Downstream, Where They Belong

Unable to sleep any longer, I arose at 3:00 a.m., sat down in front of the computer, and tuned into a couple YouTube videos. Briefly, I thought I’d chosen the two videos randomly. Briefly.

Then the confluence of the two videos became as distinctive and undeniable as a devastating channel cut by storm-fed, tumultuous rivers converging into a monstrous flood of ruin. Nothing directly downstream is spared the mayhem and misery. And those beyond the reach of the tumult blame the postliminary victims for being in the only place afforded them in a society that has little concern for equality and justice.

Past is Indisputably Prologue

The two revelatory videos referred to were 1. a clip from Morning Joe in which former Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough interviewed legendary historian and filmmaker Ken Burns about his upcoming documentary on the Sand Creek Massacre, and 2. a discussion by John Iadarola and Nina Turner about the murder of Ahmaud Arbery on The Damage Report.

In the Morning Joe video, Scarborough, Burns, and several other guests, including Rev. Al Sharpton, assessed the need for our nation to honestly confront its historic woes as well as its wonders and merits. The discussion, unavoidably, examined the obstinate refusal of many Americans to honestly acknowledge any of our nation’s past misdeeds—and the consequent failure to learn from those transgressions.

In the next video, Iadarola and Turner assessed the defense attorneys’ reprehensible tactics in the McMichael trial tied to the murder of unarmed Black man Ahmaud Arbery. No doubt the most egregious and blatantly racist among the many outrageous statements made by the defense attorneys was Laura Hogue’s portrayal of Arbery in this manner: “Turning Ahmaud Arbery into a victim after the choices that he made does not reflect the reality of what brought Ahmaud Arbery to Satilla Shores in his khaki shorts with no socks to cover his long, dirty toenails.”

The blood-soaked path from Sand Creek, Colorado, in 1846, to modern-day Brunswick, Georgia, meanders far and wide across a landscape shaped by at least 157 years of smug denials about the truth of America’s racist undercurrents.

Troubled by Toenails?

What in God’s name do a dead man’s toenails have to do with the guilt or innocence of the men who incontestably killed him?[i] At first glance, the obvious answer is “nothing.” But Hogue’s aim was, of course, to turn the blame from the killers onto their quarry. That less human, animal-like, dark-skinned being with claw-like toenails had no business running through a good, white neighborhood. If the metaphorical flood washed over him, it was his fault for not being downstream, where he belonged—and where the flood could wash him out of their sight and away from their self-centered concerns.

Likewise were the Cheyenne and Arapahoe women and children barely subsisting on that barren spot of ground on the bitter, windswept plains of southeastern Colorado to blame for their slaughter. They, too, no doubt had un-manicured toenails as Colonel Chivington and his bloodthirsty volunteers shot and hacked them to death.

And so, because millions of Americans refuse to acknowledge and learn from the sins of their ancestors, those sins are repeated. The blood-soaked path from Sand Creek, Colorado, in 1846, to modern-day Brunswick, Georgia, meanders far and wide across a landscape shaped by at least 157 years of smug denials about the truth of America’s racist undercurrents.

Greed-Driven Racism

Any nation is an amalgamation and reflection of its individual inhabitants. America reflects the varied characteristics of its diverse population, from magnanimity to indifference to miserliness to unabashed evil. At the base of America’s racism is that equally heinous vice—greed—and a tendency by many to presume a zero-sum economy. “If they get more, I’ll have to pay. Their gain means loss for me. Conversely, their loss is my gain. And because I don’t want to give up any of what I have—and I want even more—I can justify my greed by picturing those others as inferior.”

The red-skinned people who lived in teepees and hunted bison were, by this reckoning, inferior to the white-skinned folks who lived in towns made up of wooden houses and who farmed the land. So it was reasonable to take more and more of the natives’ lands and squeeze those “others” onto pockets of desolate deserts where white folks would never build their wooden houses or seek to farm the unproductive land. And when those red-skinned others objected to their treatment, justifying their slaughter was an easy continuation of the established systemic racism. Nothing new, no lesson to be learned.

So now, in our era, when Ahmaud Arbery—sans a professional pedicure—dared to jog through a privileged white neighborhood, his effrontery had to be challenged. The blame for his death belonged to him, not to the three white men who chased him down and shot him. Nothing new, no lesson to be learned.

For too many Americans, the only lesson here is the old one, carried down through the centuries: he should have remained downstream.

[i] Video plainly reveals the McMichaels killing Arbery; that point is not in contention.