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A Citizen's Reflections on Race, Violence and Power

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Originally published on December 16, 2007 at Truthout.org. In recognition of International Human Rights Day, upcoming on December 10th.

Three years ago, on December 10, 2007, the social justice community in Rochester, New York commemorated the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The themes of the evening's panel discussion were race and racism, and most of the attention was given to the shockingly high rate of black-on-black violence perpetuated by young men against other young men in this community. Although the discussion was occasionally contentious, most people in the room seemed to agree upon several things: 1) the problem is not unique to the upstate New York region and this issue is equally relevant in Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Washington DC, and another half dozen cities across the United States; 2) the epidemic has something to do with the legacy of slavery; 3) structural and institutional racism perpetuate the problem by ensuring that most blacks who find themselves on the lowest rungs of the class ladder stay there, and 4) the responsibility for addressing the issue lies with both the individual and the community. Many people - both black and white - also shared concern that the extraordinary advances made by the Civil Rights Movement are being undermined on one hand by de-facto segregation, and on the other by legalized discrimination, the most visible form of which is racial profiling by law enforcement.

One member of the audience (who happened to be black, although I am a bit troubled that I feel compelled to note that) wondered openly whether the violence was a form of "pathology" unique to the black community, and many others asked for tools that they could apply in their own work with black youth. As I left the event, I found myself reflecting on these questions, and I came to the conclusion that the answers to both may revolve largely around a concept that, strangely, was absent from our collective discussion: power. Slavery - the institutionalized ownership of one human being by another - is arguably the most disempowering system ever created by humans. It is intended to degrade and humiliate to the point that a person no longer feels agency over his own life. Like other systems of injustice, its effects can run so deep that when the institution is removed, the sense of indignity continues for members of the formerly repressed group until there is an open and comprehensive addressing of past injustices and the pain caused by the systematic abuse. In the last 25 years, in countries recovering from severe oppression, "Truth and Reconciliation Commissions" have been set up to accomplish these tasks. Peru, South Africa, Morocco and East Timor are just a few of the places where TRCs have helped their societies heal and have facilitated reform by acknowledging past wrongs and ensuring that the horrors of history will not be repeated.

Because there has been no significant attempt to deal with the history of slavery in this country, it is as though our collective mind has been asked to exist in a state of cognitive dissonance. There are no national monuments in the US to former slaves, although they exist for almost every other group who has sacrificed for the "vital interests" of the nation. As a country, we prefer to pretend that slavery never happened, or that it existed too long ago to be relevant to our lives today. This historical amnesia comes easier to some than to others, and it may be that those who have the hardest time reconciling some sense of injustice with the legal rights afforded to every American are young black men. They know that they should feel powerful - after all, they are young and living in the "world's greatest democracy." But for many there must also be (what I imagine as) a constant, gnawing sense of indignity whose source may be vague, and which is easily manifested in rage, aggression, and other substitutes for true empowerment. To a young, misguided and righteously indignant person, a gun equals power.

The truth is that violence is the opposite of real power. Where genuine power exists, force is not needed. But where power is perceived as unattainable, violence becomes seen as the only alternative for those with legitimate grievances. John F. Kennedy put it eloquently when he said "Those who make nonviolent revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable." He understood that serious societal ills would not resolve themselves, and the question was not whether issues of racism and injustice would be addressed, but how.

In light of this, I offer that as individuals we can empower ourselves and inspire others to do the same by having a stake in the development of our communities and by "dropping our bucket" (to borrow from the work of Dr. Larry Hudson of the University of Rochester). We must become rooted, activated members of both our local communities and the larger society. We have to stop living in isolation; as if what happens "out there" is only worthy of attention when it directly affects our own lives.

Second, collectively, we must reframe the public understanding of power. The political philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote, "Power corresponds to the human ability not just to act, but to act in concert." Today, in our consumerist, technologically dependent and self-focused society, that view could not be more important. It should be our first task to publicly promote this understanding of the concept of power-as civic engagement in the truest meaning of the term. This is necessary both to defy the conventional wisdom that armed force equals power and to spur us into a long-overdue dialogue, and perhaps even our own Truth and Reconciliation Commission, on the legacy of our country's most shameful history.

As citizens of the world's self-proclaimed model democracy, by refusing to openly acknowledge the truth about our shared past and its present consequences, we are not just complicit in the pathology of an epidemic, we do all of humanity a disservice.

Boaz lived and taught in Rochester, New York from 2004-2008.