"Race is America's central drama," wrote St. Louis-raised journalist Debra Dickerson in a 2005 essay, "The Great White Way." She describes race as being, historically and currently, "an arbitrary system for establishing hierarchy and privilege" in American society.
That essay appears in an English composition textbook called Acting Out Culture, which I use when teaching college English courses. And since the first day of classes in late August, this semester has been one long production featuring the central drama of race performed under a media spotlight that moves seamlessly from city to city, incident to incident.
Fatal police shootings or choke holds, domestic abuse by professional athletes, accusations of sexual predation, riots, marches, protests, and grand juries; all of these events involved African Americans, both famous and obscure, as victims or perpetrators. And no matter what roles the black actors play, everyone watching in the audience suspects that the outcome with the cops in the street or the verdict in the courtroom would be different if the actors were white.
That's not drama; that's reality.
A 12-year-old white boy with a toy gun would not have been shot dead by police in a Cleveland playground two weeks ago. An unarmed white teenager would not have been shot multiple times by a cop in Ferguson last summer.
How do I know that? It's the same way I know that five white children being held hostage by their crazy, violent white parents would not have been allowed to be burned alive by Philadelphia police and firefighters during the MOVE confrontation on May 13, 1985.
That's perhaps the most unimaginable, extreme example of the racial framework described by Michael Eric Dyson's 2006 book Come Hell or High Water, about New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
"Such a framework, one that weaves white innocence and black guilt into the fabric of cultural myths and racial narratives, is deeply embedded in society and affects every major American institution," Dyson wrote. "Including the media."
In the midst of witnessing Americans acting out culture last week with protests around the nation in the wake of the St. Louis grand jury's decision not to bring criminal charges against the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, I asked my students to imagine what would happen if city police dropped a bomb on a house and allowed it to burn down on top of five black children huddled under blankets in the basement.
They couldn't imagine such a preposterous, unthinkable possibility.
And then I told them the truth about what happened in Philadelphia 30 years ago this spring. I told them about the years of provocation by MOVE members seeking an apocalyptic showdown with police. I told them how MOVE adults got away with murder, figuratively, until frustrated city officials resorted to murder, literally.
MOVE adults had it coming, as far as I'm concerned. But five MOVE children died for their parents' sins. And the citizens of Philadelphia, black and white, averted their eyes and two years later reelected the mayor responsible. Eleven dead. Sixty-one houses burned to ashes. Two hundred and fifty neighbors left without homes and everything inside.
Madness. Anyone who saw it happen remembers it like being at Pearl Harbor on Pearl Harbor Day.
And then what happened? my students asked. There must have been marches, civil disobedience, outrage!
Not so much, I told them. Nobody went to jail. Nobody lost a job. Nobody got docked a day's pay.
Philadelphia simply . . . shrugged.
Think of the timing of the reemergence of decades-old accusations of sexual abuse against Bill Cosby in the midst of multiple, real-time, racially charged and politically explosive incidents that truly illustrate America's ongoing central drama.
If social media can grab national attention and stoke outrage and calls for action against Cosby's alleged sexual sneak attacks decades ago, imagine what that same wired community could do on May 13, 2015, the 30th anniversary of the bombing of Osage Avenue, to remind America of the innocent lives lost.