It has been more than half a century since the late, mid-20th-century black intellectual, Harem Renaissance author and cultural critic James Baldwin wrote his spellbinding 1963 work The Fire Next Time. Baldwin's work was riveting for its era. His essays examining the disturbing consequences of misunderstanding between blacks (then called "Negroes") and whites in regard to the racial injustice of the era became a catalyst for many progressive Americans of all racial groups, prompting them into action and providing a passionate and eloquent voice for the modern civil rights movement. The book became a national bestseller and catapulted him further into the premier sphere of American intellectual elites of all races.
Today, more than 50 years later, his prophetic narrative rings chillingly true. Flash-forward to the situation of summer 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Indeed, it seems that many of the indignities and differences in perceptions that Baldwin ominously discussed during the 1960s still ring true today in the early 21st century. The stark and wildly diverse perceptions that white and black Americans have of the crisis in Ferguson (and on race in general) is crucial evidence that the racial divide in our nation is still considerable -- perhaps not as large as it was in 1963, but still wide enough to cause considerable alarm. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that the public was divided on the question of whether the issue of race is getting too much attention in regard to the Michael Brown conflict. Forty-four percent of those polled believed that the case raises important issues about race that require discussion, while, in contrast, 40 percent felt that the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves.
Perceptions broke down along racial lines. More than 80 percent of black Americans stated that the shooting in Ferguson raises important issues about race that deserve attention. On the contrary, 47 percent of whites argued that the issue of race was getting more attention than it deserves. Sixty-five of blacks polled believed that the police went too far in responding to the shooting's aftermath. Whites were divided, with 33 percent taking the position that the police had overstepped and 32 percent feeling that police actions were just about right. More than one third, 35 percent, offered no opinion. The fact that more than one out of three white respondents harbored no opinion on the brutal shooting of Micheal Brown most likely demonstrates their indifference toward police violence directed toward black people, and toward black men in particular.
Such a chilling level of detachment also demonstrated the fact many of these same people are perversely hostile or, at the very least, callously indifferent to the level of political, social, cultural and economic indignities that too many poor and disenfranchised people, particularly those who are back and brown, have had to and still continue to endure on a regular basis. Bob Herbert, former New York Times columnist and now a senior fellow at the prestigious think tank Demos, has written at length on such issues, which include the ever-mounting attacks on voting rights in many Republican-controlled states; the sinister targeting of many low-income and working-class black home buyers by unscrupulous, predatory lenders in the financial industry; the obscenely high unemployment in the black community; the horrendous treatment and disproportionate sentencing of black people (especially black men) in the criminal justice system; and the callous and disrespectful treatment of the nation's first black president.
Indeed, the level of racism and personal animosity that has been directed toward Barack Obama has been unprecedented. It is perfectly reasonable for people to be at odds with the president's policies, but that does not excuse the demonstrably disrespectful behavior and, to be quite frank, outright hatred and resentment that many of the president's opponents have directed toward him. His detractors have made it personal. For many black Americans such mistreatment has been taken personally as well. They see such blatant mistreatment of the president as a personal attack on themselves and black people in general. The gullible assumption that America became a post-racial society upon the election of President Obama was a radically misguided illusion.
While some segments of black America are faring relatively well, far too many other factions are living in a state of crisis that is just as unsettling as what that their parents and grandparents experienced in the oppressive era of segregation. This is a situation that is unacceptable and must be addressed by Americans of all races, in particular black leadership or a new generation of leaders, as well as a government that will be attentive to the precarious plight that is facing too many black Americans.