RFK in Indianapolis, 1968

On Friday morning, I went for a run along Plymouth Avenue in North Minneapolis. It was a chilly morning, one that forced me to pull out the sweatshirt and the gloves, and a lingering winter sun provided little warmth. Later in the afternoon, a vigil and protest would take place here, but at this early hour, the streets sat silent as I approached an impromptu memorial. Ahead of me, a man and a woman crossed the street to ponder the collection of mementos to a dead man and snap a picture of themselves. I pushed on, past quiet midrise apartments and the Fourth Precinct police station, it too in an end-of-week slumber. Should it be reassuring to know we can soldier on as if nothing happened, or is it chilling that it can disappear from consciousness so quickly?

On Wednesday of this past week, Mike Freeman, the Hennepin County attorney, announced two Minneapolis police officers would not be charged in the death of Jamar Clark, a young black man killed in an altercation last November. Freeman cited DNA evidence and the officers’ testimony to justify the use of deadly force. He reviewed the case personally to avoid the anonymity of a grand jury, and released a mountain of evidence in a quest for transparency. The community along Plymouth Avenue and its allies, skeptical after competing claims from eyewitnesses and burdened by a long history of mistrust, did not buy the attorney’s tale. Hennepin County employees bolted the Government Center en masse to avoid getting caught up in a protest that afternoon, but I hung around, and it all remained tame. We’re Minnesotans, after all.

The march made its way to the plaza, and its speakers made their case. After my run on Friday, the protesters returned to downtown Minneaplis, this time taking their case to the skyways before heading back to the little memorial for another remembrance. They promise to continue their crusade, and additional investigations will carry on. To what end? To justice; to peace, whatever those may look like.

It is easy to dispense judgment and advice from an Uptown armchair a world away from North, a world away from the streets where young men try to carve out some safety, or the beat walked by police in an effort to hold it all together. Perhaps I’m ignoring an imperative for justice after a legacy of oppression; perhaps I’m shirking my call to uphold a fragile order that stands between this country and chaos. Two degrees in public affairs, countless debates, and ten thousand hours of reading get me no closer to an answer. I can offer only one unsatisfying bit of analysis: the Clark affair has pulled up the curtain on Minnesota Niceness and revealed a simmering tension that this state must reckon with. The collapse of that façade opens up a possible dialogue, but also threatens to tear it all apart at the seams, with everyone speaking past one another as each person attempts to impose one narrative on an uncooperative history.

At this, I recall the words of one man who tried to transcend these tangled narratives. Forty-eight years ago today, in Indianapolis, Robert F. Kennedy made one of the more enduring speeches in American history. In a few short minutes, he broke the news of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death to an unknowing crowd, pondered his role as a white man speaking to black Americans, and found, in ancient wisdom, a guide toward a common goal. His quote from Aeschylus is as haunting as any in literature, and he crescendos to this finish:

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King — yeah, it’s true — but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love — a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.

We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times. We’ve had difficult times in the past, but we—and we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it’s not the end of disorder.

But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land.

And let’s dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.

Two months later, RFK would join MLK in martyrdom. His ideal struggles on, often wandering in darkness, but never dead. Time to rededicate ourselves to that old Greek task. The stakes are growing higher.

Realizing Dreams, 50 Years Later

Fifty years ago today, when several hundred thousand people marched on Washington, D.C., I wasn’t anywhere close to the world of the living. I grew up on the whitest end of a town that is over 90% white; questions of race were, by in large, something that happened somewhere else. Imagine my shock when I ventured into The Bronx during a visit to New York late in high school, when my father and I were the only non-black people on a crowded shopping street. It wasn’t fear or discomfort; it was simply recognition of being distinctly different. Perhaps because of that lack of experience with other races, I have never found dialogues on race easy. Indeed, I’ve read that white Northerners can often be cagy to the point of excess when confronted with the topic, and I am probably guilty of that.

Even so, it is hard to think of any Americans who inspired more reverence in my childhood than Martin Luther King, Jr. MLK is ensconced in America’s civic religion, complete with a monument on the National Mall and a statue that, while not without its controversy, does capture his deep, searing eyes. He is as much of a hero as we’re likely to find in American history, and deserves so many of the plaudits he receives. But in the worship of past figures, there is a danger of sanitizing people; of turning them into saintly icons rather than the human beings they were. MLK was a complicated man who stood for many things that went far beyond race.

Fifty years later, where is his dream? It’s hard to say. There have been monumental advances in some fields, and in simple, basic civility. But at the same time, African-Americans lag behind whites in any number of indicators, and some cities look just as segregated as they did fifty years ago. Things are more difficult to measure, however: blatant racism is much less common than it once was, and the forces complicating things are invariably more subtle than Southern segregationists of the 1960s. The public policy initiatives used to combat racial inequality in 2013—affirmative action, forced school desegregation, various education reform plans—tend to be crude tools that oversimplify the problem. Ending the single greatest contributor to systemic racism in the current U.S.—the war on drugs—will come with some serious trade-offs; and while I think the benefits outweigh the costs, the costs do exist, and will have to be confronted in a careful manner, if and when the war is drawn down. Rarely are racial issues as clear-cut and morally obvious as they were in the 1960s. From the Trayvon Martin debate to the case of a local black principal sloppily removed from her job, I struggle to believe the motives at play were as vicious as some claim: too often, they seem to assume the worst in other people, and seek to pass blame—something that does not strike me as terribly MLK-ish. (Admittedly, MLK’s willingness to forgive sets a very high bar, and it probably isn’t realistic to expect most people to meet it. We have to work with the world we live in.)

What we are witnessing here is the collision of American meritocracy with ongoing cycles of poverty and culture that leave African-Americans, as a whole, on unequal footing. King said his dream was “deeply rooted in the American Dream,” but as James Baldwin noted in a famed 1965 debate with Bill Buckley, for all its claims of equal opportunity, the future-oriented American creed is not well-designed to redress lingering legacies of the past. (I say this simply as a statement of fact, not as a call for revolution. I don’t know what a better alternative would look like.) No one encapsulates the tension between the American Dream and the past better than President Obama himself: whatever one may think of the President’s record, it is now clear he never had a prayer of re-orienting the national debate on race. Even though his election was a sign of racial progress and the possibility for anyone to achieve something, it didn’t erase the past. Ross Douthat’s Sunday column points out how the “post-racial” Obama era has seen more questions of race than most other recent administrations, with affirmative action and voting rights and  profiling issues coming back to the fore (to say nothing of the racial alarmism around the President himself). History prevents us from ever getting rid of these questions.

In a sign of the oddness of our times, Douthat’s column went on to argue that both parties have much to gain from a cross-racial coalition of working class Americans who have been left behind by the business and technology interests that are now deeply embedded in the political establishment. Yes, that’s right: the New York Times’ “conservative” columnist is making what is, essentially, a Marxist argument. Across the spectrum, political pundits are trying to find some source of a sustainable majority in American politics. Some have said the Republican Party will be dead unless it can increase its appeal among minorities, and while this is in essence true, I think it is also a horribly reductionist way of thinking. Aligning parties along racial lines is identity politics at its worst, and is not a recipe for societal health for either party.

Still, I’m skeptical of Douthat’s solution. One of the great lessons of the failure of Communism was that uniting the underclass against entrenched interests didn’t work particularly well. I’d be intrigued by populist candidates who try to lead insurgencies on behalf of Middle America, but even if those candidates should start to win, they would find a hostile environment in Washington. Reading some of the retrospectives on the 1963 March, it is astonishing to see how much the nation pulled together for such a display of collective conscience. Perhaps even more striking is trying to imagine that sort of rally in 2013 America, and failing miserably. Sure, there have been marches on Washington (Tea Partiers, Occupiers, and so on), and as a D.C. resident at the time, there was definitely something different about Obama’s election and inauguration. But the election alone was mostly symbolic in nature, and the militant political movements are a far cry from the unity preached by Dr. King and his fellow travelers.

This nation is deeply fragmented, and I’ve written on here with some sympathy for people who worry about this. Whether it’s the result of self-segregation in suburbs, the atomizing effects of technology, or the failures of the political system to inspire much confidence, some parts of this country seem further apart than ever before—a curious fact, considering how much more interconnected things are due to technology. The few forces that can hold things together—popular culture, national news networks, a handful of sporting events—often appeal to the lowest common denominator, and rarely offer us much in the way  of deep insights or patient reflection.

But, rather than bemoan our fate, I’m going to look for some bright spots in this apparent lack of national unity. The failures of the political class may lead people to hate national politics, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into complete alienation: as I’ve said before, politics need not go through formal institutions, and re-focusing on things we actually can affect can be quite gratifying. For the first time in a very long time, the American public is deeply skeptical of embroiling itself in foreign wars; whether due to the excesses of the Bush years or the lack of a real existential threat, that skepticism is a far cry from the blind patriotism behind past American military adventures. From localist liberals to communitarian conservatives, there are growing groups of people who find little to like in the crony capitalism/corporate welfare that has become so prevalent. At some point, they may even realize they have something in common, even if it never coheres into a national movement. Keeping political movements on a smaller scale allows for more nuance and attention to particular cases, rather than trying to slap a one-size-fits-all approach over a wildly diverse country of 300 million.

This doesn’t mean an end of attention to national politics: given the state’s power, it can’t be totally ignored, and there are some problems that can only be solved on a national level. Inertia is a powerful force, and the national media isn’t going to change the narrative anytime soon. It will be hard to limit ambition, and many successful local politicians will heed the call to climb the ladder in search of some “greater” opportunity. Still, the untapped potential in local energy for improving everyone’s lot in life is enormous.

Focusing on the immediate also keeps with a key tradition within the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King’s words in front of the Lincoln Memorial are what we remember most, but so many of the key moments in the Civil Rights Movement took place in towns and cities across the South, carefully coordinated by civic groups and churches confronting an ambivalent or hostile national political scene. We should remember 1963, but better societies do not come about just because some people decided to hold a march, or because of a great speech or two. The important work is far more mundane.