When I was in college in 1969, I worked as a staff reporter at a minority newspaper in Pasadena, California. My editor and mentor was Richard Vasquez, an old-time newspaperman who had just completed his first novel, Chicano, which would become a best seller. The owners of the paper were a racially and ethnically diverse group of community leaders, which included a Black high school chemistry teacher, a couple of scientists, and a world-famous jazz vibraphone musician. All of us, from the young and idealistic college student to the Black musician who was married to a white woman and who had lived through all manners of racial discrimination, shared a sense of hopeful determination. We all believed that what we were doing could and would make a difference, however small.
In addition to human interest stories and local politics, I investigated all sorts of systemic racism. I did a story on why a supermarket chain charged more for groceries at its market in a high minority population store than at its stores in the upmarket parts of Pasadena. I quoted the smug store manager claiming that the policy was based on the fact that the minority population stole more and therefore the prices needed to be higher to make up for the losses. And I referenced a national study which showed that there was no discernible differences between shoplifting statistics in minority versus upscale white neighborhoods. The supermarket chain subsequently changed its pricing policy, which I believed was actually based on the fact that the minority community was in essence a captive market. Most people of color would not feel comfortable shopping outside of their community.
I also did a story on the lack of minority employees at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which was based in Pasadena. JPL was a big local employer, yet its workforce was nowhere close to demographic ratios. My exposé resulted in JPL changing its hiring policies.
So, despite a prior decade of civil unrest, recent riots, and the emergence of the Black Panthers, which vowed to challenge police brutality against Blacks, I lived with an overarching sense of hopefulness that things would improve. Although I was young and probably naive, I did not believe we could eradicate racism anytime soon—if ever. But I did believe that we could expose its ignorance and absurdity to such a degree that all but the most virulent racists would, at the very least, pretend they too abhorred racism and discrimination of any kind.
I moved on to law school and then to the practice of law in Honolulu, a true melting pot, where, except for the very occasional asshole haole (Caucasian) client complaining about being discriminated against by the largely Asian population, it was generally easy to de-prioritize racism as a social issue. With fits and starts (Greensboro massacre, Rodney King riots, etc.), America seemed, on the surface, to inch forward. I cried like a baby when Barack Hussein Obama was elected the 44th President of the United States.
Then America elected a man who called for the death penalty of five Black men known as the Central Park Five, even after DNA evidence proved their innocence. A man who believed that Obama was born in Africa and was therefore not eligible to be president. A man who called Mexicans rapists. A man who called white supremacists “very fine people.”
And so we come to the now. As I write this, America is in its third day of protests over the police murder of George Floyd, the Minneapolis man who died after a police officer, sworn to protect and serve, kneeled on the neck of the already handcuffed Floyd for almost nine minutes. Many of the protests have turned into riots, resulting in fires and looting. Outside extremist groups, some white supremacists, some loosely aligned left wing anarchists, have allegedly inserted themselves into the mix, although there is still much confusion about that. Propagandists are hard at work massaging the message away from the pandemic of police murders of people of color. Just as his brother fears, George Floyd is on his way to becoming a name on a t-shirt.
All of this is set against the backdrop of a viral pandemic which has put tens of millions of people, many of whom were people of color, out of work and which took but a matter or weeks to highlight the fact that millions of people live paycheck to paycheck and could not afford to buy food or pay rent.
I am an older, well-off, privileged white man, so feel free to take my perspective on all this with a grain of salt. I speak for no one but myself, but I feel compelled to speak. For me, putting thoughts to paper is cathartic. Even if only a handful of people read what I write, the process helps to release my own anger and angst.
I feel a sense of helplessness and hopelessness I cannot remember feeling about America. We have a president who provokes instead of consoles. We have 24/7 right wing news outlets which are more focused on a burning building than the death of Black people at the hands of the police; on the fact that some people are looting than on the anger and impoverishment of the looters. During and after race riots over the years I always heard variations on the refrain that ‘these people are just hurting their cause,’ or ‘they’re making their race look bad.’ Do you really think for one moment that the people who turn violent or to thievery give one iota of shit about what people think about them? About whether they are doing damage to their race? With exceptions, these people have been abused by the system their entire lives. They are strangers in a strange land. They have no jobs, or if they do, they have jobs which don’t pay a livable wage. They do not have money for food. They live in fear of gangs or the police or both. They have little hope and many don’t expect to grow to a ripe old age. The anger boils over and they react. The temptation to take stuff for free is there and they react. In the immortal words of Donald J. Trump, “what do they have to lose?”
I certainly do not condone violence, despite the fact that it is more often than not the violence which promotes reaction and change. Even in the case of Martin Luther King, it was the violence against King and the demonstrators which finally captured the attention of Americans and their politicians (think vicious dogs attacking demonstrators, or young Black men and women bleeding from their heads after being beaten by police batons). After the large riots which rocked America in the decades leading up to this century, it was the reaction to the burning of cities which got the attention of politicians and which resulted in at least lip service to change.
Perhaps the current situation will peter out and the cities filled with the hopeless and helpless and angry and despairing people of color will return to the normalcy of inequality. Perhaps the protestors venturing out in the middle of a viral pandemic will infect entire cities. Perhaps none of the above. Perhaps a leader like Barack Obama will rise from the ashes and show us the way.
I fear, however, that we are sitting on a tinder box, the fuse to which has already been lit.
David Myles Robinson
As will become readily apparent, my blogs will not just be about my books or even writing in general. They will be about whatever suits my fancy--and yes, I'm sorry, but that may include politics from time to time. We live in an interestingly tempestuous time and as a writer I find it impossible to ignore the worldwide psycho-drama (and, at times, psycho-comedy) being played out before us on a virtual daily basis.