The US is still segregated – but is our democracy up to the challenge? | Wynton Marsalis

With the crescendo of public outcry around the killing of George Floyd, I fear there’s little need for another person voicing a commonly held opinion. I also believe that these now commonplace tragedies should be addressed when they happen, not when so much pressure has built up in the system that it must be let out. It is also much more difficult to draw a crowd every day for the sanctioned forms of corruption and disrespect of black Americans that are shouted from countless recordings and videos – and even more powerfully whispered in the form of discriminatory laws, practices and procedures that result in unfair housing and employment practices, and, more tragically, lengthy unjust prison sentences.

Much of this “cacophony of crazy” is executed officiously and with a warm and innocuous smile. Therefore, Americans of all hues pass quickly from anger to acceptance and, as months turn to years, our daily silence and inaction is wilfully misread as endorsement. Then back we go to the illusion that “we’re past this”.

This fully recorded public execution-style killing yet again demands our attention, if we have the slightest remnant of belief in the morality, reason and intelligence required to maintain a libertarian democracy. This killing is so distinctive because of the large size and gentle nature of the man who was killed, because of the smug, patient and determined demeanour of his killer and the other officers protecting the crime in full public view, and because our nation is always attempting to escape its original sin with the loud shouting of other serious, though less egregious, transgressions.

Composer and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.
Composer and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. Photograph: Frank Stewart

As the four decades of my adult life have passed and the US has retreated from the promises of the civil rights movement that my generation grew up believing would substantially improve economic and social opportunities, I have spoken, written, played and composed – almost obsessively – about the toll that American racial injustice has taken on all of us. This has been my response to injustice: Black Codes (1984); Blood on the Fields (1997); All Rise (1999); From the Plantation to the Penitentiary (2006); and The Ever Fonky Lowdown (2019).

But those words, notes and more seem to have been wasted – on gigs, recordings, in classrooms, in prisons, in parks, on TV shows, in print, on radio and from almost any podium from the deep hood to palatial penthouse in cities, towns and suburbs in every region of our country day and night for more than 40 relentless years.

I was walking with my 11-year-old daughter and she asked me: “Did you see the video of the man in Minneapolis?” Yes, I said. I always talk to her about history and slavery and all kinds of stuff that she is not interested in. She asked: “Why did the man just kneel on him and kill him like that in front of everybody?” Instead of answering I asked her a question: “If I went out of my way to squash something that was harmless, and stomped on it to make sure I had killed it, and then looked defiantly at you, as if triumphant – why would I do that?” She said: “You hate bugs.”

I laughed and said: “Let’s say it’s not necessarily a bug, just whatever I go out of my way to destroy. Why would I?” She said, “Because you can.” “Yes, why else?” “Because you want to.” “Yes, but can you think of another more basic reason?” She rolled her eyes: “Just tell me.”

This last reason is almost always left out of the national discussion when these repeated crimes are committed, but it’s never too early to consider the obvious. It seems that, for many, that type of thing is fun. Like them good ole boys in Georgia chasing that brother through the neighbourhood. This type of fun is much older even than America itself.

I considered how different her understanding is of these things, if only because of time, place and experience. During my childhood, raw racism and pure ignorance were just facts, but so was enlightened protest and determined resistance. It was the times, the 1960s going into the 70s. With our afros and the consciousness music of James Brown, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, younger brothers were determined not to put up with any bullshit, unlike our ancestors, who we felt had wilfully endured and accepted disrespect. It was so easy to believe they were acquiescent in their own degradation because we didn’t know anything about the deep sorrow and pain of their lives – they bore it all in silence and disquieting shame. Now, those old folks are long gone, and each passing day reveals the naivety of our underestimation of the power and stubbornness of our opponent. Now, our ancestors loom as shadows in the background of a blinding mirror that is exposing us all, black and white.

Racist mythology, social inequality and economic exploitation used propaganda and physical lines of demarcation to enforce a state of mind. It was called segregation. Because my parents grew to adulthood in it and I was raised in it, I unknowingly believed in it, and even referred to myself as a minority. The late Albert Murray, my mentor and intellectual grandfather in Harlem, New York, dissuaded me from the segregated mindset with a penetrating question: “How are you going to accept being a minority in your own country? Is an Italian a minority in Italy?”

Well, let’s see. That’s a question our country has to ask itself. If we are plural so be it. But we aren’t. We are segregated in so many more ways than race, and if we are to be integrated, a question remains: who is them and who is us? Mr Murray once told me: “Racial conflict in America has always been black and white versus white.” We see that in the current riots that have sprung up around the country. There are all kinds of folks out there and always have been. Any cursory viewing of protests in the 60s reveals Americans of all hues.

But when the enormous collective wealth of the US passes from one generation to the next, who of our white brothers and sisters now so chagrined will be out in the streets then? Playing loud, defiant music in your bedroom means one thing at 15, but it’s very different when it’s your house. Who will be out there making sure that their darker-hued brother and sister in the struggle has enough opportunity to feed their family, a good enough education to articulate the fight for their rights, and the financial security to enjoy older age in comfort? Don’t hold your breath for the “post-racial America” we were supposed to have achieved without having corrected or even acknowledged any of the real problems.

Protesters hold up a portrait of George Floyd at a Black Lives Matter protest in New York, 8 June.
A portrait of George Floyd at a Black Lives Matter protest in New York on 8 June. Photograph: Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images

The whole construct of blackness and whiteness as identity is fake anyway. It is a labyrinth of bullshit designed to keep you lost, in search of a solution that can only be found outside of the game itself. Our form of democracy affords us the opportunity to mine a collective intelligence, a collective creativity, and a collective human heritage. But the game keeps us focused on beating people we should be helping. And the more helpless the target, the more vicious the beating. Like I was trying to explain to my daughter, something just feels good about abusing another person when you feel bad about yourself.

We are separated by wealth disparity, segregated in thought and action, poorly led on the left and on the right, confused in values of institutions and symbols of excellence, lacking in all integrity from the highest to the lowest levels of government, undisciplined in exercising the responsibilities of citizenship, disengaged and overfed on meaningless trivia and games, at each other’s throats all the time for every issue. We seem to be at a dead end.

It’s funny to think this whole experiment in democracy could end with a populace that is so polarised and self-absorbed that it can’t imagine atoning for the slavery and subjugation of other human beings and sharing enormous wealth (financial and other) with each other. But it wouldn’t be that surprising, because no matter how many times we find ourselves with the opportunity to right tremendous wrongs, we just keep coming up with the same wrong answer. It’s like having the solution to a math problem, not knowing the underlying mechanics to actually solve it, and lacking the patience and humility to ask for help to learn. It’s the damnedest thing to just keep doing the same wrong thing over and over again, and more forcefully wrong each time. Maybe that wrong answer is just who we actually are.

The killings of George Floyd and Eric Garner are eerily similar, and they, taken together though almost six years apart, are not even a referendum on the offending officers, but a view into how we can’t get past the illegality and illegitimacy of our courts and our politics that snatched back the north’s victory from the south in the civil war. This successful legal and political wrangling to recast slavery as peonage and to maintain an underclass is still going on. Its victories, in effect, spit on the graves of 700,000 Americans lost on both sides in that conflict. And we refight our civil war every day. It was interesting hearing Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Killer Mike both reference the civil war, the civil rights movement and this moment in one breath. They put this present moment in its proper context – a continuation of the struggle for human rights and civil liberties against the legacy of slavery and unapologetic racism.

These were Abraham Lincoln’s thoughts on slavery: “I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republic an example of its just influence in the world, enables the enemies of free institutions with plausibility to taunt us as hypocrites, causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men among ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty, criticising the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.”

Notice the list of corruptions that Lincoln laid out 160 years ago – there is no better definition of our current position. Contemporary Americans just may not be up to the challenge of democracy. A lot of countries in the world seem to be openly retreating from it. But that open retreat will be different here, for our credo of equality, freedom and the dignity of persons requires us to construct elaborate ways of eliminating stubborn problems that we seem to not have the will and humanity to solve: the slow, slow choke out of everything black.

But that blackness shows up in everything from a bowl of grits and a southern twang to a whining rock guitar. It shows up as state’s rights versus federal authority, as the root of the electoral college and as gerrymandered districts and the repression of the right to vote. That inescapable blackness is always a primary subject in the discussions that elect presidents, where it shows up as immigrants, criminals and disavowed preachers. It’s seen in our richest cities staggering down the streets in a tattered stupor with a sign saying, “Do you see me?” and bearing the dates 1835, 1789, 1855 and all of those slavery years. And all those ghosts remind you that we rolled back reconstruction, we denied the African American heroism of the first world war with the segregation of the second, we denied our citizens access to equal funding, housing, education, healthcare and opportunities, and we rolled back the gains of the civil rights movement.

That slow removal of blackness from American DNA will prove to be impossible because we are written into the original constitution – albeit it as three-fifths of a person. Black folks’ struggle, more than any other, has advanced the integrity of that document down through these bloody centuries. This is about all of us rejecting the injustices of our collective past with consistent and relentless individual action that goes far beyond giving money. The challenge that faces our country now is what it has always been: can we reckon with the idea that the opposite of injustice is not justice, it is corrective assistance? The question that continues to plague us: do we have the will and the intention to get that three-fifths up to five-fifths? One thing I know for sure, that’s not ever going to happen with a foot on a black neck.

• This piece has been adapted and condensed, with Wynton Marsalis’s permission, from a post published on his Facebook page.