As President Barack Obama eloquently reminded us Tuesday, it is vital that we recall exactly what actually occurred in Dallas Thursday night, before these tragic events slide into the meat grinder of electoral politics where the blades of heedless partisanship will render them into unintelligible rhetorical sausage.
Hundreds of people, mostly African American, had peaceably assembled and were exercising their democratic right to march in protest, the city’s police force was guarding their route and ensuring their constitutional right to petition for redress of grievance. A troubled and isolated young man—who was dishonorably discharged from the Army reserve and intermittently employed—apparently had found a sense of connection in a couple of websites preaching anti-white and anti-Semitic rhetoric. With a rifle he had legally purchased, he murdered five white officers from ambush and wounded seven others–creating terror, chaos, and all-too-familiar tragedy.
Yet again, we’re reminded that we all need to find a clear perspective on race, policing and guns.
On the issues of race and policing we need to acknowledge both the inestimable—and, indeed, improbable—progress that has been made, along with the fact that there remains crucially unfinished business with which we must deal. In the angry protests over the police killings of African American men that have given rise to the Black Lives Matter movement, we confront what historians have identified in other nations as a “revolution of rising expectations.” As with any epic revolutionary change—and the second Emancipation represented by the Civil Rights Movement surely is that—there comes a moment when profound change gives rise to the frustration of legitimate expectations as yet unmet. The black community’s righteous anger over police callousness and misconduct is precisely that.
It is important, though, that—as the chief executive reminded us—we are not as some have tried to assert divided against one another as never before. Look around: We are in the eighth year of an African American man’s presidency. We have had two black secretaries of state, both appointed by a Republican president. A black man has served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Our military and most of our law enforcement is integrated from top to bottom. An African American conservative serves on the Supreme Court. Our children of every race and ethnicity idolize black entertainers and artists. Even the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has begun to racially democratize itself.
Divisions remain, of course, but we regard those who insist on the supremacy of their side of the divide as aberrational and time and experience will continue to reduce their number. They still can do great harm, as Donald Trump’s hateful, race-baiting presidential campaign demonstrates, but far more Americans—by every empirical measure—oppose rather than support them.
I hold in personal memory a particular moment when the degree of irrevocable change was brought forcefully—and literally—home to me. My son Aidan, then a very young student in a Catholic grammar school, was sitting near me working on a school assignment which involved reading some poems from the Harlem Renaissances. (In my day we were confined to Joyce Kilmer’s “Anthology of Catholic Poets,” so his assignment was a kind of aesthetic as well as social progress.) At one point, Aidan raised his head and asked, “Dad, what is this word?” He raised his book and pointed to “nigger.” Now this was a boy who had attended nothing but integrated schools, had seen his parents welcome their black, Latino and Asian friends into his home, had playmates of every race. But he never had heard that word spoken.
I explained that it was a vulgar insult used to describe African American people by others who were bad hearted or ignorant, though in times past it had been widely used. “Oh, I get it” he said, “you mean, like before Martin Luther King”—and went back to his work. He and most of his generation, particularly in multi-ethnic California, simply inhabit a new and better world where even parochial schools hold Dr. King up as a model of heroic virtue. To deny the importance of that is not just cripplingly mistaken—it is wicked.
When it comes to race and policing, there also has been progress even the most passionate reformers would have found hard to foresee a couple of decades ago. That progress, however, is more uneven and less developed than that of the Second Emancipation—hence this summer of African American discontent. One of the ancillary tragedies of the Dallas murders is that the city’s department is among policing’s good guys. It is a force that has labored hard to reform. In all the years I have been doing journalism in Los Angeles, nothing has made as substantive an improvement in the life of the city as the LAPD’s embrace of constitutional policing. Of the work my colleagues and I did during my 40 years at the Los Angeles Times, I think the most important was the reporting that lead to the federal consent decree that forced the department to reform itself.
Other cities have gone through similar experiences with good results. Others—too many—still remain in need of reform, as we’ve seen most recently in suburban St. Paul Minnesota and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Small government dead-enders will recoil at the proposition, but further progress in this area probably requires an enlargement of the Justice Department’s investigatory capacity and—I believe—some sort of national certification in sound and constitutional policing before we hand people badges and guns. Again, the revolution of rising expectations will push us in that direction.
When it comes to guns, however, it is not simply that we have failed to make progress; we have regressed into a kind of national suicide pact over the past few decades. We are the most heavily and dangerously armed people in the developed world. Every year, guns kill as many people as automobile accidents; they are, in fact, our number one instrument chosen by the despairing for their suicides. President Obama touched briefly on this issue in Dallas, when he pointed out that he had attended far too many of these tragic mourning ceremonies and that too many of our children grow up in neighborhoods “where it’s easier to get a Glock” than it is “a computer or a book.”
And if Dallas did nothing else, it put play to the 2nd Amendment fundamentalists’ blather that the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. (Trump is particularly fond of that bit of nonsense.) Texas is an open carry state for long guns and some of the demonstrators even were carrying rifles and shotguns. Obviously, the police were armed—and yet five of them died before their colleagues could kill their murderer with a robotic bomb.
This is a painful and delicate moment in this country’s history. A great deal of great worth hangs in the balance, and we need to be as realistic about our accomplishments as we are clear-eyed about our continuing shortcomings.