Essay

Will the United States ever rebuild from its ugly and shameful history of institutional racism?

A pilgrimage to Central Camera

News is rippling through the film-photography community today that Chicago’s Central Camera was looted and set ablaze last night. Violent protests began Friday night in Chicago, and in many other large cities across the US, after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, a black man, while he was in their custody.

Downtown Indianapolis has seen violent protests this weekend, as well. One person was shot to death and at least two more were shot and injured. Windows are broken and shops have been looted, including in the block where my workplace is located. The city has instituted a 6 pm curfew tonight trying to stem the violence.

Anger was already high in Indianapolis. Earlier this month, city police shot Dreasjon Reed, an black man, to death as he was running from them. Reed was armed, it turned out, but the news does not indicate that he was waving his gun at the time he was killed. This happened about a mile and a half from my old house, near the Michigan Road, which quickly filled with protesters and was closed for hours. Read the story here.

As I scan news reports, it sounds like the majority of protesters in every city are loud but otherwise peaceful. A minority is violent.

I condemn the violence. But I fully support the right of everyone to protest police overuse and misuse of force, especially because it appears to affect black men in gross disproportion. I can’t imagine a valid reason for a Minneapolis police officer to keep his knee on a man’s neck for nine minutes, ignoring his protests that he couldn’t breathe. I can’t imagine a valid reason for an Indianapolis police officer to shoot a man in the back as he ran away. I can’t escape the feeling that if these two men were white, they would not have died.

The owner of Central Camera says he will rebuild his store. But will the United States ever rebuild from its ugly and shameful history of institutional racism? I’m not optimistic.

Last updated on 27 October 2020 by Jim Grey

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25 thoughts on “Will the United States ever rebuild from its ugly and shameful history of institutional racism?

  1. Mark says:

    Copied this from a NYTimes comment section several days ago.

    “ Come back to the late 70s for a moment. Newsman and TV host Ted Koppel had a show called Nightline. It was well done.One night, he did a very telling experiment.
    He had an audience of black and white Americans and asked the whites:

    “Would they be OK with waking up one morning to find they were suddenly black.
    Transformed by an experiment. Whites were not OK with this.

    “And, extremely revealing, he said “what type of monetary compensation would be needed to make up for your new color.”

    “Almost all said they would need $millions to compensate for the unequal treatment and disadvantages they expected to encounter.
    Imagine that. When advantage and fear and money counts, the truth comes out. Reality focuses the mind.

    “So, to all whites, including myself, how ’bout it?
    Wake up black in America tomorrow?
    And, be honest, why or why not.
    Compensation for your new color?
    How much?”

    -I thought about the above for a second and realized all the money in the world would not be enough for me to become a black male in this country. Not sure I’d feel safe being Barack Obama with his guards. Put him in sweats, T-shirt and wandering a store or park. Oh baby.-

  2. Christopher May says:

    It’s hard to be optimistic when things are so bad. Mr. Flesch’s response during his interview offer a glimmer of hope, though. Here’s hoping that society can learn from his wisdom and understanding.

  3. Michael says:

    I know nothing of the Indy case, but there are very valid reasons for LEO shooting someone in the back. In fact, where someone is shot is largely irrelevant; what matters is why they were shot and whether the force was appropriate for the current circumstances. Even a civilian can shoot someone in the back legally in certain circumstances, such as stopping an active violent crime against others, for example.

  4. I watched this live last night. The owner’s response was inspiring. He managed to save the first camera the shop ever sold. His optimism really lifted my hopes.

  5. If I can offer an observation as a nearby outsider… While this is another rough moment for the United States, I think it’s important to remember that it’s a rough moment party because of, yes, the fact that black men don’t get treated equally in important respects… but also because the United States is the kind of country where you CAN protest systemic problems; where you CAN gather together and take action; where you CAN get together with your neighbours and change the conversation and the climate and the conduct of the people. That these things aren’t imposed from the top down, but grow out of the genuine will of the people. It’s true that it hasn’t be perfect (but then, what human institution is?), but I think it’s fair to reflect on the change that’s been seen since the 1950s in particular. Think of the way we can see black people, and women, ignorantly treated even in television shows back then that were watched live by people still alive today. That change happened organically in the US across a single lifetime because people were open to having those discussions, to identifying problems, and to changing the way they acted. Look around the world and see how rare that is, outside of perhaps a few like-minded countries. Most countries shamefully hide or even blithely ignore the crimes and injustices of their pasts and presents, sometimes to the point of being required to by law. That’s not the United States. The fact that the US is willing to air its dirty laundry in public—and moreover, in sight of the rest of the world—is one of the best things about the United States, and the best reason not to give up hope for a brighter day.

  6. I once read, everyone is racist or at least xenophobic to some degree. Everyone. But it is what you do about it that is the difference. Do you accept it it and make jokes, or do you actively try and change?
    I agree, especially in terms of xenophobia. Even my most mild mannered, accepting friends have at some point…oh I hate people from________? So have I.
    It all relates. Hate breeds hate.

    • Yes, I think that the fear of people different from us is primal and instinctive. But we have the ability, individually, to overcome our base nature if we want to.

  7. Many years ago I was a member of the New Zealand Police for about five years. The police here are still generally unarmed, and for the most part are honest decent people. However Maori people are over represented in the justice system, and I do remember working with a few police who were racist, who considered it an offence to be “brown in a public place”. I never felt comfortable or safe working with those officers.
    I always tried to treat everyone equally,and I believe I probably did so during my police career, and I think the majority of police would be able to say the same. But the divisions in society run deep, memories of injustice go back multiple generations, and those who claim affinity with the Prince of Peace are often shown by their actions and attitudes to be far removed from the love and peace that should be their hallmark.
    It seems to me that the present situation in western societies might usefully serve as a mirror, which if we are honest enough to look into will show us what we have become, and point us towards the work that needs to be done. Which must start in our own hearts and minds.
    Societies have had radical changes of direction before, and I pray that the changes that are now upon us will be in the direction of equality, generosity, decency and real justice. We simply cannot continue on the path we are now on.

    • I wish there were a way to screen out officer candidates who carry prejudices like that. Or that police forces were willing to do it.

  8. Roger Meade says:

    I agree Peggy, but enlightenment and rational discussion can change minds over time. It is difficult and exhausting. It is slow work, but it can occasionally change minds.

    At long last I am speaking up instead of remaining silent when I hear ignorant and hateful comments. It seldom makes a change, and it is discouraging and exhausting work. You are always in danger of turning a friend into an enemy. Can you imagine how exhausted a black person must be when facing these comments and actions every single day? No wonder they explode every few decades. I doubt I would be so patient.

    I am old, but I am hopeful that younger generations are seeing the light in increasing numbers. Let’s hope it is not to late to save this wonderful country from itself, from ourselves.

  9. Andy Umbo says:

    I was saddened by the loss of Central Camera, I used to do some buying there when I managed a photo department for a Chicago firm, and they were a interesting source for vintage used cameras. Talked to a photographer buddy still living in Chicago last night, and he said he bought his first packet of black & white printing paper there in the early 70’s when he was in college at Columbia. I believe the owner to be overly optimistic. His insurance is probably never going to cover the cost of replacing that store in that area, it would be millions! Maybe he can get a nice little place on Irving Park Road, or north Clark.

    The black community has every right to be mad by the treatment of the community by the police. A friend of mine that lived in Minneapolis for ten years said it was the most liberal city he ever lived in, but the police did NOT reflect the community ethos; and they, for the most part, were a throw-back force that would have been common in the Lilly-white 50’s. No one seems to know why this happens. My pal was in Minneapolis right before the pandemic hit, and he said he passed by a police rally where the cops were wearing red MAGA Trump t-shirts. Disgusting and appalling! The camera footage of the cop kneeling on the guys neck showed he had the attitude that he was untouchable and could do whatever he wanted; and in fact, many of the cops had been disciplined for gross errors of duty and allowed to stay on the force.

    I have an instant way to solve this, Military service should exclude you from consideration for a police career! You are serving your community, not at war with it. I remember the NYT articles about the trouble Arizona was having with their virtually para-military police force just killing innocent LatinX people. I’m appalled by the reverence the military has gained in the last 20 years in this country. I don’t buy into it and never have. When I lived in Washington DC, it was apparent that the modern military was the employer of choice for the dunder-heads of the nation that barely made it through high-school. Any military recruiter will admit to it if you can get them alone and drunk. These are not people I want in my police force; a job that requires a college level of sociological understanding!

    We’ve been having our problems in Milwaukee lately too (another traditionally segregated city); but someone is going to have to explain to me why looting a black beauty products store and three cell phone stores constitutes a legitimate protest.

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