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Love, drugs and Charles Barkley: healing racial tensions

| Thursday, December 11, 2014

Martin Luther King, Jr., writing in his book “Strength to Love,” declared this beautiful sentiment: “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Hate tears down society with a voracity unmatched by any other human desire, yet Dr. King presents a genuine and profound answer to one of humanity’s great challenges: fight hate with love.

In the wake of the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Gardner, Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin, our nation has struggled with a fiery and often divisive debate over police brutality, racism, bias, privilege and institutional injustice. Often, emotional leaders fight fire with fire, producing an inferno of tribal mentalities that prevents the country from coming together to discuss racial issues.

Both sides of these debates must recognize the failures across the board, whether that be a history of racial profiling and police brutality or a history of needless crime alongside protests. After the tragedies of losing these young men — representing power structures that sometimes abuse authority when fighting crime — our best and only recourse is to come together, learn from our mistakes and forge a future rooted in justice and love.

While we should all welcome the dialogue about race issues, it’s important to do so without demonizing those who may disagree with us. I don’t believe that most people try to be racist or want to have that label thrown at them. In other words, intentions do matter when assigning culpability for perceived slights. With that said, good intentions are no excuse for objectively unethical behavior, and only through discourse that breeds empathy can minorities bring the majority to understand the pain it can cause.

When Charles Barkley sparked controversy in a CNN interview last week, he asserted that it was important to “judge everyone on their own merits [sic].” While this is a worthy goal, it is imperative to understand that this ideal is rarely the case. Everyone holds biases and more often than not, white people get free passes that black people do not receive. Free passes can include having police officers let someone off with a warning, knowing that one’s rights will not be violated on account of race, or a leg-up on job applications.

In fact, these free passes can be so ubiquitous that the majority does not notice it consistently receives the benefit of the doubt. People like Charles Barkley, living in fame and wealth, may not experience any disadvantage in their day-to-day lives. This advantage, whether for the racial majority or the rich and famous, constitutes privilege. In a country where our laws declare that all men and women are created equal, it is our duty to accept this reality and undertake the noble goal of improving it.

Dr. King wrote in the same book: “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” To deny the existence of privilege, even with good intentions, is certainly dangerous. To be clear, don’t conflate the concept of privilege with an accusation of guilt. Rather, acknowledging privilege is an expression of empathy, moving our hearts to experience our neighbor’s pain.

No matter how strongly President Obama and other leaders called for peaceful protests, riots and looting broke out in Ferguson, Missouri. Such unrest reveals the psychology of the oppressed. We have seen the violence that erupts when society will not listen to the grievances of beleaguered groups. The right to speak and demand redress for past wrongs is crucial for a just and fair republic.

Institutional injustice does exist and it is crucial to recognize that fact. Some examples are especially egregious, like the effect of mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes on minorities, particularly African-Americans. Since President Nixon began the War on Drugs in 1970, the penalties for black people have been demonstrably harsher than those for white people. With crack cocaine heavily used in black communities bearing crippling sentences, cocaine used heavily by whites carries significantly lower guidelines.

The Drug War has clearly failed to stem the flow of drugs into the United States as they continue to incapacitate communities and fragment families. Mandatory minimums are a red herring, masquerading as policies that are “tough on crime.” Rather than address American Medical Association research concluding that addiction is a disease that requires treatment, the federal government continues to spend substantially more money on enforcement than treatment. We are unmistakably missing an opportunity to rehabilitate drug users — predominantly African-Americans — into society, as well as address the horrible circumstances that lead individuals into drug use, including trauma, mental illness and abject poverty.

Institutional injustice and bias also manifest themselves on our campus. Our fellow students have worked hard to document their struggles as minorities through the “I, Too, Am Notre Dame” campaign and various “Show Some Skin” monologues. It is not uncommon for minorities to feel singled out, judged or unwelcome. While we may not, as a community, intend for this to occur, it is a reality regardless. As a result, it is our obligation to reach out and welcome all of our classmates. This shared duty will require some of us to become more cognizant of how insensitive words and actions betray an ignorance of diverse backgrounds and adjust accordingly.

Dr. King brought an extraordinary witness to the national discussion of race issues, preaching peace and love alongside change and civil disobedience. He stretched the hearts of the American people, allowing them to look beyond their own experience to feel the experience of his or her neighbor. Today, racial issues still exist in different forms and we must come together, stretch our own hearts and set new goals together to uphold justice and spread love.

 

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Dan Sehlhorst

Dan Sehlhorst is a junior studying economics and political science. Hailing from Troy, Ohio, and a resident of Zahm House, he looks forward to conversation about his columns and can be contacted at dsehlhor@nd.edu

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  • Catherine

    “don’t conflate the concept of privilege with an accusation of guilt”
    ^^^^^thank you!!

    Other relevant, but often unmentioned quotes by Reverend King:

    “It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.”

    “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”