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Fifty Years Since the Last Moon Shot: Has Anything Changed?


Published in Pantagraph

A rat done bit my sister Nell.
(with Whitey on the moon)
Her face and arms began to swell.
(and Whitey's on the moon)

I can't pay no doctor bill.
(but Whitey's on the moon)
Ten years from now I'll be payin' still.
(while Whitey's on the moon)

From “Whitey on the Moon,” Gil Scott-Heron

I was nine when Gil Scott-Heron wrote and performed this song on his Small Talk at 125th and Lenox album in 1970. Just the year before, Apollo 11 had put the first man on the moon, American astronaut and instant hero Neil Armstrong. To me, that momentous event represented all that was great about America. It never crossed my white, middle-class mindset that others disagreed. People who saw it as a representation of what was wrong with America and our skewed priorities.

On Saturday, May 30, 2020, I watched, fingers crossed, as America, courtesy of private/public cooperation between SpaceX and NASA, returned to crewed space flight. For me, it was a nostalgic mix, my boyhood memories of gathering around the TV with family, and relief, a streak of sunshine piercing the gray, COVID-19 cloud enveloping our world.

But as the rocket soared into space, the astronauts pressing bright touch screens, ridiculously young-looking people running mission control, other news streamed across the bottom of my TV: American cities were burning.

And I thought of Gil Scott-Heron and “Whitey on the Moon.”

Fifty years later, the juxtaposition could not be starker: the have and have nots of our society more separated. The death of George Floyd, like Emmett Till, a tragic mile marker in our nation’s slog toward equality.

Statistically, some things are better for black Americans, but it’s a mixed bag. The poverty rate is down from 1970, but still twice that of whites. More blacks graduate from college, but fewer own homes. Pre-pandemic, black employment was at an all-time high, but, according to the ACLU, one in three black males born today may go to prison, compared to one in 17 white males.

Anecdotally, I see black men and women in careers that few held in 1970. Sports come to mind as an example. In 1970, Will Robinson became the first black Division I college basketball coach at Illinois State University in my hometown of Normal, IL. Now black coaches are prevalent in many sports, at all levels, and from what I can tell, are judged by their won-loss record.

But is such progress widespread in other fields?

Better yet, how do we define progress? Malcolm X said: “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out, that’s not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made. And they haven’t even pulled the knife out much less heal the wound.”

Life is not as fair as sports. There’s no level playing field. The poor and less educated start the competition at a disadvantage; the privileged, the middle class and above, have a lead before the game even starts.

It’s not like being born into England’s royal family, but being white in America is a distinct advantage, and it protects people from a wide range of transgressions.

Consider two black men like Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson. They were arrested at a Starbucks in Philadelphia in 2018 for sitting at a table waiting to meet someone; the store manager had called the police.

Or the recent incident in New York City, where a white woman called the police because a black man asked her to leash her dog.

Or the African American United States Senator Tim Scott, who says he’s been stopped seven times in one year for driving-while-black.

Or worse, Ahmaud Arbery, apparently killed for jogging-while-black, no other discernible reason why two white men confronted and shot him.

If we substitute white men for the black men in these stories, do we believe the police are called, a Senator pulled over, a jogger shot?

We cannot have anarchy in response to injustice. Prosecute rioters and looters—not peaceful protesters—to the full extent of the law.

But riots or not, none of it changes the lack of progress for millions of blacks in America and the frustration that entails. A frustration a middle-aged, middle-classed, white Baby Boomer like me will never know.

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