Straight Outta the USA: Learning to Listen in the Racial Conversation

Tim Libretti, PhD
8 min readMay 17, 2019

The recent surfacing of the video of the 2015 arrest in Texas of Sandra Bland, who later was found dead in her cell, allegedly a suicide, re-told a too-often experienced story in U.S. life: that of police violence against African Americans. The video showed a non-violent and cooperative Bland merely trying to film the episode on her phone, refuting the officer’s version which represented her as threatening his life. The video repeats the story told in the Chicago police department dashcam video featuring Officer Jason Van Dyke’s shooting of Laquan McDonald, which reminded us all once again that Black lives really don’t seem to matter in U.S. society.

Of course, nobody should really need a reminder, right? Haven’t we had enough reminders? Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Amadou Diallo, and on and on. Collectively speaking, (white) Americans have one heck of a short memory, I guess, because with each murder, with every new act of violence against and violation of Black lives, we hear the obligatory call for the need to have a racial conversation in America. And then there’s a lot of talk. A lot of noise. And then we have another murder.

It’s not clear how this whole racial mess in America, by which I mean the unmitigated and unceasing violence against and exploitation of people of color, hasn’t been cleared up. I mean, after African-American Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was wrongfully arrested by police for breaking into his own house in the summer of 2009, President Obama arranged a sit-down between Gates and the white cop who arrested him. The two talked over a beer, exchanged pleasantries, and supposedly had THE conversation, resolving hundreds of years of violence, exploitation, oppression, discrimination, and prejudice against African Americans and other people of color in the United States. It seemed like we had arrived at the Age of Aquarius, with harmony and understanding as well as sympathy and peace abounding.

Yet, while the conversation seems ongoing and unceasing, somehow it never quite seems to get had. The Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1870, granting African American men the right to vote, and somehow in 1965 African Americans and U.S. society at large still found themselves engaged in a struggle to pass a voting rights law to grant citizens rights supposedly they already possessed. Didn’t we have that conversation? Not…

Tim Libretti, PhD

Professor of Literature, Political Economy enthusiast, Dad, always thinking about the optimal world