Why I have known for most of my life that we have serious unresolved racial issues in our society

Maybe we ought to do this with our hands and ears a little more often. Maybe even our hearts. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.
Maybe we ought to acknowledge there is a gap between us. Maybe each of us should reach out with our ears. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

The first time I realized we had racial problems in the U.S. was way back when I was in elementary school.

If I can share my thoughts here without getting tons of hate poured on my head, I will have more to say. If you think this is somehow related to what we have seen in the news this month, you are absolutely correct. Mine is such a tiny, insignificant voice, yet I must speak.

What little I can offer you is one recollection from childhood, brief news reports while in college, and one news report while on active duty.

Take the stories however seriously you wish. Discount them or ignore them or explain them away if you want.  If it is your choice to do so, impute terrible ignorance to me that these feeble stories are what little I have to share. Assume about me whatever you will and paste on me any label you prefer.

So you can put this article into context, please know I am white, male, born into a middle-class family, currently living a middle-class life, and run my own small business. You will shortly be able to estimate my age.

You might want to get a fresh cup of coffee – this will be a long read.


Sir, can you call a cab for me?

We lived in a suburb of Wichita, Kansas when I was in elementary school. Don’t recall when this particular event happened, but think it was back in 2nd or 3rd or 4th grade, which would have been the early or mid-’60s. Yes, I know that means you can now calculate my age within a few years. Reason to estimate the timing is so you can put the incident into some sort of context. Think the 1960s.

My family was leaving a grocery store when a woman approached my dad. I remember her as being older (at least to the eyes of a youngster), rotund, black, and with inflection in her voice so thick that any three consecutive words she spoke would have immediately identified her race.

This was back when the taxi companies had call boxes on the wall of grocery stores so you could pick up the handset, connect directly to the cab company without dialing, and ask for a ride.

The woman asked my dad if he would call a cab for her.

I distinctly remember thinking at the time that she knew the cab would never show up if she made the call.

Even though I was a youngster with no knowledge of the world outside my family, I instinctively knew there was a serious problem. Some time later, I realized it was painful experience that taught her the taxi would never show up if she asked for a ride. I also knew it was because the dispatcher would easily identify her race.

I also remember my dad, without hesitation, politely and graciously making the phone call for her.


Such clumsy criminal suspects

I graduated from the University of Maryland, attending the College Park campus in Prince George’s County, a suburban county immediately north and east of Washington, D.C. Commuted to campus during all four years of college.

My family lived in Montgomery County, another suburb area to D.C.  That’s where the white, middle-class government workers lived. Prince George’s County at the time was more working-class and heavily African-American.

I don’t have an exact count for this story. Can’t point to any specific news reports. Won’t try looking up any stories to provide links. Even if my memory is correct and even if these incidents were actually true I can’t provide a shred of evidence to support my assumptions and inferences. You will just have to work with my recollections and evaluate them as you wish.

What I can do is share what I recall and remember thinking at the time.

So what was occasionally in the news during college? (I was just as much a news junkie then as now.)

About once a semester I would hear a brief news report describing how a person in custody would fall down a set of stairs somewhere in PG County. Often the folks involved would claim they were in handcuffs when they took a tumble.

They fell down a set of stairs. Accidentally. While handcuffed. In custody. Under escort.

Yeah, right.

My recollection is the news reports usually did not identify the race of the individual involved, but since the incidents were in PG County, it was an easy guess.

Took about a year or so to sense this wasn’t a one time thing. After that I noticed another report on the air with a frequency something in the range of once a semester. Maybe it was only once a year, but it seemed more often than that.

I remember sarcastically thinking at the time that it’s a shame how criminal suspects in the county were so terribly clumsy, while knowing full well at the time that clumsiness had nothing to do with it. Don’t recall having heard such a story coming out of Montgomery County.

I really do hope those attitudes have changed, if they did exist. Perhaps I read things into the news reports that weren’t there. Possibly my perception at the time was completely wrong. Maybe my recollection is distorted. Conceivably those attitudes I inferred didn’t even exist. Maybe in a county with a population of around 700,000 people at the time, occasional accidents on stairs are statistically expected.

The ache in the pit of my stomach is because it’s my guess that my recollections are in fact correct, my interpretations at the time were actually accurate, and frequency of such incidents has not dropped to zero per decade.


Cirrhosis of the liver as the leading cause of death

While on active duty after college I was stationed in Rapid City, South Dakota. While there, I heard one report on the news which disturbed me at the time and has left me sad ever since.

The report indicated the leading cause of death for minorities in the state was cirrhosis of the liver.

Let me translate that for you. Death from cirrhosis of the liver means you were such a hard drinker for so many decades that the booze eventually killed you.

You drank yourself to death.

In South Dakota minority means American Indian. Specifically the Sioux people group. Lakota to be more precise. Think Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Yeah, those Sioux.

Let me put that together for you. Somewhere around 1980 plus or minus a year or so (yeah, yeah, I know I’m dating myself again) the leading cause of death for members of the Lakota Sioux was drinking themselves to death.

If that doesn’t make you weep, let me explain it again.

Ponder the hurt from burying grandma or grandpa or your favorite uncle a few decades earlier than needed. Ponder the unnecessary increase in domestic violence. Imagine how many other deaths from traffic collisions are actually due to alcohol abuse. If you are an epidemiologist or economist, calculate the unnecessary amount of Productive Years of Life Lost.

If you’re still not sad, consider the shredded dreams, lost hope, wide-spread despair, and wasted skills from so many folks having so little opportunity that they drink to extreme excess.

What an incredible, unnecessary waste. So much needless suffering. I previously discussed the foolishness of all that Waste back in 2012.

What are the recent stats?

Poked around a bit and found the following information in the 2014 South Dakota Vital Statistics report. The mortality section can be found here. Table 46 on page 59 reports South Dakota Resident Leading Causes of Death by Race, 2014.

The fourth leading cause of death in 2014 for American Indians in South Dakota is “chronic liver disease and cirrhosis.” The top three causes are heart disease, cancer, and accidents. For the year, 59 deaths out of a total 562 were due to cirrhosis of the liver.

In 2008, the oldest data on the website, Table 55 on page 61 reports the same relationships – heart disease, cancer, and accidents are the top three. Number four is chronic liver disease and cirrhosis.

For whites, cirrhosis is not in the top 10 causes of death in either 2008 or 2014. For American Indians, it was number 4 both years.

By the way, this article will not try to reconcile my recollection of cirrhosis as the leading cause of death back in around 1980 to the official statistics reporting cirrhosis being in fourth place in 2008 and 2014.

Why this destruction from alcohol?

A dozen doctoral students could write a full dissertation with none of them overlapping on the causes. That doesn’t matter. Something is wrong here. Probably a lot of things are horribly, terribly, wastefully, destructively wrong which lead to drinking as a major cause of death amongst the Lakota Sioux.

Take all those possible reasons and weave them into whatever patchwork you wish and you will realize one dominant thread running throughout the tapestry is race.

For several decades my heart has been broken because of that statistic.


Is there a problem?

So, do we have race problems below the surface of life in the U.S.?

Yup. Sure do.

I’ve realized something was terribly wrong since I was a child.

Have the problems gone away since I was a kid or since I graduated from college?

Nope. ‘Fraid not.


What do you think?

Comments are welcome, though moderated. Comments that cross the line of reasonableness, as determined solely by me, won’t get approved.

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