Rodney King verdict, it may not be entirely because of the injustice of the verdict or the violence it spawned. We have traveled a journey of some 30 years toward a vision of racial harmony, only to find ourselves at the same place we started so long ago. What happened to the vision? Where did we lose our way?

Over the last 30 years, we have never come to grips with the fact that Americans maintain separate cultures of race which direct what we expect from the world. Understanding our varied views of what the world is about is the key to real understanding between peoples.

For example, all Americans say we believe in equal opportunity. However, not everyone has the same view of the capacity of our society to assure such equality of opportunity for all its members. People of African descent have been the historical victims of racism in this society. Once burnt by the racism of America, we are twice shy to accept America's promise of fairness without some concrete assurance or guarantee. If we may ask for guarantees, it may not be that we are seeking preferential treatment. We just may not trust the people calling the shots.

On the other hand, Americans who identify more with those in positions of authority may have more trust in the inherent fairness of the opportunities our society offers. These citizens may be more willing to accept, without reservation or guarantee, the promise of equal opportunity. Why should they question the fairness of a society which has afforded many of them success? The answers to such questions may unhappily suggest that their success was achieved unfairly at the expense of someone else equally or more deserving. It may also indicate that personal success is not the necessary consequence of personal merit but more a reflection of social or racial status. What human being will go out of his way to foster a view of himself which would portray him as worthless?

By the same token, why should we, African Americans, be expected to act any differently? When an examination of the world reveals that a disproportionate number of people in our community do not share in this society's opportunities and experience more than a fair share of the miseries of poverty, sickness, crime, and punishment, why should we be expected to choose to believe that we suffer these afflictions because of some flaw in ourselves as opposed to a flaw inherent in the society which imposed these ills disproportionately upon us?

As people debate these truths about racial fairness in America, and as we tend to divide on the subject along racial lines, we do so from a common starting point. Each of us loves himself. The only trouble is that the truthful resolution of these questions about what is fair may give many of us good reason not to love ourselves. Therefore, it is unlikely that we will ever reach the truth of these questions, and the only significant truth is that we will continue to hold on dearly to the view of the world that validates us. Who among us is prepared to accept any view of the world whose ultimate consequence is to call into doubt his essential decency and competence?

Thus, we have proceeded over the last 30 years. When I confronted you with my rage about the injustice of the society you see as the fairest on earth, you do not seek to understand why I feel this way and you do not. You seek, instead, to challenge my perception, seeking to persuade me that you are in possession of the truth and I am not. You doubt my motives, suggesting that I may be under the influence of unsavory elements. You question the genuineness of my concern, citing other outrages that do not immediately interest me but deeply concern you. You call me unpatriotic or accuse me of being an anarchist desiring to see the dissolution of the social order. Yet, not only does my rage about injustice remain unabated, it is now joined with a new rage against you.

By the same token, in my concern about the injustice which enrages me, I do not seek to understand why an otherwise decent human being does not share the same rage I have. When you do not embrace my rage to change immediately the injustice I see, I question your commitment to the fairness in which you say you believe. I doubt your decency. I see you as an impediment to my own progress. As a result, in my ignorance about what you mean when you say you are committed to fairness and justice, I make you an enemy.

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