In the summer of 1967, the city of Detroit burned. Milwaukee, Buffalo, Cincinnati, and Newark were engulfed in flames. Even forgotten towns like Cairo, Illinois and Cambridge, Maryland descended, for some nights in that torrid summer, into anarchy. The havoc seemed to be catching. The fire in one town sparked the fire in the next. America seemed to be coming undone.
Yet for most Americans the riots of that summer were viewed from afar, through the lens of the evening news and front-page headlines. They were not seeing their own homes burned, their own streets occupied by uniformed troops. From this safe distance, the uprisings looked like senseless violence, the reckless and shortsighted actions of a damaged people, a people with no strategy, no hope.
But the truth of riots is something entirely different, something entirely more sacred.
America is an unsettled land. And it remains so because it was founded on white supremacy, and white supremacy is, by nature, an unsettling force. The centuries-long attempt to subdue the continent and nakedly ransack its resources only for the benefit of some creates a vast army of angry people who will forever?—?for the sake of their children, for the sake of themselves?—?be forced to resist. Far from an ugly side effect of our nation’s character, white supremacy is a core American principle. In Mein Kampf, Hitler even identified the United States, with its Jim Crow laws and forbiddance of interracial marriage, as the “one state” that knew how to effectively create a second class of citizenry. That the American experiment provided the primary source material for the same violent German regime from which it claimed to be saving the planet is the contradiction between what this country says it is and what it does. It is, at its very core, the uniquely American distinction between ideals and action. This country didn’t just end up this way. It was made this way.
To be black in a country like this is to forge your entire life in the dank valley between America’s ideals and actions. We are told that we have been created equally, but we are treated as a separate class. We are told that we live in a nation of laws, but we watch as violence is visited upon our families with no hope of legal recourse.