The Fleeting Euphoria of Racial Progress

By David K. Shipler

Again and again, we are cheated. Those of us who celebrate the embrace of justice are allowed elation only for a while. Then the inevitable bigotry awakens from what turns out to be a shallow slumber.

The saga of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle is the latest to lift the mood and then crush it. Their royal wedding in 2018 drew an estimated 1.9 billion viewers worldwide, not only for the splendor but also for the elevation of racial inclusion: a biracial American joining the British royal family, an expansion past ancient limits into the broader world. And how fitting, given the United Kingdom’s increasing racial and ethnic diversity. We were entitled to our euphoria, as naïve as it was.

Barack Obama gave us that, too. On election night in 2008, television screens radiated with tears for the healing of history, notably the streaming eyes of Jesse Jackson, no fan of Obama but a courier of reform. Who will forget his face? But then, the first “black” US president — also biracial — became the target of ugly caricatures and epithets, facilitating the prejudices that Donald Trump rode into the White House eight years later. Euphoria, it seems, is always stalked by hatred: Emancipation by Jim Crow, Obama by Trump, voting rights by voting suppression.

Last year, the murders of blacks by police — nothing new, but now recorded for all to witness — propelled the largest outpouring in history of white Americans demonstrating for racial justice. In big cities and small towns across the country, week after week, whites went with blacks into the streets, driven by the terrible, long video of the white Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin kneeling fatally on the neck of the unarmed black man George Floyd.

Not since the brutality of segregationists against nonviolent civil rights demonstrators in the 1950s and 60s had the conscience of white America been animated so intensely. It was uplifting. It brought a kind of indignant ecstasy, a declaration that Black Lives Matter, meaning of course that black lives also matter, that black lives matter, too, not just white lives, that too often have black lives been seen as not to matter. Pride in this arousal of morality was not allowed to last long enough.

That slogan of decency, “Black Lives Matter,” was immediately devalued by the racially biased right — institutionalized in the Republican Party, in Fox News, in radio shout shows, in social media — which replied, “All Lives Matter,” as if to imply that protesters were saying that only black lives matter. The absurdity struck a chord at the meanest level of bigotry.

Then, too, the looters and arsonists who often flock to disorders put the stamp of violence on the movement for police reform, allowing the Republican right to tarnish the legitimate and generally peaceful protests with the specter of fear. The tactic worked to an extent, helping Republicans in some down-ballot races as all Democrats were smeared with the actions of a few hooligans and the extreme demands of a few radicals.

Now, in the upcoming trial of former officer Chauvin, the country is presented with another opportunity for some measure of satisfaction — not euphoria for sure, but in the case of conviction, at least a thin faith that perhaps, just perhaps, Martin Luther King Jr. was right when he declared, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

And a not-guilty verdict? Or a hung jury? What will that mean for the country’s sense of itself? Precious few police officers are held to account for violence against unarmed citizens. Evidently, we want our cops free to kill. So even a conviction in this one case, which would say that at least one black life mattered, would not stamp out the worm of bias that eats at the foundation of America.

When our fellow citizen, Meghan Markle, ran into the racist buzz saw of the British tabloids, which make fortunes through lies and ridicule, she said she found no support from “the firm,” as insiders call the royal apparatus. Misery and suicidal thoughts drove her and Harry from the gilded cage. Now, factors besides race might have been in play — anti-Americanism, personal chemistry, clashes of style. But race is never absent from the space between blacks and whites, on either side of the Atlantic. Its weight is often hard to measure, but to wish it away is to wish away the centuries of colonialism, slavery, class, the film and literature steeped in stereotyping, the panoply of deep assumptions triggered by the most superficial quality — the color of the skin. Indeed, as Meghan told Oprah Winfrey in this week’s bold interview, there were “conversations with Harry about how dark your baby is going to be and what that would mean or look like.”

“What?” Oprah exclaimed. And in that single word rested our shock, rage, and total lack of surprise.

David K. Shipler is a best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of 7 books and a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times.