The numerous police shootings over the past few years have forcefully dispelled the notion that we live in a post-racial America. Police are still killing Black people at an alarming rate, and the rise of Donald Trump has almost completely washed away all pretense of civility and tolerance in some communities, exposing (and encouraging) the deep-rooted racism that lies underneath. And lest anyone still try to deny that racists exist in America today, take a look what transpired at East Tennessee State University this past week.
As Black Lives Matter student activists gathered at the Borchuck Plaza in front of the school library on Wednesday, Tristan Rettke, an 18-year-old freshman, disrupted the peaceful demonstration for what authorities have since charged as civil rights intimidation. Rettke, who is White, attended the event in a gorilla mask, carrying with him bananas, a burlap sack with a Confederate flag print, and rope.
ETSU Public Safety officers arrived on the scene in response to a disorderly conduct call, detained Rettke, and took him in. According to WHJL, Rettke first learned about the demonstration on the social networking app Yik Yak a few days ago, then purchased the mask, bananas, and rope on Tuesday.
School officials responded quickly to the incident. "The actions of this one individual go against the values of our university where people come first and all are treated with dignity and respect. We are exceptionally proud of the students who were peacefully participating in the event and the manner in which they exercised restraint, thoughtfulness and strength in the face of inappropriate and offensive behavior," the school said in a statement on Facebook.
A live video of Rettke approaching student activists was posted on Facebook by Grant Madison. In it, Madison narrates the incident and then says to the camera:
This is the America we live in. I'm so glad that this happened so I can just give, like, a really good example of what it's like. My hands are shaking; I am so angry right now. This is what we're living, y'all.
Exposing incidents like these are crucial in highlighting the very different experiences that minorities face. White Americans don't live in constant fear that being stopped by the police for something as innocent as a broken taillight could result in their deaths.
That disparity in experiences is most evident in how people view racial progress in the country. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that 88 percent of African-Americans say the country needs to continue making changes for Blacks to have equal rights with Whites. Forty-three percent of Black people (who are routinely profiled, harassed, and discriminated against) are skeptical that these changes will actually happen.
In contrast, 53 percent of White people say the country still has a ways to go for African-Americans to attain equal rights with Whites. Only 11 percent are doubtful that these changes will come.
So while the country has come a long way since the appalling days of slavery and Jim Crow, putting that progress in context shows just how much more work needs to be done in terms of achieving equality. And reaching across the aisle to understand and empathize with others — as opposed to mocking and provoking — is one way to do that.