In April 1989, ironically during the Boston Marathon weekend, I fell seriously ill with a high-spiking fever that completely immobilized me for several days. Sick as a dog, I barely made the broadcast to commentate on Abebe Mekonnen and Ingrid Kristiansen‘s victories on Patriot’s Day Monday.
Many years and many tests later I learned that my immune system had responded to that fever by attacking my spinal cord rather than the invading disease. That auto-immune attack left me with a weakened right leg that has kept me from running for most of the last 30 years.
The further irony, of course, is that the immune system that was designed to defend me had attacked me instead. What chance did I have under such a circumstance?
Today, as America’s body politic attempts to fight off the Covid-19 pandemic, it finds its fever spiking under the added stresses of a polarized political leadership and episodes of systemic racial injustice conducted by the very police forces created to protect and defend it. What chance does the nation have in healing under these circumstances?
Race relations in the USA flex and bend, expand and contract, but always leaving one sad fact as a constant. If you begin a New World based on a system of slave labor, then bake that system into place for over 240 years before a Civil War erupts to break it, even 160 years later the odds of overcoming every residue consequence of that original ill design are extremely low, if not impossible.
Nonetheless, just as I have tried to maintain my condition over the last three decades by working out in other ways besides running, improvements in civil rights have been made in the USA, as well, legally and culturally. Still, when White America says to Black America in the year 2020, “After all, we have elected and re-elected a black president, things are much better now than they have ever been,” black America might well respond, ”tell that to George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and all the others either imprisoned or dead from Covid-19 at a rate much higher than our percentage of the American population.”
For all our civil rights laws and white America’s embrace of Hip-Hop culture, race relations in 2020 aren’t nearly where MLK, Jr. dreamed they might be in August 1963 when he sought the day when African Americans might be judged by “the content of our character rather than the color of our skin.”
With Dr. King’s dream in mind, yes, the country has progressed since the time of slavery and Jim Crow America. But that progress doesn’t make today’s level less than it could, should, or might be if the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave hadn’t been built in part by labor drawn by the lash.
So while the level of racism has diminished generation over generation, what has changed most notably in today’s America has been the cell phone technology that has irrefutably shown the repeated incidents of racial violence that African Americans have been testifying to for decades but that was rarely accepted at black-face value until the videos emerged. What has changed, therefore, has been the persuasive nature of the evidence provided, rather than the quality of the incidents committed.
Since 1619 when the first Africans were brought to America as slaves, the black experience in America has been one epic Catch-22. A population that never asked to join the American family in the first place, still finds itself treated harshly, at times fatally, for being one of its members just the same.
Since my own illness in 1989, I have done what I could with elliptical cross-training, stationary cycling, and walking, even as I never stopped hoping that one day I could return to my first love of running. The lesson I learned was we do as we can with that which we have. Though it may not be perfect, as the old saying goes, we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
Today, in America, the twin viruses of Covid-19 and racial strife are attacking the spine of this nation, fueled by the spiking fever of a polarizing Trump presidency.
America has not, nor will ever likely, fully live up to the ideals of her founding. But just as runners breakdown their races into manageable stages to allow their bodies and minds to cope with the struggle until they smell the barn and sprint for home, so can America marshall the forces of good that do exist within all strata of her imperfect society and act to treat the still painful relapses of a congenital remnant illness as she aspires, as best she can, toward Lincoln’s and King’s goal of a more perfect union.