The tragic events in Ferguson and Milwaukee and New York and elsewhere of a black man being killed by police officers has resulted in some strong responses. People have demonstrated, both legally and illegally. People have resorted to violence, including looting and the destruction of property. In response, people have condemned the lawless conduct and have strongly supported the findings of various authorities that the evidence surrounding these killings was not sufficient to require an indictment of those who had done the killing. The relative merits of charging or not charging these officers will be debated for a very long time, and there is abundant evidence to support the arguments of both sides.

There is, however, an issue underlying all of these events that is not being much mentioned, and it is an issue that merits a great deal of discussion. It is this: whatever may be the merits of any particular case, it is undeniable that the experience of being black in America is radically different from that of being white. If you don’t think that’s true, then it is quite likely that you have never raised the subject with someone who is African-American. If you are in that position, then it is easy enough to get the idea by asking yourself this question: all other things being equal, would you prefer to be white or to be black? Aside from a few rather snide remarks that I sense you formulating, I think the honest answer is pretty evident. Being black in America automatically subjects you to some prejudgments and some indignities that few whites will ever experience. For example, many of my African-American friends refer to the traffic offense that they call OWB — operating a vehicle while black. It is still not uncommon in some suburbs for a black person driving a car to be routinely, and frequently, stopped for no apparent reason. Black people find themselves far more closely scrutinized when they browse in stores. Black people still feel held to higher standards when they apply for jobs. And, as is obvious to anyone who looks, there is still a distinct segregation in housing, as witness the so-called “inner city” and the almost lily white suburbs.

There is no quick fix for that disparity, since it is so deeply grounded in history and economics. It does help, howwever, to understand the intense level of anger and deep feeling expressed in the protests surrounding these recent killings. Killing an unarmed man or a boy with a toy gun may or may not be a disputable event. Those killings may even have somehow been justified by the circumstances. I am not a police officer, and I was not present for any of these killings. Nor did I know either Michael Brown or the boy with the toy gun. What I do know is that those killings could easily ratify the undeniable sentiment shared almost universally by the African-American community that they are automatically disadvantaged merely by the color of their skin.

Is that feeling justified? You would have to be from another planet to think otherwise. The centuries-old practice of legal American slavery is barely 160 years behind us. Legal segregation is only a few decades behind us. All-white clubs and churches and neighborhoods abound. Statistics about traffic stops and arrests and job opportunities and a host of other things make it clear that we have a long way to go to achieve, if ever we do, a culture that ignores race in our prejudgments.

So, I put it to you, here is the value of all this intense unrest. It is an opportunity to have the real discussion that we have so long avoided. We need to look at those marches and demonstrations and even that looting and destruction as a rebuke to our nonchalant dismissal of the issue of race in America. We ignore, and even promote, the continuation of the problem at our peril. America has put equality as its ideal. This unrest demonstrates that we have not achieved it, and we will not have it until we face this cancer that has existed since the founding of the Republic.


There is an odd illogic to the American response to revolutions. America itself was created by a Revolution, one that we hold dear, and justifiably so, for throwing off the reins of a dictator, in this case a monaarchy, and replacing it with a respresentative democracy. That democracy was not quite as representative as one might suspect, restricting participation, as it did, to a tiny fraction of the people it governed, namely the white male adult landed gentry. The ideals stated as the fuel for that revolution, however, have led us on, in fits and starts and with blunders and backslides, to enfranchise minorities and females and the less economically fortunate, and we stand today, despite our present deep political conflicts, a beacon of hope for universal human rights.

The illogic rises from the following question. Why, if our own beginnings lay in revolution, do we so often end up supporting the dictator against revolution? How does it happen that we support dictators like Trujillo in the Dominican Republic and Somoza in Nicaragua and Batista in Cuba? And on what perverted ground did we actually go down and murder the democratically elected socialist Salvador Allende in Chile and install the brutal, criminal Augusto Pinochet?

This is not to say that the United States has always opposed revolution or always supported dictatorial regimes. We have, however ineptly, opposed some of the dictatorships in the Middle East, and we have stoutly opposed the Communist dictatorships in Russia and China, and we have done so, in the main, on humanitarian grounds in accordance with the ideals stated in our own Declaration of Independence. Nevertheless, we have this odd track record of supporting those in power whose conduct has give rise to popular revolution.

The key to understanding this contradiction in our policies lies, I suggest, in the failure, either by ignorance or intent, on the part of those in power to distinguish between that which is political and that which is financial. Democracy, in its many forms, is at root a political program. Whether representative, as in the United States, or parliamentary as in the United Kingdom and various European countries, it arises from the root principle that every human being has basic and undeniable rights, and the effectiveness of the government is to be meausred by whether that government’s policies are installed to protect and nourish those rights.

Capitalism, on the other hand, is a fundamental economic theory. In its rawest form it holds that the best way to build an economic system is to allow the market place a free hand to set prices and create products. There is no necessary correlation between democracy and capitalism. One may in fact have a capitalist dictatorship, as in China, and one may have a socialist democracy, as in Denmark and the Scandinavian countries.

It seems that the problem always arises when those in power confuse the two. The failure of the Soviet Union could comfortably be attributed to this confusion. The Russian Revolution was justified by the brutal treatment being imposed on the people by the czars, but somehow those who seized power did not return that power to the people but rather took it in their own hands, and they made the egregious error of imposing their own dictatorship both om the people and on the economy. Whatever may have been their merits as revolutionaries, and whatever may have been their failures as politicans, they were terrible economists, and the eventual collapse of that economic system was completely predictable. The Chinese, on the other hand, somehow allowed a capitalist economic system to develop within the political dictatorship, and the result has been at least apparently tolerable.

Revolutions arise because of oppression of the people by a government, and the United States has always claimed to oppose such oppression. We ourselves, however, have too often confused the political with the financial, and that, I suggest, is what we did in Cuba. Batista’s dictatorship allowed fortunes to be made while stark poverty and oppression ran amok in the country. Once again, as far too often in American history, American opposition to the Cuban revolution was, in effect, purchased and financed by financial powers, by those who had the most money to lose in the fall of the Batista dictatorship. The political outcry against Cuban Communism was in large part a disguise for the financial outcry against the removal of casinos and resorts and strip clubs.

After fifty years of a rather ineffective policy of embargo based on this confusion, the United States has taken the first steps toward normalizing relations with Cuba. The cuckoos — Rubio and Cruze and Gingrich and the like — condemn those steps as they condemn anything this administration does. For me, these steps are a welcome relief from the illogic of opposing a revolution inspired by ideals so close to our own. The people do deserve basic rights, and the country deserves to function for the good of all and not just the good of the wealthy. It may, in fact, happen that the promotion of that good will best be done by means of a capitalist economy. One can only hope that we will not make the mistake of confusing politics and economics and oonce again allow moneyed interests to override the rights of the people. The price of liberty, said Jefferson, is eternal vigilance, and the object of our vigilance must always and only be the growth of human rights.


The recent revelation by the government of the tactics used by the CIA in handling suspected terrorists was an obvious blow to all of us, most obviously to those who made fools of themselves trying to justify conduct that veritably defined torture. Far more critical than the damage such information would do to our reputation around the world was the damage done to our own grasp of who we are as a nation. No one captured that pain better than the president, when he summed up his reaction to the report by saying, “That is not us.” Whatever may be our political and religious affiliations, a nation, do not define ourselves by the Machiavellian principle that we can do whatever we think will work to achieve our ends.

No one doubts that those who participated in the inhumane and even hideous conduct described in the report were patriots, and no one doubts that it was their sincere, albeit misguided, inention to do nothing other than find whatever informtion they could to bring those who slaughtered innocent Americans to justice and to deter others from doing any further damage. No one would doubt, either, that in the wake of the horrendous slaughter of 9/11, virtually everyone was so angered that they would have thrown aside all rules and all ideals to destroy those who had anything to do with it. Neither, however, can anyone honestly and seriously claim that the techniques that were used as described in the report were in accord with the ideals that to this day are a beacon to the rest of the world.

That, in fact, is the saving grace in this otherwise dismal historical moment. All but the perverse very few agree that America is about something entirely different from, something radically averse to, the kind of cynical worldview implied by the savage mistreatment of those we hold hostage. What that same mistreatment also reveals, on the other hand, is that those with the power to order such mistreatment somehow lost their way and simply forgot what it was that they were really fighting for. Forget Dick Cheney. He is just a sick, sick man. Those who ordered and carried out this policy were and are real Americans, and, with the best of motives, they simply missed, for whatever reasons, the meaningfulness of what they were ordering, doing or allowing.

But, if they were wrong, if the waterboarding and sleep deprivation and isolation and even death does nto reflect what it is to be an American, if, as the president so acutely observed, that is not us, then the very best thing we can do in response to the report is to take a very deep look at what it means to be an American, to answer that haunting question: if that is not us, then what is us?

I have not a fraction of the intelligence and wisdom to answee that question. I can, however, make a start. We are what we say we are. We are those who hold as undeniable, as fundamental, that every human being has certain basic and inalienable rights. That means that, far from doing whatever we want to, we are the people who respect, protect and promote the basic rights of every human being. We are free, not because we have no obligations, but because we honor the rights of every human being.

Chesterton once observed that, if you really want to know something, you have to either get way inside it or else get way outside it. One way to grasp what we are, what the real meaning of being an American is, would be to find out what it is that makes so many people want to come and live here. They no doubt see our faults — our prejudices, our economic inequalities, our poverty and our crime. Beyond all of that, though, they see that we are the people that respect other people. All people. Even our enemies.