Portland protest digs up roots of racial unrest

For many, the Black Lives Matter protest two Fridays ago in Portland triggered a sharp pang of racial discomfort—a feeling as if the tide of racial unrest had spilled over onto the piers and wharf of Portland Harbor.

Because racial issues are getting more exposure, many people perceive that racism is getting worse and that a great racial chasm has grown between whites and blacks in recent months and years. That’s not the case, but because of the power of social media, conversations about race have widened and entered nearly everyone’s home through their computers and cell phones, exposing them to opinions which challenge their own viewpoints.

The sad reality is that we’ve been here before, and we seem bound to repeat history. Racism is not a hashtag or trend but rather it’s inherent to the fabric of our country.

These divisions have always existed. Police harassment and violence have always been fixtures in black neighborhoods. White people have always made disparaging jokes and comments about blacks. And politicians and demagogues have always used these tensions for personal and political gain.

What’s actually happening right now is that a veil is being lifted, uncovering the social and structural roots of racial disparities yet again. It’s part of a tradition within the pursuit of black freedom. From the slave riots of 16th and 17th centuries, to the March on Washington, black Americans have sought to free themselves of the institutions, stereotypes, and discrimination that impede their growth.

Today, a rediscovery of this tradition is taking place among young black folks who grew up hearing stories of the Civil Rights Movement. Now able to draw a straight line from the struggles of their parents and grandparents to the challenges they personally face today, they are no longer staying silent.

And just as revolutionaries did in the Civil Rights Movement, activists in the struggle for black freedom are once again facing opposition from whites who are too scared or too unaffected to stand up. (Not to mention those few who actually, actively believe in the notion of white supremacy.)

Gallup polls from the early ’60s bear very familiar patterns of complicity in the face of racial injustice.

Sixty percent of respondents then thought that mass demonstrations by black people would hurt the cause; sixty-one percent of those polled disapproved of the Freedom Riders; and seventy-three percent thought that blacks should stop their demonstrations.

We all know now what absurd positions these were to take, but for some, applying the lessons of the past is difficult when looking at today’s racial challenges.

These polls prove that silence is often preferred over critical examination of lives of the oppressed. When uncomfortable issues of race bubble up from the sub-conscience of the nation, many whites prefer to put their heads in the sand.

In many ways, we have come a long way since the 1960s but in many more important ways, we have not. This is why the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are still so relevant today.

“First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;’ who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

As Dr. King explained, one does not have to ascribe to the tenets of the Ku Klux Klan or the Aryan Brotherhood to perpetuate and contribute to the racial divide. We will not move forward past this current wave of racial unrest in Maine or across the country unless we decentralize white criticism and the feelings of fear, shame, anger, frustration, helplessness, and guilt—and lift up the very real, lived experiences of black people.

We should learn from the past and remember that affirmation and advocacy of the oppressed leads to more freedom and justice for everyone. Cries and demands for fairness and equality do not cause violence and unrest—it’s is those who stay silent who have a larger hand in the chaos.

Photo via Heidi J. Vierthaler.

About Teddy Burrage

Avatar photoTeddy Burrage is a Portland native and local activist. He was formerly a congressional intern and organizer with the Portland Racial Justice Congress. Teddy hopes contribute to positive change in Maine by promoting social justice and civic engagement.

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