Opinion: Recent police shootings are ultimate reality check

Being black in America weighs down the soul and crushes the spirit. It is like luggage that gets infinitely heavier as you trek through the airport terminal and you can’t imagine what you packed that could weigh so much.

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For black Americans that weight is the burden of centuries of oppression, state-sanctioned terrorism and legislated discrimination that in current day has been hoisted upon the backs of millions of blacks in all walks of life. That load got a bit heavier after the tragedies in Baton Rouge, Falcon Heights and Dallas.

If you are black you are likely hurt, despondent, numb or angry; or all of those things. Chances are if you are white you might be bothered by recent events but given what I have seen you are probably feeling inconvenienced or bewildered.

The reactions reflect populations with two different realities. Black folks can’t imagine living outside the fear of police intimidation and violence, while white people simply can’t fathom looking upon the police as the enemy. It is a fundamentally different world in which we live within the borders of this country from sea to shining sea.

So, here we are in this post-civil rights moment in a human rights moment. It seems inconceivable that just under 50 years ago when the civil rights movement came to a crushing halt with the assassination of Dr. King, the United States is still mired in the muck of racial discord.

For those of us at the tail end of the movement, who dreamed for better and hoped for even better than our dreams, the sight of black men being executed by police officers shatters any delusion that we will witness equality in our lifetime.

The shooting of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile was the punch in the gut that signaled you’re not going to make it to the final round. It was the ultimate reality check for many of us who had put life on cruise control, hoping we could quietly make it to those twilight years without having to confront the ugliness of blue death.

Now, reluctantly and in disgust we must face the reality that it’s going to be a fight to the grave; an ugly, bitter, enraged and perhaps bloody route to eternity.

Folks in Newark know the struggle is real. Many present-day Newark families have roots in the Great Migration that brought millions of blacks north to escape southern hostilities in the mid-20th century.

Decades later the reality of northern indifference to black humanity would be experienced as Newark’s black community would confront police brutality, being excluded from local government, face discrimination in public schools, have their neighborhoods sacrificed for "urban renewal," and being marginalized in the local labor market.

The inaccurately labeled “riot” of 1967 was the distress of an oppressed people - the public emoting of a community that had been given no other alternative to have their grievances addressed.

Whatever positive exists in Newark today, it has come through black blood, sweat and tears. And whatever the city is destined to become in the future will be dependent upon the work and sacrifice of its black community and its Latino population. This new majority, a reflection of where our nation is heading, will have to shoulder the burden of making whole what racism fragmented.

When I saw the video of Philando Castile, and the eerily and tragically calm demeanor of his fiancée as he lay bleeding and lifeless after a police officer shot him, my thoughts turned to my great-great grandfather and my dad. One of them I only know by historical record and my father by the short 12 years he was in my life before succumbing to cancer. Both were military veterans; my great-great grandfather a Union Army veteran of the Civil War and my father a World War II veteran.

I wondered how they did it. How did they put on that uniform and defend a land that treated them with such disdain and disgust? How did they return to civilian life knowing that they put their lives on the line for liberties for humans abroad and were themselves treated less than human in this country? How did they carry on with the daily drudgeries of life, discriminated against and denied basic human dignity, yet have the conviction to project to their children a hopefulness that was utterly contradictory to the reality of what their offspring would face?

Here I stand, their progeny, and it takes all of my collective strength, every day of every week to not spiral completely out of control and fall prey to the demons that consumed Micah Johnson in Dallas.

We like to pretend that somehow there will be a magical reconciliation of 400 years of national sinfulness. There won’t. Racism is our original sin. America is broken and I am beginning to believe that those who have the tools to fix it simply don’t give a damn. Our institutions are broken. They don’t work and many are now juxtaposed against the humanity of people.

Capitalism is the seducer of the desperate and the betrayer of the vulnerable. The gluttony of our land and the supremacy of materialism has crushed what makes us human – compassion, benevolence and empathy.

We have a leadership cadre in our government that fills up at the self-serve pump and leaves the nation on E while they go on a perpetual joy ride. Yes, this is our nation in 2016. And black people are coming to the realization that hell does exist.

Walter Fields, Jr., the former political director of the New Jersey chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), is the executive editor of NorthStarNews.com, a public affairs website that focuses on the news from an African-American viewpoint.

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