Running on Empty

The Dearth of Meaningful Discourse Surrounding the American Race

On the evening of March 21, most of us had just begun our retreat from academics and settled into the routine of relaxation we hope for on spring break. On that same evening, however, Lenard Clark, a 13-year-old black boy, was savagely beaten and left for dead in an alley.

Like many, I was painted and shaken when I heard the news that Lenard was beaten nearly to death by three white teens in Chicago--but I was not terribly surprised. Appalling as this merciless act of brutality was, it is one among many that points to the chilling fact that racism in America is alive and well.

Most blacks will not think that I am making a starling claim. Indeed, thoughtful Americans of all backgrounds see the existence of racism as a very real if unfortunate fact of American life. Racism is like a terrible disease which no one admits to having but which silently, stealthily claims its victims.

So when symptoms of the disease manifest themselves as they did recently in Chicago, many are alarmed: "How could this happen in 1997?"

The truth is that 1997 is not so far from 1967 or 1937. Where the taboo topic of race is concerned, in fact, 1997 is not so very far from 1619 when African slaves were first brought to America. We have so terribly far to go. And we will never get there--to that land of equality, freedom, liberty and justice for all--if we do not recognize exactly where we are.


The dehumanizing practice of legalized segregation is gone, but the de facto segregation of the American community persists. In fact, the reason the three white teens beat Lenard Clark is that he had transgressed the bounds of tacit segregation that many whites in Bridgeport are trying to enforce. After carrying out their enforcement they boasted of having "taken care of the niggers." Tragically, it has been 34 years since Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. articulated his dream: instead of little black boys holding hands with little white boys, the latter are still beating the former. It was not so long ago, indeed, that a boy named Emmett Till, about the same age as Lenard Clark, was lynched in Money, Miss. for looking at a white girl. "But that was the South a long time ago, wasn't it?" cry those who want to believe that racist violence in America is a thing of the past. That was the South a little over 40 years ago, and the sickening stench of it apparently still reeks in Chicago today.

We at Harvard cannot feel safe if we can mentally quarantine the disease that festered in the South of the past or the Chicago of today or the L.A. of 1992. For racism has its victims here in Cambridge as well. I have felt the fear of fellow pedestrians almost palpably as I walk down Mass. Ave., or to and from my dorm, because I am supposed to represent some gun-toting black monster who is out to rape or rob or kill. I have kept calm and cool even as my brow begins to sweat over accusations that somehow I was given a favored, academically undeserved admittance to this school. Astonished, I have witnessed impassioned arguments for unequal funding for predominantly black schools and vehement protests against the allegedly all-black phenomenon of welfare dependency. Racism is alive and well in America and at Harvard, too.

I suppose I have always known it, but like many, I did not want to believe it. I remember being quite frightened as a child when I saw footage of dogs attacking children during civil rights demonstrations or when the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan was portrayed in movies. I couldn't sleep for weeks after viewing movies like "North and South" or "Roots" because of the brutal depictions of slavery. Like many children, I applied what I saw to my own reality. I lay awake for hours imagining that the sick men dressed in sheets on television would invade and burn my home in suburban St. Louis. But I appeased my fears by convincing myself that those things don't happen anymore: Missouri isn't Alabama or Mississippi. And even if it is, great progress has been made in those places. Surely the hate cannot hurt me here, not now: these were the beliefs that quieted a child. And holding on to them, I could close my eyes and sleep again.

Unfortunately, the nation sleeps now as I slept then. When it comes to the issue of race, we have all but ended the national discourse. It is something most would rather not talk about at all unless their eyes are very tightly shut and they are spouting platitudes: "Everyone should be treated the same way," "I really don't care what race a person is." And on the rare occasions that blacks and whites really do engage in conversation about the most persistent American problem, they end up talking past one another rather than to one another. Without fail, most well-meaning whites will cite the great strides made by the civil rights movement; they will then wonder what more these rather ungrateful blacks want, and they will ardently deny ever having owned slaves. Equally often, many blacks will demand full economic and political opportunity, constructive affirmative action programs and more attention to be paid to the black suffering that is as much a part of this country's present as its past.

Somehow, we must move the discussion of race to a level on which the exasperation of whites and blacks can be addressed, and some much-needed progress can be made. We must not blithely dismiss or oversimplify American history by believing that the scars of slavery were healed by the Emancipation Proclamation, or that the "I Have a Dream" speech somehow soothed three centuries of racial strife. Neither can we hold sons and daughters accountable for the sins of their mothers and fathers. We must embrace history. We must sit with our nation's sins, discuss them, debate them, transcend them. And then we must move forward together in realizing the great gifts of humanity that lay within us all.

We should all be sickened by the beating of a 13-year-old child of any color in any country at any time. But we can no longer sit blindly by and think this child's being black in America in 1997 is a mere coincidence or a grave mistake for which no one but the three boys who beat him are guilty. The disease of racism is growing and if left untreated, it will kill us all. Racism is not an amorphous idea to be decried in whispers like the latest scandal. It is not the product of a fearful child's imagination. It is real. It is here. It is now. And it must be cured.

Jason Q. Purnell is a sophomore living in Mather House.

We cannot feel safe, for racism is alive and well in America and at Harvard, too.