This essay is paired with the essay A Nation of Cowards to continue the process of contrasting the old dying myth and the new emerging myth. Forty-one years ago civil rights workers James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi. Recently (June 21, 2005) Edgar Ray Killen, 80, was convicted of manslaughter for that crime.
Our first indictment of “cowardice” involves the people of Mississippi who took forty-one years to do the right thing long past the time that it took any courage to do so. For shame people of Mississippi! Last week the U.S. Senate (80 of 100 members) “apologized” for not passing a law outlawing lynching after voting down countless bills and resisting pressure from seven presidents to do so in the 20th century. The twenty Senators who failed to sign on as co-sponsors of the Senate resolution are guilty of moral cowardice putting political considerations first. Not surprisingly, two Mississippi Republicans, Trent Lott and Thad Cochran did not join their colleagues in co-sponsoring the Senate resolution. Despite Killen’s conviction, the people of Mississippi are still under our indictment for cowardice.
Is it only the people of Mississippi who exhibited cowardice relating to this issue of civil rights and justice? Of course not! The entire nation participated then and participates now with the people of Mississippi consciously or unconsciously in projecting their shadows on African Americans. All Americans are culpable just as all Germans were to blame for the Nazi madness projecting their shadows on the Jewish scapegoats, on Jews as the Other. The sad thing is that this little understood process continues with racist violence today—only the details have changed.
Here is what today’s (2005) “details” look like: …while black people account for 13% of regular drug users, they represent 35% of drug-possession arrests and 55% of convictions… a black drug defendant is 48 times more likely to be imprisoned than a white one with the same record [and] four times more likely to be executed for killing a white person than a black one. The facts are more subtle than lynching but irrefutable nevertheless.
And, of course, the same denial exists in the minds of Americans who don’t have the courage to look at the reality of what is happening. “I think it’s a kind of trying to clean the slate and tell the truth,” said the ever hopeful optimist, former President Clinton, “I’m really encouraged and hopeful. It’s evidence of the maturing of the society.” Alas Bill, the slate is as dirty as ever and the American society is as immature as ever only the details of the childish and cowardly behavior changes.
It would take an African American to “get real.” Christopher Edley, the dean of the University of California Law School at Berkeley and a former member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights observes that Senate apologies: “…have no impact in penetrating the consciousness of the American people on race.” I have italicized the word “consciousness” because I find this to be the crux of problems supporting the human condition in America. Americans choose to remain unconscious.
Americans lack courage because they lack the profound awareness that would enable them to choose courageous and compassionate responses. We must learn to trust our “hearts” (our interior wisdom) more than our “heads” (the “outside” false-self driven voice of the intellect). Instead we surrender to our shadows, our darker natures—to the fear that dominates any people who can see only a murky and ambiguous reality. Our worldview, our story of where we are and who we are, is childish. According to Saint Paul, when I was a child I spoke like a child; when I became a man, I put away childish things.
If we would spend less time on politically motivated and guilt-ridden apologies and more on courageously admitting that we must begin the process of constructing a richer more profound context, and a more compassionate identity, then we could really see what’s written on that slate that President Clinton refers to. Until we do that, the U. S. Senate will be offering disingenuous apologies and resolutions again fifty years from now for sins that we can only imagine.
References and notes are available for this article.
For a much more in-depth discussion on Simple Reality, read Simple Reality: The Key to Serenity and Survival, by Roy Charles Henry, published in 2011.