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Tuesday, July 12, 2016

How We Got to the Brink of Civil War, and How to Stop It

My wife related a disturbing story to me about a ride with an Uber driver late last week. The gentleman behind the wheel was black, and a Navy veteran, so he and my wife had at least two things in common.

They discussed current events, and as he drove the late-model luxury sedan to my wife’s office he told her that he shared the anger of young black men in the streets, because the white Republicans, driven by the racist Tea Party, had never given our black president the chance to govern.

What my wife found disturbing is that this man, whose circumstances were so different from some of the people rioting in the streets, and who had lived through the integrating, uplifting experience of service in the armed forces, could believe that his countrymen were racist.

It compounded the frustration she feels when she opens Facebook and sees the chest-beatings of her fellow Harvard alumni, pouring out white guilt or fulminating against The Man. As if they had any real reason to believe it.

I’ve learned to ignore a lot of that, because I’m used to the idea that people often arrive at their deeply held political beliefs for purely psychological reasons.

It is very unlikely that an educated black person, for example, will encounter the virulent racism many believe, or assume, happens all the time. Ta-Nehisi Coates, who writes about the persistence of racism in America, admitted in an interview with Playboy that he personally has never been called the N-word — by a white person — in his life.

But as the late Benedict Anderson explained, national identity is often forged by shared imagination and shared media, and what is being imagined today, in common, can have very real consequences.

The people facing off against police on highways in Atlanta and Oakland may never have had any kind of negative experience with police — indeed, they share an implicit trust that the police will let them protest, even illegally — and yet they are forging a new political identity that can create its own reality.

How did we get here?

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