More than 35 years ago, I went to Africa for the first time, the junior member of a group of American writers. We were visiting The Gambia and, at a stop in the interior, I purchased a small wooden statue at a roadside kiosk. One of the group asked how much I had paid. I told her and, a bit condescendingly, she suggested that next time I ask for her help because, in this part of the world, one bargains.
I thanked her but added that if I had paid a few dollars too much, I didn’t really mind. Listening to our conversation was Alex Haley, author of the 1976 novel, “Roots: The Saga of an American Family,” which tells the story of his ancestor, Kunta Kinte, a Mandinka warrior taken in chains from West Africa to America in the late 18th century. “Cliff,” he said, “that’s a good attitude. Because, you know, I sometimes see these guys hawking their wares all day out here in this heat and I think: There but for the grace of God go I.”
I was, to put it mildly, taken aback. I wish I had had the presence of mind to press him to elaborate. Instead, I’ve pondered that sentence for decades. And I think I may now understand what he meant.
Mr. Haley’s book and the television miniseries later based on it, brought home for millions of Americans the reality of the African American experience, the suffering of his family — and so many others — who were brought to these shores in servitude. But he also made clear that his family — and so many others — had overcome and even triumphed.
The son a university professor, Mr. Haley served 20 years in the U.S. Coast Guard. Writing was his second career, and he rose to the rank of international celebrity. In 1999, a Coast Guard ship was named for him. Perhaps most importantly, as the subtitle of his book makes clear, his family became “an American family.”
If that’s true, this follows: Disrespect for America and for the flag that symbolizes America is disrespect for the long and strong African threads in that flag, and for those who struggled over generations to become Americans and to enrich the fabric of America.
Disrespect for the flag also misunderstands something basic: Opposition to slavery and racism is not based on “universal values.” It’s based on Western and, particularly, American values.
For countless centuries, slavery existed throughout the world. It was not considered an immoral institution — not in Europe, not in the Middle East, not in Asia, nor in Africa where it was practiced long before the arrival of white men.
It was British Christians in the 18th century who first launched an abolition movement — the first grass-roots human rights campaign in world history.
As for racism, have we learned nothing from the Holocaust, the genocides in Rwanda and Sudan, the genocide currently underway in Syria and Iraq, and countless other examples of group-versus-group hostility and violence on every continent except Antarctica?
We have a holiday named for Martin Luther King, but does anyone today — Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players, for example — recall what he preached? He understood that American values were not the cause of racism but its antidote. At the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, he didn’t just say he had he “a dream.” He said he had “a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.”
He added: “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the ‘unalienable Rights’ of ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ “
America has come a long way since 1963. We still have a distance to go. But the accusation that police who attempt to keep black communities safe are racially motivated assassins is a calumny.
In reality, a police officer is much more likely to be killed by a black man than an unarmed black man is to be killed by a police officer. In almost all cases, black men shot by police have been armed and dangerous, or violently resisting arrest.
At least four recent studies bear this out. One was conducted by Harvard economist Roland G. Fryer Jr. He called the results “the most surprising” of his career. It shouldn’t be necessary to mention that Professor Fryer is black — but I’m afraid it is.
Last week, the FBI released its official crime figures for 2016. Manhattan Institute scholar Heather Mac Donald has attempted to call attention to the fact that “the data flies in the face of the rhetoric” we’ve been hearing from the football players and such groups as Black Lives Matter.
More black men are being murdered but, as Ms. Mac Donald notes, their killers are “not whites, and not the police, but other blacks.” What’s pushing the death toll higher? In response to the anti-police campaign, “Cops are backing off of proactive policing in high-crime minority neighborhoods, and criminals are becoming emboldened.” Those “taking a knee” are contributing to this lethal result.
A few years after my first trip to Africa, I moved there as a correspondent for The New York Times. I visited many beautiful lands and became acquainted with fascinating and diverse peoples. But the achievements of African Americans — in industry, politics, arts, sports and other fields — have been equaled nowhere else. That’s because America offers freedoms, rights and opportunities equaled nowhere else. I’m pretty sure that’s what Alex Haley was telling me.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.