This is not St. Louis, I said.
It was August 2014, and I was driving to work. For a few days, images of militarized lines of police backed by armored vehicles staring down black protesters on the streets of Ferguson had been burned into the national psyche.
Gov. Jay Nixon was slow to respond. Peaceful, black protesters faced cops with semi-automatic weapons and dogs. It was the 1960s, and yet it was today, in the post-racial America envisioned by the nation’s first black president.
I turned on my audio recorder on my phone as I made my daily drive from West County to downtown. I was angry and self-righteous.
This is not St. Louis, I said, imagining we were better than that. This is not America, I pleaded. The words would later be paired with the Pulitzer Prize-winning photos of the Post-Dispatch staff for a video editorial that I thought imagined a better St. Louis. A better America.
Three years later, I realize I got it wrong.
It started with a tweet. As Nazi-wearing white supremacists took to the streets of Charlottesville, Va., armed to the hilt like the full-bore terrorists they are, I sought once again to condemn such actions from my comfortable position of white privilege.
“The ugly racism and hate being displayed by white supremacists in #Charlottesville is pure evil,” I wrote on the social media platform Twitter. “This cannot be the new normal in America.”
Almost immediately I felt some backlash from my black followers, many of whom I came to know — either personally or through social media — through reporting and writing on Ferguson and the changed racial landscape in St. Louis since then.
“This is not the new normal,” wrote one person. “This is the U.S. Don’t try to change the historical narrative.”
“New normal?” wrote another. “Ain’t nothing new here!”
It was Washington University associate professor Jason Purnell who really opened my eyes.
“America isn’t better than this,” Purnell wrote. “America is this. America CAN be better than this if we finally face that fact.”
I met Purnell several months before Ferguson. He was unveiling to the world his groundbreaking “For the Sake of All” project that presaged much of what I have learned about race and America in the past few years. The project identifies an America divided by race and ZIP code. Through health outcomes, it paints a picture of an America where if you are poor and black and live in north St. Louis or Ferguson or Dellwood or Cool Valley you will die younger than if you happened to be born just a few miles away, in Clayton, in Ladue, in Wildwood, where I live and rear my children.
It’s science but it’s more than that. It’s the clearest picture I’ve ever seen of what the phrase “lived experience” means. It means that for people of color in America, the hoods of the KKK never left, they just manifested themselves in different ways. It means that when I’m offended by Nazis openly marching with militarized weapons on an American street, when white men chanting racist garbage while carrying torches through an American college campus make me sick, when I see those things as something new, then I haven’t been looking hard enough.
When the president of the United States, Donald Trump, can’t even bring himself to condemn such God-awful displays of racism and outright treason on American soil, this is not something that can be written off to “extremists” or a broken political system. This is America. It’s an America that allowed Republicans to gut voting rights protections so that black voters would have a more difficult time voting on election day. It’s an America in which a black lawyer in Jefferson City is not allowed to testify against a bill that makes it easier to discriminate in Missouri against people of color because a white Republican doesn’t want to be bothered by talk of the long-past “Jim Crow” era. It is an America in which white elected officials in both parties, and their donors and alumni, brought the University of Missouri to heel after black students and faculty stood up for their rights, and demanded change.
Those who sought to minimize the experience and voices of black student leaders might as well have marched through the campus with torches.
America and all of its halls of power, right now, from the White House to Mizzou’s Jesse Hall, is the very definition of systematic oppression that former University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe struggled to define before the protests of the Concerned Student 1950 group forced his resignation.
For three years, I’ve written columns and editorials intending to raise awareness of racial divisions in St. Louis and America, and yet it took Charlottesville for me to understand that I was often getting the key underlying issue completely wrong.
Charlottesville is America. For far too many Americans, we are not better than this, and we never have been. The arc of American history has much more bending to do before justice even enters the frame.