Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki Speaks Out On America’s Racial Divide
By Mayor Mike Purzycki
Since the demonstration and the violence that ensued [on May 30], I have received many emails either condemning our weak police response to the lawbreaking or congratulating us and our police on the restraint that was shown. In the end, I believe we made the correct choice to exercise restraint. Although some businesses took the brunt of the mayhem, most of the damage was relatively limited. No one was injured. The raw anger directed against the police was not enflamed. This is not to excuse the criminal behavior of those who broke the law. There will still be prosecutions. It is right, however, to be respectful of those whose motives were honest and whose hurt was real.
Today America is facing a well-deserved reckoning with its past. Our country has rationalized and compartmentalized the condition of Black America for far too long. The remorseless killings of Ahmed Aubrey in Georgia and then George Floyd in Minneapolis have exposed for all to see the underlying cracks in our society’s moral foundation.
Every resident of our City should know that I and every member of my administration stand unconditionally for justice for our Black citizens. Our City should know just how deeply I feel about this subject. The following was written before the most recent events.
As a White mayor of a city that is 58% African American I am keenly aware of the role race plays in American society. No serious observer of the American scene can overlook the impact of racial attitudes on policy and politics. Unfortunately, we are more divided culturally, economically, and politically than most of us fully appreciate. Black America looks across a racial divide and sees the beneficiaries of White Privilege and what Frederick Douglass early on called White Supremacy. White citizens often think of racial discrimination as distant echoes of slavery, ancient history depicted in grainy images and sepia tones. This disconnect has the same disabling effect on our City as it does on the country.
My mission as Mayor is to provide some insight into our racial divide and offer to build a bridge that helps bring people together. Legislative initiatives have proven to be ineffective. In spite of some statistical progress among African Americans, the gaps between Black and White remain wide. Beyond economic disparities, we still don’t know one another. We don’t trust one another. We rarely socialize together. We are culturally estranged. Government “programs” that seek to improve these conditions ignore cultural dynamics and have an artificial quality about them. In the end, my prescription is based on the simple belief that, more than anything else, America suffers from racial ignorance. We cannot love someone we do not know. We cannot respect someone whose life we do not fully appreciate. We need a history lesson—a lesson in African American history.
After watching the PBS specials, The African Americans— Many Rivers to Cross, and Henry Louis Gates’ Reconstruction, I was left with the same feeling I had when I visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Each should be required viewing as a prerequisite for American citizenship because it is clear that unless one is fully informed about the experience of African Americans in this country, one can never have a complete understanding of American history. America’s treatment of African Americans since long before its founding has been brutal beyond any clinical description of slavery in the history books. The depth of contempt that accompanied the mistreatment of Blacks by White America for centuries provides a powerful emotional context for the simmering resentments felt today by Blacks toward White society. What causes the great disconnect between Blacks and Whites in America is that one group is all too familiar with the real American history and the other is willfully blind to its most painful chapters.
This does not mean that America is a country of conscious racists. But not consciously being a racist does not relieve us of the obligation to acknowledge our country’s racist past. Not consciously being a racist does not absolve us of not understanding how our nation’s history has impacted the lives of African Americans today. People who have never uttered a racist comment or harbored any racist animus have nonetheless never felt a need to undo the social infrastructure that has disadvantaged Black Americans throughout history, even recent history. This makes all of us complicit in creating the racial strife that today tears at the moral, social, and political fabric of our society.
Many White Americans look at the state of Black America and only see high rates of poverty, joblessness, crime, and incarceration. They wonder why Blacks don’t do what their own forebears did—work hard, buy a home, and raise a family. While Whites resist understanding the burdens that history has placed on Black Americans—looking more to contemporary behaviors and individual poor choices—Blacks are inclined to look to a history of dehumanization, degradation, and deprivation as reasonable bases for their relative lack of progress in American society. No one can know with any certainty how things would have turned out for Black Americans if they had just been allowed to learn to read, had been permitted to attend school, if families had been allowed to remain intact, if they had been permitted to own property or if they had gotten their promised “forty acres and a mule.” No one can know what life would be like today without poll taxes and literacy tests well into the middle of the last century, which in the South effectively nullified the voting protections of the Fifteenth Amendment. Or how history might have been written had the U.S. troops from the South not been withdrawn in 1876, leaving the administration of justice to the remorseless terror of the Ku Klux Klan when over 3,000 Black Americans were hanged in the public square with no recourse to the protections of the law. Indeed, no one can know for sure how things might have turned out—but Black America certainly has the more compelling argument in this debate.
In spite of all that is wondrous about America, it is important that we recognize that its history of racism competes with the worst chapters of inhumanity in world history. And it is not ancient history. Long after the undisputed horrors of slavery, there was the history of Jim Crow, institutionalized segregation extending well into my lifetime.
Almost a century after slavery ended with the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment, George Wallace stood at the doors of the University of Alabama to prevent Vivian Malone and James A. Hood, two Black students, from enrolling in school. It was not until 1954 that the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that the prevailing doctrine of “separate but equal” was, in fact, not equal. But in 1960, six years after Brown, little Ruby Bridges had to be escorted into a Louisiana elementary school by federal marshals. In 1974, White protestors rioted against the integration of public schools—not in the deep south, but in Boston. All of this during my lifetime.
As much as it hurts us to admit it, there was throughout the country an American system of apartheid. What else can we call racially separate education? What do we call Blacks being required to sit in the back of the bus and to sit in the balcony of a movie theater? Or not being able to sit at a lunch counter or drink from a water fountain? Or not being able to use a hotel or swim in a public swimming pool? What else do we call the racist redlining instituted by the Federal Housing Administration that prevented Blacks from financing their homes in better neighborhoods, or deeds that prevented selling property to anyone but Caucasians? What would we call laws prohibiting racial intermarriage as if to protect the White race from pollution by Black genes? Assuredly no one was concerned with the pollution of the Black race by the genes of White slave owners.
What every Black person in America senses all too clearly is that this catalog of mistreatment could only have been visited upon people regarded by the majority as being inferior. What haunts Black America today, and why some athletes choose not to stand for the Anthem, not in protest against any particular contemporary act of injustice, but rather against the abiding indifference of White America that allows injustice to persist. Athletes do not necessarily take a knee to protest the shooting of a Black man in the back while fleeing from police, but that the shooting evidenced the attitude that his life had no value.
In some way we are all products of our historical narrative. White Americans borrow from the story of our founding—the heroic fight for independence, the taming of the frontier, the great builders, scientists, explorers, financiers, and political giants of our history. Our personal narratives are drawn from the stories of those who went before us from which are derived our aspirations. But Americans seem to take inherited pride in what is good about America without feeling the inherited shame about what is bad about America. We internalize our heroes as if selectively borrowing from their DNA. Thomas Jefferson was a political giant and author of our founding documents, but he owned slaves. He seemed remorseful, or at times even guilt-ridden, but with the exception of his enslaved offspring he never freed his slaves. Jefferson, like America, never adequately atoned for his sins.
I always wonder what young Black children borrow from others in formulating their narrative. While White children borrow virtue from a pantheon of American and European heroes, African American children view history through a lens of slavery, oppression, and the lash. The Black heroes are those who resisted oppression, thereby affirming the very narrative of their oppression. How can the American mythology that is so healthy for young White children serve young Black children whose self-regard is constrained by that very mythology? Frederick Douglass said that two hundred years of slavery had taught Blacks to respect White people and to despise themselves—a bitter legacy from which to borrow a healthy image.
If Black and White are ever going to treat each other as equals and co-exist in relative harmony, then Whites must understand the Black experience. We must be taught to share our common heritage even while one of us was a victim of that heritage. In learning and acknowledging our history there must inevitably arise some mutual understanding. Whites must be made to understand why life has indeed conferred upon them a relative advantage. They must be made to understand the history of brutality and humiliation visited upon Black America and hopefully give sincere if grudging respect to those who have endured it. James Baldwin in his Notes of a Native Son writes,
“I can conceive of no Negro native to this country
Who has not, by the age of puberty, been irreparably scarred
By the conditions of his life…
The wonder is not that so many are ruined But that so many survive.”
If we are to ever understand our nation, its virtues and its vices, we must read Baldwin. We must read Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Ida B. Wells, and the scores of Black intellectual leaders whose vivid perspectives on Black lives have been quieted by historical neglect and academic condescension. Our failure to do so diminishes us and ensures that the perils of our racial estrangement will endure, forever leaving to our children the legacy of a divided America—never free, never equal, never a great nation.”