By Ted Wachtel
As a white American, I have never quite understood what it’s like to be black in America. However, I have an African-American friend whom I first met after she had moved to Mexico. She explained:
“I feel like I’m in an abusive relationship with America. I left the United States because I wanted to live in a place where I felt valued and affirmed. So much death. Blood-clotted soil soaks the land of my birth.”
Today I came across an interview with Jon Stewart, the former Daily Show host, who had some profound things to say after the murder of George Floyd:
“I’d like to say I’m surprised by what happened to him, but I’m not. This is a cycle, and I feel that in some ways, the issue is that we’re addressing the wrong problem. We continue to make this about the police — the how of it. How can they police? Is it about sensitivity and de-escalation training and community policing? All that can make for a less-egregious relationship between the police and people of color.”
“But the how isn’t as important as the why, which we never address. The police are a reflection of a society. They’re not a rogue alien organization that came down to torment the black community. They’re enforcing segregation. Segregation is legally over, but it never ended. The police are, in some respects, a border patrol, and they patrol the border between the two Americas.”
Some of my white friends, none of whom would see themselves as “racist,” would resist this description. But if we haven’t experienced the subtle or not-so-subtle humiliations that black Americans experience, we whites will struggle to understand why African-Americans are not more appreciative of “this great country of ours, the progress it has made in expanding civil rights and the opportunities America has given them.”
Another black friend moved to a small, almost exclusively white town. Every few days, he was stopped by the local “border patrol” for the archetypal crime of “driving while black.” Racial profiling is justified by police because a black face behind the steering wheel is inherently suspicious in a white community. To the town’s credit, when the problem was brought to the attention of the mayor, my friend was no longer stopped.
I cite the story because it illustrates Jon Stewart’s characterization of the police “border patrol” role. ”We have that so that the rest of us don’t have to deal with it. Then that situation erupts, and we express our shock and indignation. But if we don’t address the anguish of a people, the pain of being a people who built this country through forced labor — people say, ‘‘I’m tired of everything being about race.’’ Well, imagine how [expletive] exhausting it is to live that.”
That’s why my black friend moved to Mexico. Of course, Mexico has its own problems. But for the first time, she lives in a place that hardly notices her color, where she can just be her own self without stigma. There are those who would criticize her for a lack of love for America—but I think her domestic violence metaphor helps us better understand. She loves her country of birth almost too much, but refuses to return until the abusive behavior ends.