Whenever I talk with my baby boomer friends, especially those like me who grew up in the Deep South, I quickly discover that our worries about the state of affairs in America in general and the status of African Americans in particular, concerns and frightens us. As Americans who came of age in the 1960s and ‘70s and who played a crucial role in the Civil Rights movement of that era, many of us became the first of our race to be employed in our respective careers and to be promoted to positions of leadership. I recall eagerly awaiting the arrival of Jet, Ebony and Essence—all national magazines devoted to showcasing the accomplishments of African Americans. Another publication, Minorities in Higher Education (now Diverse Issues in Higher Education), at first focused primarily on blacks in the academy.
Like many of my friends, I was elated by the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the appointment of Thurgood Marshall to the US Supreme Court in 1967. Last July he would have been 109 years old. A pivotal moment in this brilliant man’s legal career is dramatized in the recent film Marshall, directed by African American filmmaker Reginald Hudlin. It is crucial for understanding Marshall’s work in a criminal justice system still rife with discrimination—and his struggle to end still rampant segregation in the North.
In the ‘80s and ‘90s, I was energized by the election of increasing numbers of blacks to positions at all levels of government. The election of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States in 2008 signaled to many of us Civil Rights activists that this nation was on its way to becoming more representative, civil, and responsive relative to the needs of minorities and other historically disfranchised people. Some people, primarily whites, went so far as to conclude that the US had entered a post-racial era. Of course, many of us of the darker hue knew that this was not the case, and we were proven right when both mainstream and fringe political groups immediately and publicly announced their plans to make President Obama a one-term president.
While I have always had a keen interest in politics, especially political communications, my interest skyrocketed during the 2016 presidential campaign. With the 24-7 news cycle extended by cable and social media outlets, the campaign seemed interminable. At times it seemed the exchange between candidates centered on who could say the nastiest and most insulting things about their opponents. Everything appeared to be fair game, and the media reported nearly every attack launched by candidates and their surrogates.
Almost a year after the election, the presidential campaign feels as if it never ended, and it is being continued by the winner. I’m growing increasingly weary and concerned about a number of things I see taking place in the country I love and for which I put on the uniform of the US Marine Corps. I put on that uniform for people with whom I agree as well as those with whom I disagree, and there are many across the political landscape whose views differ from my own. I know first-hand the power of protest and am a witness to how it transformed my life and those of countless others from my race and generation.
My views about the current political protest led by NFL quarterback Colin Kapernick is a story for another day. Today, I’m frightened for my country and all its inhabitants. I haven’t been this scared since I was a youngster, when I came in contact with the KKK in the Arkansas Delta and wondered whether they would burn our little country shack to the ground with our family in it. Those days have long since passed, but the KKK has expanded beyond the Buck Lake Road where I grew up. They recently showed up in Charlottesville, Virginia, with Nazi sympathizers carrying torches and shouting their goal to “take our country back.” It was our commander in chief who seemed to have difficulty condemning these protesters and who declared there were fine people on both sides.
I’m scared as hell, and I believe there are thousands who share my fear, frustration and anxiety about the future of our country. There are 10 things I’m frightened about and want to bring to the attention of those of us who can and must take a stand now, not later.
1. The alarming growth of hate groups in America is a clear and present danger. With social media outreach to a younger generation, this documented escalation has already had a grave impact on hate speech and hate crimes. With tacit or outright approval from the president, we face a dangerous warping of social norms—and damage to our social fabric that may take generations to repair.
2. The increasing prospect of a nuclear war or incident is a worrying threat to the entire global community. Ironically, or perhaps keeping this threat in mind, this year’s Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. But every day that hyperbolic insults and threats are hurled between President Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un fans the flames and may bring us that much closer to catastrophe.
3. The divide between the wealthiest and the poorest continues to grow. Soaring economic inequality impacts many aspects of life, such as education, crime, health, and even how long people live. The gap in life expectancy between the rich and poor is more than 20 years. Income inequality hurts America. A tax plan that benefits the wealthy and a health plan that cuts subsidies to the poor and increases overall healthcare costs increases income inequality and does nothing to foster democracy and strengthen communities.
4. Attacks on and proposed rollbacks of laws protecting voter rights are endangering the very foundation of our democracy. The right to vote was one for which countless people fought and even died, many within our lifetime. Even so, voter suppression is on the rise under President Trump. In some states, such as Texas and North Carolina, lawmakers seem to be working overtime to turn back the clock, using racial gerrymandering and other tactics to achieve their ends.
5. The mass incarceration of black men has reached unprecedented levels, as has the public attention to widespread instances of abuse in the criminal justice system. The disparity in incarceration rates can no longer be ignored. In 11 states, at least 1 in 20 black men is in a state prison. This reprehensible “prison pipeline” affects not only black men and boys, but all the women and children whose lives they touch, and all the communities that will not benefit from their contributions. Where is the outcry and call for reform from this administration?
6. Declining educational attainment rates continue to be a problem, and there is a documented racial disparity in school suspension rates. Black students are suspended from school at three times the average rate of other children, often for the same infractions. More minorities are graduating from high school, but that does not necessarily mean they are well prepared for college success. All of this is happening as research indicates that the black-white disparity in student loan debt triples after graduation, crippling a future generation under its burden.
7. With the election of President Trump, the America First approach that has been renamed America Alone by some. It is widely perceived by the global community as isolationist and often reckless. Some salient examples are decertifying the Iran nuclear agreement, withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord and UNESCO, rolling back key environmental regulations, taking a hardline approach to DACA and on immigration, and issuing travel bans that have been protested against as unconstitutional with anti-Muslim bias.
8. What about the president’s campaign promise to pour $1 trillion towards rebuilding our infrastructure? His actual budget allocation is $200 billion. Will this be enough to bring our bridges, highways, electric grids, and water systems into the 21st century? The fatalities and health catastrophe in Flint, Michigan is just one example of what happens when aging infrastructure is sacrificed to cost cuts—and when EPA regulations and warnings are ignored. It was a perfect storm, but at least this time, some were held accountable.
9. Do black lives really matter? The number of un-prosecuted killings of black people by police officers could lead even the most neutral observer to conclude they don’t. Killers are often not even indicted, let alone prosecuted. Protests and calls for reform continue unabated, yet black men account for nearly a quarter of these deaths, despite making up just 6% of the U.S. population.
10. The president’s unrelenting attacks on the media are not a hallmark of democracy, which requires a robust and fearless reporting on issues that often make those in power feel uncomfortable. Claiming that the news one doesn’t want to hear is Fake News doesn’t necessarily make it so. Fact-based reporting is a pillar of all democracies, as it was a concern to the Founding Fathers. Thomas Jefferson, who was deeply concerned with a free press and whose own words were misrepresented by the president, wrote that “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
It’s time for all Americans of all political persuasions, genders, races and economic classes to come together and defend the democratic values, policies and practices that have long defined this nation. Failure to do so is the most serious dereliction of duty conceivable. The words of Thurgood Marshall’s commencement address at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville in 1978 ring just as true today: “Where you see wrong or inequality or injustice, speak out, because this is your country. This is your democracy. Make it. Protect it. Pass it on.” If not us, who? If not now, when?