In the wake of the "uprising" which occurred in Los Angeles in response to the Rodney King verdict in 1992, I was a 22 year old college senior one semester away from graduating. It was April/May 1992 and most of my friends whom I started college with were finishing up their final semester. At this time, my college was on the trimester system meaning we did not finish until the beginning of June, as opposed to some other schools who were finished in early May. Consequentially, we were in the midst of classes, partying and once the verdict and ensuing violence began, panic.
I vividly remember my roommate at the time, a white brother from near Chicago, who immediately went down to the reconciliation meetings which took place at a South Central Church. His roommate was a bit apprehensive. Being a Black man in his early 20s, regardless of my impending college degree, I was afraid of getting caught up in the mix. I believed that although there were well intentioned Black folk doing good work down there, I didn't think that the combination of my...being an outsider and being Black was a good mix. I struggled with this decision to stay "safe" on campus while my college community was quick to respond.
Another friend of mine, one who was associated with a religious organization on campus which was always performing service, was also quick to respond with a broom, garbage bags and the like to help in the clean-up efforts. She loaded up her car with as many friends as she could and proceeded down into the fray, unafraid and in my opinion heroic. Unfortunately her family did not see it the same way and she was "requested" to return her car to her mother because her mother did not want her daughter in harms way. As a new dad I can understand her mother's anguish, but would not have responded in the same manner. Her daugher was doing what she was taught, not just at our liberal arts college, but through her faith. She was performing God's work.
As I reflect on the 20 years since the King verdict, I am trying to look critically at where we've come - how far we have come. Obviously race relations have changed, but to what degree? Not only has America grown over the past 20 years - see OJ trial in the same city a few years later, the increase in the number of Black politicians and police chiefs (obviously Barack Obama being at the head of that lists), and the number of Blacks who have graduated college and matriculated into the middle class. All of these are signs that things have changed in this country tremendously. However, as the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
For a certain portion of the Black population, things have become increasingly worse. Unemployment and underemployment, persistently violent neighborhoods and schools, hopelessness, anger and yes fear. While many in the middle class of Black folk have been - in the words of the Jefferson's theme, moving on up, but at the same time, we are leaving millions behind. As we increase our educational outcomes, one of the first things we (I'm including myself in this equation on purpose) do is to leave the neighborhood. This leaves the neighborhood left with those who struggle to make ends meet, who do not have the same social and cultural capital and of course the economic and intellectual capital to make a transition.
What is increasingly problematic is the type of persistent deficit thinking that has permeated too many black folk both in the neighborhood AND in colleges and universities.
It is my hope that as we reflect on 20 years after Rodney King and his infamous words “why can’t we all get along?” that we take the time to truly begin to get along. Not just with those who sit on the opposite aisle on the political spectrum, or who are of a different race/ethnicity, gender or otherwise - but most importantly from within.