Funny the things you can find in drawers. Recently I found a CD of “Big River,” a 1984 musical by Roger Miller, based on the adventures of Huckleberry Finn. (Huck Finn was a fictional figure invented by Mark Twain. Huck lived in Missouri when slavery was legal. His good friend, Jim, was black and a slave.)
I played the CD. One song in particular struck me, especially in light of the racial divisions in our country. In this song, the actor playing Huck, a white, and the artist playing Jim sang a duet. Huck begins, “You see the same skies through your eyes that I see through mine, but we are worlds apart, worlds apart.” Jim repeats the verse. They agree. In real life today, things still are this way too many times.
The tragic events in Dallas earlier this month were the latest in a series of terrible things that have occurred in the recent past, all revealing deep racial misunderstandings and divisions in this country.
Some say that the accused assailant in Dallas was unbalanced. Still, many assumed that he was repaying a tooth for a tooth after the alleged police mistreatment of African-Americans in Ferguson, Baltimore, Madison and lately the cases in St. Paul and Baton Rouge. Regardless, the dead and wounded police officers in Dallas simply, tragically, were targeted only because of the uniforms that they wore. It was outrageous.
Crime and violence abuse people. Nothing excuses crime and violence. We cannot continue with these outrages — or presumed outrages. Facing the problem and finding answers will require that all Americans understand the fears that trouble our culture. It is a demand for blacks as well as for whites.
It will not be easy. People cite statistics that show the frequency of crime among African-Americans. Black leaders themselves speak of the impression created by high crime rates among blacks. Many whites therefore justify stern police measures with blacks and similarly milder treatment of whites. Facts are facts, but another critical fact is the different history of experiences between blacks and whites regarding law and law enforcement.
Overwhelmingly, American whites trust police. They see the law as enabling and protecting them, and if they disagree with a law, such as Catholics who cannot accept legal abortion, they see an exception to the rule, not systemic wrong. African-Americans remember another history when it comes to the law and to the police. Again and again American law abused blacks. Slavery, for example, was United States law, fully sanctioned and enabled by the Constitution. Congress enacted many laws strengthening slavery.
President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed some but not all slaves. Slavery ended when the 13th Amendment to the Constitution took effect on Dec. 31, 1865, but by no means did American law and public opinion rush to regard African-Americans as equal to everyone else in society. The American military was racially segregated, legally, until 1948. Racial segregation in public schools was fully legal under U.S. law until 1954. Officials interpreted laws to keep blacks from voting until 1964. Police did not protect blacks.
Bluntly, American law-making, the judiciary and law enforcement, by any reading of history, ignored the rights of blacks, and blacks know it.
A good first step toward peace and justice is to admit the fears and prejudices that even latently may lie in all hearts, coupled with a willingness to remedy deeper socioeconomic and cultural problems.
“You see the same skies through your eyes that I see through mine, but we are worlds apart, worlds apart.” Hopefully that will be history.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.