Racism is not solely an American phenomenon, but we have a special relationship with it. It has been a central feature of ours from the very beginning; it is inextricable from our institutions and our character. One could even say, without irony, that racism is America’s oldest, most valuable business partner.
Lowlights of our centuries-old relationship with racism include the genocide committed against this continent’s indiginous peoples and the systematic theft of their land; state-sanctioned reliance on chattel slavery to establish and develop our economy; and the post-Emancipation enactment of numerous laws designed to deny or insidiously undermine Black Americans’ status as human beings deserving of equal rights, protections under law, and fair access to economic opportunities.
Such policies made America. The moral principles and frameworks that legitimized them are the same that birthed our founding, and many subsequent, laws and codes. Far from being a painful relic of a less civilized era, these ancient injustices continue apace today, albeit in altered form, to ensure the ongoing subjugation of Black people in America.
Each generation of American political leaders has played a role in advancing institutional racism in manners befitting, and reflective of, the anxieties of the White ruling classes: Reconstruction Era policies that reneged on promises of reparations for freed Black Americans and indulged the revanchist impulses of former slave owners and their ilk; Jim Crow laws; New Deal codifications of housing discrimination; “Urban Renewal”; the War on Drugs; Welfare Reform and the Crime Bill; No Child Left Behind; etc.
These various political actions have not only materially disadvantaged Black Americans through time, they have fostered the concomitant maintenance of mainstream prejudices and attitudes about Black people that would hold them as inherently inferior -- i.e., deserving of the various politically engineered social, economic, and even physical maladies that disproportionately affect them in American society.
The pursuit of material wealth has been the guiding force of human history, and especially so in America. Amusingly, we peddle a myth that because we do not have a monarchy, or a caste system, or an oligarchy (ahem), or a planned economy, anyone can be wealthy here if only they work hard enough. The moral center of this myth -- weaponized Puritanism -- is that each of us is solely responsible for the material outcomes of our life and deserving of what we get, good or ill.
In fact, we know that the material circumstances, and even the very ZIP code, into which one is born are strongly predictive of the socioeconomic status “outcome” of one’s life; in other words, odds are that you will remain roughly as well or as badly off as you were when you were born. This (among other things, including common sense) further reveals the existence of a class system in America that suppresses social mobility and exerts an inexorable, if not omnipotent, influence over the material circumstances of our lives. It indicates that the various institutions of the United States are pitched heavily in favor of the wealthier classes’ efforts to consolidate their fortunes -- just like in the monarchies, planned economies, and oligarchies we of the mainstream deride.
One imagines that a society actually invested in the ideal of equitably fostering the talents of all its people, regardless of the station of their birth, would organize its systems so at the very least, every child is provided with everything they need to thrive, self actualize, contribute the fruits of their talents to society, and reap the benefits in kind.
The meritocracy myth is particularly insidious -- and effective -- in the ways it serves to justify the ongoing subjugation of Black Americans: if the conditions of our lives are entirely of our own making, then there must be something wrong with “those people” who, collectively, haven’t benefited from the American bounty as other groups have. “Those people” must be uniquely lesser and undeserving. “Those people” who disproportionately end up under the boot or knee of a police officer, or on the receiving end of a taser or nightstick or bullet, or in prison, surely must have done something to invite such treatment.
The perpetual motion machine of racist attitudes providing cover for racist policies that reinforce racist attitudes afresh is baked so deeply into our system that one wonders if otherwise well-meaning Americans truly understand the lengths we must go to if we are to actually confront and dismantle institutional racism. The first obstacle, it should be noted, is that racism is highly profitable, with interests on flip sides of the issue rather highly invested in (consciously or otherwise), and handsomely rewarded for, the status quo: there is a lot of money to be made in holding the boot to Black Americans’ necks, and so too is there a lot of money to be made in nominally anti-racist book sales, diversity and inclusion workshops, and woke advertising campaigns for big brands.
That we have kept alive our special, profitable relationship with racism for 400 years and counting is an indictment of our national character; but it is perhaps inevitable and unsurprising given the nature of our state religion and its insatiable need for exploitation (read: human sacrifice). Destroying racism, or at the very least rooting out the conditions that perpetuate it, will require us to rethink our ideals, fundamentally restructure our institutions, and distribute new resources. Are we willing to expand and render universally inclusive our concepts of justice and human rights? Do we have it in us to imbue our social, economic, and political systems with those renewed humanistic ideals?
As long as Black people are made to be the scapegoat for America’s myriad social problems, White Americans will fight to keep them out of their neighborhoods, institutions, and clubs -- out of sight, wherever that may be. Our laws, our culture, our very nation is designed to promote and capitalize on the impulse to feel superior to others. Until that changes, our society will remain marked by inequality, injustice, alienation, segregation, and, yes, racism.
I'm not going to surmise what it feels like to be a Black person in this country, because that would be hollow and performative. But I will say that I know that one can only take so much of being pushed before they push back. It is normal and healthy to do so. It is the spark of life refusing to be snuffed out.
Black Lives Matter.
I get anxious when I write negative things about people, and this article was no exception. But, it's the truth. Here it is.
Entitled, "Amed Rosario is getting better at just the right time." Dig it.
On a recent Tuesday, I rode the Amtrak into Philadelphia and met up with my soul-brother and fellow life traveler, Dave, for a trolliday. For the uninitiated, trollidays are days set aside for the express purpose of riding trolleys and trains, among other things. And since this is Dave I'm talking about, and since Dave is a man who means business when it comes to his trolleys, and since Dave's and my friendship is marked by soaring conversation that covers all ground, this trolliday promised to be an especially special one indeed. (They all are, really.)
And so it was.
Dave and I met at work nearly 14 years ago and immediately built a strong rapport, but I would argue that the crucible of our deep and lasting friendship — the one that transcended the temporary circumstance of working in the same office building — was a day trip we took together to Philadelphia sometime in late 2005 or early 2006: the first trolliday. Dave's and my shared enthusiasm for trains and passion for public transportation are what initially signaled our camaraderie to each other and inspired the trip to Philly -- which, importantly, is a city with street cars.
We took the Amtrak out of Penn Station and disembarked at Trenton, whereupon we scampered across the platform to the River Line, which we rode down to Camden. I lived in Queens at the time, and it was my first trip from NYC down and across New Jersey to the Philadelphia metropolitan area. I vividly remember being struck by the impossible speed our train seemed to achieve between Newark and Trenton. And I remember the River Line taking us right down the middle of the street -- through an old median — in a quaint little town somewhere in Southern New Jersey. I felt like I was a character in a diorama, or in some sort of living, moving time capsule.
I had never ridden a trolley before Dave took me aboard one of the PCCs that serves Philadelphia. Dave, who is native to the Boston area, had grown up with them; the sound of a PCC trolley clanking and screeching along its tracks is part of the formative soundtrack of his life. I had recently grown fascinated by the history of trolleys in smaller towns like the one I grew up in near Binghamton, New York, but they were an abstraction for me; they were long gone by the time I was born, as was, in fact, passenger rail service of any kind to any part of Western and Central New York's so-called Southern Tier, which stretches along the state's Pennsylvania border. The experience of being on the trolley jogged loose a childhood memory of noticing, rapt, the half-buried remains of a trolley track in the crumbling asphalt at the end of my street.
I mused then, as I have many times since, and many times since with Davey, not incidentally, what our communities might look and feel like today if our once-prodigious intra and inter-urban rail networks hadn't been dismantled (with practically zero input from the communities they served, at that). How might they have informed urban and suburban design? How might they have supported our sense of connection and community? How might they have facilitated our ease of mobility, literally and socially and economically? We'll never know.
Dave and I have covered that ground, righteously, many times in the years that have passed since that first trolliday. We each have an idea, he and I, about what sorts of structures and institutions constitute a fair and rational society — one that puts people at its center as the guiding concept. As jacked up as much of the world is and seems today, I see signs everywhere that there are many who share our sensibility. Dave in particular has a knack for drawing people out and attracting to himself, kismet as his guide, the sorts of people who talk about these very same things -- and, in many cases, do extraordinary things about them. It's as if word has gotten out about trollidays, to which I say, good.
As I said, we took our most recent trolliday recently, and in essence, we are unchanged since our first. Laugh lines are deeper, perhaps, and gray hair is slowly asserting itself upon our heads, but we are unchanged. This is life, viewed through the lens of two laughing soul-brothers. The world we envision is ripe for the picking. There remain plenty of fights to fight; we will fight them, and we will win. And we will eat our fill and enjoy the hell out of ourselves along the way.
Life is better with a friend who can lift and inspire and make you laugh, and with whom you can enjoy and appreciate — whatever it happens to be. Davey is my friend, and my soul-brother. Here's to our next trolliday.