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.
In turn, you stop listening to me and become numb to my outrage about an injustice you never sanctioned in the first place. You actively resist me, refusing to succumb to any guilt which you find insulting. Worse yet, my outrage against injustice may give rise to your fear of me. In your fear, you not only move farther away from me, you also become numb to the injustice that causes me such anger, which anger, in turn, causes you more fear and irritation. Thus, the more we deal with each other, the less we understand each other, and the worse we get along.
The history of the last 30 years has shown that we can avoid violence for periods of time. We pretend that there are no real differences between black and white, marveling wistfully in images of black and white children playing together. The fact is that, as black and white adults, we tend to live and work apart.
We have created conventions of discourse which enable black and white to deal with one another, as long as we have little of substance to say to one another about our racial differences. We do not discuss across racial lines the differing underlying assumptions we make about the world, except to convince the other that our assumptions happen to be true. We do not explore with one another why we so consistently reach differing conclusions on these points.
In the aftermath of the violence in Los Angeles, we sorely are in need of racial understanding. If our experience over the last 30 years is to be any indication, there will be no understanding. If the immediate experience of the past few weeks is indicative of what will follow, the prognosis is bleak that we will avoid future urban violence.
tTC In 30 years we have learned little. Already, we have begun talking past one another. We are dividing in outrage over the injustice of the Rodney King verdict and outrage over the violence that followed it. The reality is that few people, regardless of color, are in favor of either injustice or violence. Yet, we are proceeding to draw ranks such that if your first outrage is against injustice, then you must condone the violence, and if your first outrage is against the violence then you must favor injustice. We have framed the issues, drawn them along racial lines, injected a lot of politics, and the only thing left is to wait for the next explosion. This is a replay of 1965 in Watts, 1967 in Newark, and 1968 in a host of other cities, including Baltimore.
If we are to end our bent for racial violence, we have to acquire very quickly a new capacity for racial understanding. This time, we have to forget the simple prescription that racial harmony is just a matter of wanting it badly enough. That prescription is now mere social quackery.
What we need is racial honesty. We need a language of discourse between the races that expresses without insult and inquires without any hint of moral rectitude. Anger, fear and guilt are the enemies of such honesty. We must now banish forever the rationalization and phoniness that once got us through the day comfortably with one another -- only to leave us no closer in understanding.
We have to begin by asking why it is that black and white appear to have different feelings about many of the same things and not why one or the other is right or wrong to have the feelings. If there is an undeniable truth reflected in recent events, it is that there are a lot of African Americans outraged by the injustice of the King verdict. These people are angry not because Rodney King got a raw deal in one particular court in California on a particular day in April, 1992. They honestly believe, right or wrong, that they personally have been getting a raw deal in this country for a long time despite the fact other people tell them it is not so. They are enraged particularly because they feel themselves the victims of the cruel joke that they are full members of a "just" society. The verdict merely served as the occasion for delivering the unhappy punch line. Their rage is not an intellectual aversion to unfairness as an abstract idea. For almost every African American, the King verdict was a personal insult.
Similarly, for many white Americans, the image of urban violence involving mobs of African Americans is one which evokes a fear that I, as an African American, can at best only superficially appreciate. I do not feel it in depths of my gut as I would if the safety of my own family were immediately at risk. I think of the King videotape, and I worry for my nine-year-old son in a way you do not. For whatever reason, I do not have the same reaction to the scenes of urban violence, that appear to touch you so profoundly. We simply are not the same.
There will not be understanding, until we all accept, without trying to justify, the differing feelings we seem to have given our own racial perspective. The issue is not who is right or who is wrong. The question is how we find a way to live together, however we feel, in mutual respect for one another.
The bad news was that the King verdict revealed that black and white still have fundamental differences in this society. The good news is that the King verdict revealed that black and white clearly have fundamental differences.
Now, let us begin the hard work of understanding those differences, not pretending they do not exist. We will find in that understanding the foundation for a new community in America of the disparate peoples who are going to have to learn to live together if we are to prosper in the next century.
John H. Morris, Jr. is a partner at the Baltimore law firm of Venable, Baetjer and Howard.