Time for Americans to ask questions about race, equality

What we have heard from the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, New York City, Chicago and elsewhere is a scream from those who are being swallowed up by the nihilism that has spread across America like the flu, infecting those who are at the bottom of the well, searing the consciousness of those looking down, and into their lives.

In the aftermath of the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and the suspected explosion of an IED at the NAACP headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colorado, protesters are asking a profound question. Their question comes as the media, conservatives and some liberals have described the protests in our cities as inviting chaos.

Just as white religious leaders asked Martin Luther King Jr. to stop his campaign for freedom in Birmingham in 1963 because it was not "well-timed" and created a crisis in the streets, so most Americans have blamed the protesters for being disruptive. That misses the question they are asking completely. It is also shortsighted and intellectually dishonest.

In addition, when we look closely at the crowds in Missouri as well as Chicago and New York, we also see that there are, in fact, many whites, Latinos, Asians and people from across all racial, ethnic and class lines who support the cause and are truly faithful allies that want to see positive change. Where there was violence, it was not condoned or promoted by the peaceful activists and they condemned it. The protests in Chicago, New York and elsewhere were nonviolent assemblies.

The narrative that the protesters are "thugs" and want to render police departments impotent does not square with the words, voices or actions of the people calling for justice. The protesters are not the problem. The institutional racism, economic inequality, lack of resources going into poor communities, continued imagery of black inferiority, and a criminal justice system in service of a prison industry that incarcerates one in three African-Americans - that is the problem.

The chaos is not the protests; the chaos is the conditions that create the outburst of pain in search of an ear that will hear.

At a crossroads

The reaction to the protests does not bode well for at least the immediate future of civil rights in America. When a peaceful assembly questions the militarization of the police and the conduct of the institution and is met with tear gas and batons by the police and a disingenuous position that to ask the question is to invite anarchy and personally slander all cops; when leaders within law enforcement turn their back on a mayor who had the courage to speak the truth; we are not advancing the cause of freedom.

We have come to an important fork in the road in terms of race in this country. We can choose to put our head in the sand and pretend racism doesn't exist and not engage the topic at all, or if we do, do so with all the impassioned ignorance I have seen on my Facebook page lately. Or we can do the difficult work of creating community. By community I mean an individual and collective attitude and spirit that sees all people as human beings - unique, unrepeatable, and deserving of dignity and respect.

With that attitude we can ask, why is there double-digit unemployment in African-American communities and upward of 40 percent for 18- to 25-year-olds?

With that attitude we can ask, why do we fund public education the way we do in this state with 60 percent from property taxes, which means schools in poor property tax base areas are underfunded?

With that attitude we can ask, why do we have a country where 2.3 million of its citizens are in prison (7 million if you add those on probation and parole) of whom 50 percent are African-Americans when African-Americans comprise 12.5 percent of the population?

With that attitude we can ask, why are those within law enforcement who see and want to report racism punished?

If we can be honest enough to see people as unique, unrepeatable, and deserving of dignity and respect, we can envision change that creates justice. We can answer the question the protesters are asking: Do black lives matter?

• Vince Gaddis is a professor of history at Benedictine University in Lisle.

Living King's legacy: Turn a day off into a 'day on'

Benedictine University professor Vince Gaddis says peaceful protesters are rightly raising questions about racism and inequality. Courtesy of Vince Gaddis
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