“Lord I’ve been real stressed;
Down and out, losin’ ground
Although I am black and proud
Problems got me pessimistic”
— Arrested Development, “Tennessee”, 1992
As people of color, we are often fond of professing — at least in private — our capacity to overcome all obstacles. And indeed we have — it has been scarcely 50 years since the demise of societal constructs that denied blacks educational, economic and political opportunities. But one of the enduring mysteries of the black experience is how in public, many are far too willing to resort to reflexive, ad hominem accusations of racism to minimize the dysfunctional and self-destructive.
Tuesday’s tragic rampage by Omar Thornton, a black truck driver who killed eight of his co-workers at a Connecticut beer distributor after being forced to resign, is a prime example of this phenomenon. While exact details are still in dispute, those close to Thornton have argued he snapped after being “subjected to racial harassment”:http://www.thegrio.com/news/police-gunman-at-beer-warehouse-targeted-racist-managers.php; an increasing number of commentators are also advancing this trope. The very idea exposes an ineluctable truth: racism is being contorted to justify the indefensible, and undermining the substantial progress the country has made in race relations. That Thornton’s actions are being legitimized by dint of his being subjected to discrimination is counterproductive, and reductionism at its most destructive.
According to Thornton’s relatives and his longtime girlfriend, the gunman said he had discovered a picture of a noose and a racial epithet scrawled on a bathroom wall of Hartford Distributors, the warehouse where he worked. While a representative of the union to which Thornton belonged refuted assertions of racial bias, reports suggest that Thornton may have been stealing from his employers.
WATCH ‘TODAY SHOW’ COVERAGE OF OMAR THORNTON:
[MSNBCMSN video=”http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/32545640″ w=”592″ h=”346″ launch_id=”38590236^450^196150″ id=”msnbc3b4d69″]
In the interests of playing devil’s advocate, the suggestion that Thornton was the victim of racial bias is not beyond the realm of possibility. Racism still exists and people continue to suffer from its effects. That said, we live in a society pre-disposed (and some would argue hypersensitive) to confronting instances of discrimination, real or imagined. If Thornton was discriminated against by his employers, there was nothing preventing him from quitting and filing suit against his employers. If he was emotionally troubled by his experiences, he could easily have sought spiritual and psychological counsel.
Instead, Thornton did what we as black men do with dismaying regularity — resort to violence in order to exact revenge against those whom he perceived as his persecutors. Recently released 911 tapes paint a portrait of a methodical and unrepentant killer who said this was “a racist place”, but whose sole lament was that he didn’t slaughter enough people. At no point did he appear to think about the families of those whose lives he claimed in such a callous manner.
At the risk of sounding self-referential, about a week ago this writer participated in an on-air discussion weighing the pros and cons of marijuana legalization (after having written previously on this subject for this site). At one point during the conversation, one ardent advocate of legalization argued that abolishing prohibitions on drugs was a civil rights issue, given the preponderance of blacks ensnared by law enforcement efforts. As this gentleman’s theory would have it, the poor judgment exhibited by those who willingly indulge in the drug trade has nothing to do with their plight; racism, however, has everything to do with it.
In his 1901 autobiography Up From Slavery, former slave Booker T. Washington argued that as a people, “we must acknowledge that, notwithstanding the cruelty and moral wrong of slavery, the ten million Negroes inhabiting this country, who themselves or whose ancestors went through the school of American slavery, are in a stronger and more hopeful condition, materially, intellectually, morally and religiously than is true of an equal number of black people in any other portion of the globe.” The argument that unacceptable behavior can be excused or downplayed by racism becomes a self-refuting assertion when put in the context of the millions of blacks who succeed and achieve on a daily basis.
Many in our society — black and white alike — can find much to criticize about America’s legal system. Others will argue at length about the legacy of racism. But there is something deeply unseemly about those who inject race — be it overheated allegations of racial bias by the Tea Party movement, the charged case of Shirley Sherrod, and now the Thornton killings — into every conversation and situation, regardless of their circumstances. It devalues the term, does a gross disservice to the real victims of bias and discrimination, and perpetuates a mentality of victimhood among a fundamentally strong ethnicity that has much to celebrate.