This Sunday, Frank Rich reported some of the most exciting news that has appeared on the pages of the New York Times in a very long time. According to Rich, Americans are on the verge of transcending the racial and cultural rifts that divided them for centuries. There simply aren’t “enough racists of any class in America, let alone in swing states, to determine the results come fall,” the former theater critic insisted. This statement is so true that Rich did not even need to bolster it with actual statistical evidence.
Rich went on to announce that the rancorous street fights of the 1960s over militarism and civil rights have been neatly transmuted into “quieter social activism and grand-scale social networking.” “The millennials’ bottom-up digital superstructure,” he wrote, has enabled economically marginalized ghetto dwellers and indignant campus radicals to air their grievances with the simple click of a button. So sit back in your Aeron chair, relax and blithely tend to your Facebook page.
“There is a heartening undertow,” Rich assuredly declared. “We know the page will turn.”
To support his confident prediction of a coming cultural utopia, and to make a larger point about the supposedly refreshing dynamics of the 2008 presidential campaign, Rich cited a Times report on protests in Harlem against the Sean Bell verdict. “This is not 1968,” Rich claimed, “when the country was so divided over race and war that cities and campuses exploded in violence. If you have any doubts, just look (to take a recent example) at the restrained response by New Yorkers, protestors included, to the acquittal of three police officers in the 50-bullet shooting death of an unarmed black man, Sean Bell.”
Unlike Rich, and what seemed like the entire Times Metro desk, I attended the demonstration that erupted in Jamaica, Queens — the neighborhood where Bell lived and died — just hours after the verdict was announced. While this protest did not end violently, it was large, brimming with anger, and anything but restrained. At one point, I found myself in the midst of what seemed certain to become a brawl between a faction of furious protesters and a squadron of cops they had surrounded. It appeared from my vantage point that the cops retreated from the melee only because they were badly outnumbered.
But don’t take me at my word. Watch the video I produced about the Sean Bell demonstrations, especially the latter half, which depicts the uncomfortable reality that Rich overlooked in his reductionist portrait of an imaginary post-racial America.