The National Museum of African-American History and Culture is outstanding

My wife and I visited the museum today. It highlighted both the horrible abuse suffered by slaves in the USA and the tremendous accomplishments of our African-American citizens. The museum drove home that the journey from black men and women being chained and sold as property to equal treatment and opportunity for people of African heritage has been long and remains incomplete.

The conditions slaves were forced to endure were beyond awful. I can’t even convey in words how bad — see the museum yourself to experience the sights and sounds of our early American history. The fact that tremendous wealth was built on the backs and labor of hundreds of thousands of slaves is a stain on our history.

I learned so much, and realized how some of what I was taught was a whitewashed version of history. For example, did you know there was an African-American who played major-league baseball over 50 years before Jackie Robinson supposedly broke the color barrier? And that he was run out of the league by the 19th century superstar Cap Anson? That MLB took the most-talented Negro League players in the late 1940's, which starved the latter League’s ability to attract fans? Effectively, integrating baseball in 1947 killed MLB’s competition. It was not the act of pure selflessness and righteous remediation we were all led to believe.

In 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. In 1865, the USA passed the thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery. 90 years later, Rosa McCauley Parks (yes, she was born a McCauley just like me, you can look it up) was arrested for not moving from her seat in the ‘colored section’ of a Montgomery, Alabama bus when more white people than could fit in their front row seats boarded. So much for equal rights.

Today, we are seeing black men shot and killed by police, sometimes for no good reason. Of course, most cops are reasonable and fair, and yes, white men are also killed by cops and, again yes, there remains substantial black-on-black violence. But when you look at some of these incidents, it feels like Rosa Parks times 1,000 all over again.

So maybe we’ve made some progress in race relations, and maybe our generation and our kids’ generation will judge, paraphrasing MLK, “…by the content of our character and not the color of our skin.” But clearly we have a long way to go towards true equality. Just as the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to our Constitution granted the concept of equal rights to African-Americans but compliance with these laws took a century to achieve, the words we say today about equality and fairness are just words. Without the evidence of action — the ability for a Black man to walk down the streets of America without fear, without worry that a broken taillight could end up costing him his life — racial equality remains only a dream.

So for those of you who argue that all lives matter not just black lives, go take a walk through the African-American museum. Sure all lives matter; but it isn’t clear to me that we’ve proven black lives matter to remotely close to the standard we have for the lives of Caucasian people. I take my safety for granted. I never see a cop and think I’m about to get tased, beaten, or shot. My African-American friends and colleagues — my equal in all regards — can take nothing for granted.

The challenge here is that it will take a long time to prove we as a society have made real progress on this front. Every new shooting raises the specter of doubt, and cancels out all of the good that cops and others may have done since the last shooting. “Ten ‘attaboys’ equals one ‘oh s**t’”, a boss once told me. He meant for every mistake I made at work, it offset 10 good things I had done. In this case, the ratio is of course much higher. 100 stories we read about a cop helping an African-American citizen out are instantly wiped out when a new shooting occurs.

I have friends who are cops who are frustrated by this. They believe more cops will get shot if they have to walk on eggshells with the citizenry. They believe they are unbiased, that they don’t automatically treat black people differently or approach them more aggressively. I will suggest that they visit the African-American Museum and recognize that they — we — have unconscious biases passed down from our parents and grandparents. And these influence our behaviors even when we believe they don’t.

Ending on a more positive less preachy note, the Museum celebrated the vast accomplishments of African-Americans. Bill Russell, Arthur Ashe, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Jesse Owens, Venus and Serena Williams, Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan in sports… Oprah Winfrey, James Brown, Louie Armstrong and Chuck Berry in the arts. Barack Obama. Ben Carson. Martin Luther King. These individuals and hundreds of others like them make me proud to be an American. So there’s hope. We just need to extend the respect we have for the most visible African-Americans to all African-Americans. We need to consciously override our biases every day and in every interaction we have with each other. It will take time. It’s trying to prove a negative thing (“we won’t act in an unfair manner) which is always hard.

I was encouraged by how everyone treated everyone else in the museum today. Black or white, we were all there trying to learn and understand this aspect of our history that is both sordid and special. I helped an elderly African-American gentlemen from North Carolina through a door, and he said “thanks” and I replied “my pleasure, sir.” His eyebrows raised and he smiled a bit. I suspect he had his own personal litany of affronts he has experienced in his 80ish years on the planet interacting with people who looked like me. It’s a little sad that he was surprised by my tiny act of kindness and the word ‘sir’. I learned as much from that brief interaction as from many of the Museum exhibits.

It may take another couple generations for racial bias to drop another 90%. It shouldn’t, because all that has to happen is we need to treat each other like family and friends. We all know how to do it, we just need to expand our reach. And hold each other accountable.

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