In April 1989, ironically at the onset of Boston Marathon week, I fell seriously ill with a high-spiking fever that immobilized me for several days. Sick as a dog, I barely made the broadcast on Patriot’s Day Monday to commentate on Abebe Mekonnen and Ingrid Kristiansen’s winning ways.
Weeks later, after I recovered, running partners began asking, “Toni, are you limping?” I wasn’t aware of any hitch but I did find myself tripping periodically when, without warning, my right foot would scuff on the return phase of my stride rather than lift to complete the cycle. Sometimes those scuffs caused me to trip and fall.
When these episodes became a regular feature of each run, with every curb, sidewalk crack, and tree root presenting a potential disaster, I had to stop running altogether because I never knew when I’d trip and fall again, only that I would. And when I went down, I went down hard because there was no warning when my leg wouldn’t work.
Many years and doctor visits later I finally learned that my high spiking fever incident in 1989 had triggered an immune system response that misfired. Rather than attacking the invading pathogen, my immune system attacked my spinal cord instead. That auto-immune attack (acute transverse myelitis) left me with a weakened right leg that couldn’t support running.
The irony, of course, is the immune system designed to defend me had attacked me instead. What chance did I have under that circumstance?
As the fever in America’s body politic spikes under the twin diseases of Covid-19 and the racial strife triggered by the continued killings of black Americans by police – forces created to protect and defend – what chance does the nation have in healing?
Race relations in the USA flex and bend, expand, and contract, but always leave 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 eliminating every residue consequence of that original design are extremely low, if not impossible.
Nonetheless, just as I have improved my condition over the years by working out in other ways besides running, improvements in civil rights have been made in the USA, as well, legally and culturally. But when white America says to Black America in the year 2021, “After all, we have elected and re-elected a black president, aren’t things much better now than they have ever been?”
Black America might well respond,” tell that to George Floyd, Brionna Taylor, Daunte Wright, and all the others who have fallen at the hands of those sworn to protect and defend or been hospitalized by Covid-19 well beyond their percentage of the overall population.
For all our civil rights laws and white America’s embrace of Hip-Hop culture, race relations in the USA in 2021 aren’t nearly where MLK, Jr. dreamed they might be in 1964 when he imagined the day when African Americans might be judged by “the content of our character rather than the color of our skin.”
With it’s-better-now-than-then distinction in mind, yes, the country has progressed since the time of slavery and Jim Crow. 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 lowered generation over generation, what has changed most notably in today’s America has been the cell phone technology that has shown in stark reality the video evidence of racial violence African Americans have been testifying to for decades but was never accepted at face value until the videos appeared.
What has changed, therefore, has been the persuasive nature of the evidence provided, rather than the quantity and 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, continues to be treated harshly, at times fatally, for being one of its members just the same.
Since my illness in 1989, I have exercised as I could by churning out time on ellipticals, stationary bikes, and walking, while always hoping that one day I might return to my first love of running. The lesson I learned was that we do as we can with that which we have. No one is perfect at this, but 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 and weakening the body politic, fueled by the spiking fever of a deeply polarizing Trump ex-presidency.
America has not, nor likely ever will fully live up to the ideals of her founding. But just as runners break down a race into its component distances to allow their overtaxed bodies and minds to cope with the struggle until they smell the barn and sprint for home, so can a limping America marshall the good that does exist within all strata of her imperfect society and counter the periodic episodes of her remnant native illness as she aspires, as best she can, toward Lincoln and King’s more perfect union.