There has been much written of late in the opinion columns and letters to the editor pages in the print media regarding the importance of listening to what the demonstrators against racial injustice are saying. It’s a topic well worth discussing because there are a number of variables that may affect how well one listens or whether one listens at all. One of these is where and how one was raised and socialized. For example, I grew up in a multi-ethnic, working class neighborhood in a mid-sized northeastern city where blacks were a sizeable percent of the population and I attended an inner city public high school where there was a lot of racial interaction. Believe me, there was plenty of opportunity for conversations about racial inequities, probably a lot more opportunity for such discussions than one might have had growing up in, say, an affluent town like Coronado, at least until the brutal murder of George Floyd delivered a wake-up call to just about everyone in America with a TV.
I’ve been listening, in fact, since high school days in the 1940’s and college in the early 1950’s and trying, at least in a small way, to do something about racial injustice during 30 years in the Navy, much of it in ships with racially-integrated crews living together in very close quarters while at sea for months at a time. There was plenty of opportunity to listen to each other in that environment. That was followed by 11 years as a human resources executive trying to maintain a diverse workforce and, in retirement, volunteering with community service organizations like the Lions Club of San Diego and the Boys and Girls Foundation which have provided many thousands of dollars in grants to organizations including those providing services to underprivileged adults and children of color.
I lived through the riots of the 1960’s following the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy and I listened then, unlike younger generations who may just be awakening to these issues for the first time. Some changes resulting from the events of the 1960’s and 1990’s were made but they weren’t nearly enough to stamp out racial injustice. Younger people who weren’t alive back then ask me what it was like and I tell them it was a lot like what we’re experiencing today. Back then there was a huge income gap between whites and blacks. There still is. Median white households today have a net worth of just over $170,000, about 10 times that of blacks. There are many reasons, perhaps, but racial injustice is one of them. This time, things have to change and they have to be sufficient. This time I hope everyone is listening.
There are, however, impediments to effective listening. One of them is background noise. Sometimes people shout so loudly at one another or at everyone in general that nobody can really understand them. Sometimes the language is so filthy and vulgar that you may not even want to. Sometimes the slogans are a turnoff like “Silence is Violence.” There are a lot of people out there willing to help that may not do a lot of talking about it. Talk is cheap. Actions speak louder than words. Some people who shout slogans and carry signs have little in the way of ideas or solutions except to defund the police which would turn cities into disaster zones and impact minority neighborhoods hardest.
Some apparently feel that to condemn the violence including the looting, arson and vicious attacks, some fatal, against innocent persons is evidence of failure to listen. But the victims of these crimes, many of them blacks, deserve to be listened to, also. And these actions do need to be condemned because they subvert the purpose of the demonstrations which is righteous. And the notion that violence is a form of speech, necessary to shock people into action, a popular notion on some college campuses, is simply wrong. For the first time in my eight decades of living, this movement actually has the attention of everyone with a working brain who isn’t living in a cave. Finally, violence does not work to promote a cause. Dr. King taught us that. It hardens hearts. It promotes fear. Behavioral scientists know that the resultant stress often produces a “fight or flight” response where people fight change or just run away from the problem. We’re already seeing an exodus from many large cities.
There are huge problems facing African Americans including insufficient job opportunities, poverty, lack of affordable housing in safe communities, health care and inadequate schools to mention only some. If you are not in a position to help in these areas, consider donating to organizations that can. Join a service club like the Lions, a great way to give back to the community and those who are underserved. Consider mentoring black youth or contributing to scholarship funds. It is indeed important to listen but even more important to act.
Dr. Kelly is a freelance writer living in Coronado. A retired Navy Captain, he commanded three San Diego-based ships and a research and development center and taught ship handling, seamanship and navigation at Naval Base San Diego. He earned his doctorate in education at USD, taught graduate students and was a senior vice-president and director of training and development at Great American Bank. He has written over 1500 newspaper and journal articles and has been a regular contributor to the Eagle&Journal since 2001.