Here is a story that tells you where America stands as far as tolerance and individual liberty goes: James Craig Anderson, a 49-year-old auto plant worker, was standing beside his car on a Sunday morning in Jackson, MS, when up drove two carloads of teenagers, who had spent the night drinking. The teens "allegedly" got out of their vehicles and proceeded to pummel this man, and then, when he tried to stagger back to his car, ran him over with a pickup truck and drove away.
The kids are white; Mr. Anderson was black. Was, because he is now a corpse, bereft of life and of any conceivable identity that could be assigned to him that would have any meaning other than deceased. He was a living, breathing man, American citizen, worker, brother and son. Assigned by the Constitution of the United States his inalienable rights to personal liberty, he had those rights stripped from him in a brutal and callous fashion, by unfeeling, uncaring, bigoted white teenagers. Allegedly. In the vernacular that we must adopt as outlined in that same Constitution, one is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, and so the crime is "alleged" to have occurred. Of course, the Founding Fathers never envisioned video tape or digital recordings.
The whole crime was caught on surveillance video. In sordid detail.
There is still the formality of trial, and perhaps... perhaps... there could be some exigent circumstances that would invalidate the evidence and rescue the young men charged, but at this point, short of a concerted conspiracy to destroy evidence (futile, given the dissemination of the footage to news outlets), their fate is sealed. Their desire to "mess with some n**grs" -- allegedly their words -- fueled by systemic ignorance, poor education, lack of moral guidance, and accelerated by alcohol, will lead them to a life shut away from the rest of society, with no hope of roaming the wide world ever again.
Details of this will come to light at trial, and the word of law means they must still be considered innocent until a prosecutor proves otherwise, but the event itself, in its gruesome particulars, is not as important as the context the even provides for the nation we currently live in. For some, the election of a black President was some magical signpost, that we had separated ourselves from our bigoted past and broken out into the clearer air of the 21st Century.
We were kidding ourselves.
If anything, we've seen -- by the peppering of the media with indiscreet utterances, inflamed rhetoric, and inappropriate drawings -- the dormant skein of racial dogma running through our society reappear in the tapestry of our everyday lives, dark and dirty threads tracing finger-like through the otherwise beautiful rendering of a nation conceived in liberty. The right to free speech does not mean one must speak, only that one can; spewing forth outmoded and objectionable slurs on a person's race, culture, religion, orientation, etc. is allowed by the First Amendment, but it says nothing about the relative merit of the speech. Those concepts and epithets are no less morally objectionable for having been uttered while cloaked in the Constitution.
The post-racial universe many wanted to live in at the end of 2008 is a construct of wishful thinking and fairy dust. At that moment, perhaps, it existed in the light of President Obama's triumph. That, however, was just a light coating of hope, that melted under the withering heat of reality, as the backlash against a black President began. One event of that magnitude, no matter how promising, could not shatter to indistinct shards a dense agglomeration of bigotry such as humanity has carried with it throughout eons. Chip away at the surface though we may, wear it down through the erosion of human progress, the mass of it remains, seemingly as impermeable as the granitic upthrusts of mountain ranges.
Post-racial America is not around the corner. It may not even lie at the end of this century, or the next. It can only truly take root and drive apart the crevice-strewn mass of negativity slowly, painstakingly. Moments such as this one will prove setbacks, but as surely as the snows of Winter melt away into the cool running waters of Spring, so too will the advance of a decent humanity grind down and break apart these last vestiges of our animal past, freeing us from the poison that is bigotry. I will not live to see it, nor may my children, nor theirs, and so on, but as the rock gives way under such scouring action, we see revealed glimpses of it, visions of a future where no person will look at another save in fellowship. Some day, it will be as commonplace as the wind, and the rain, and the stars. Just not today.