The bartender, a white woman, is wearing a handmade “Black Lives Matter” T-shirt.

“All lives matter,” says the man at the bar.

“Good to know,” she says. “By the way, could you put on a mask?”

“Oh. Sor-ry.” The man hastily puts on a mask. “You don’t think it’s racist to say that only black lives matter? What about all the other lives?”

“You really think I don’t believe my own life matters?”

“I guess you do. But why do you have to make a show of saying black lives matter?”

“It’s not for show. It’s just a way of saying I care about black lives and that I wish everyone would.”

“What good is it supposed to do?”

“If more people cared, things would be different. You just said all lives matter, and I agree. So doesn’t that mean black lives matter, too?”

“Sure, but that doesn’t mean you have to say it.”

“Why not?”

“Because it isn’t helping. We’re all too race-conscious already. Can’t we just be color-blind?”

“That would be something. But our history is not color-blind. Neither is our society. Our economy, our neighborhoods, our schools, our prisons…”

“I get it.”

“And?”

“And you think all those problems are my fault?”

“Of course not. I mean, not exactly. Those problems are built into the system. But if we don’t challenge the system, we’re part of the problem.”

“So you’re challenging the system by writing on a T-shirt?”

The bartender’s eyes indicate a slight smile. “It’s a tiny step, I know. It’s not all I’m doing. Not that what I’m doing is even close to enough.”

“What would be enough?”

“I don’t know. The goal is an end to racial disparities. It won’t happen overnight. I know there’s only so much I can do, but I have to try.”

“Why is it up to you? Isn’t it up to black people?”

“It’s up to all of us. These disparities were 400 years in the making, and obviously they started with the people who imported Africans and enslaved them.”

The man puffs out his mask with a sigh. “It all comes down to slavery,” he says in a sing-song voice. “That ended a long time ago.”

“But antiblack discrimination didn’t. The freed slaves had nothing but their freedom, and not even much of that. The federal government passed laws and amended the Constitution to give them basic rights, but before long it gave up on enforcing them. When Reconstruction ended in 1877—”

“Hey, I’m here for a beer, not a history lesson.”

“In a minute. You won’t have to tip me.”

“I wasn’t—never mind.”

“—those basic rights were almost nonexistent. African-Americans endured almost a century of Jim Crow segregation in the South, and Northern employers shunned them for half a century until World War I. Blacks had more opportunity in the North than in the South, but that wasn’t saying much. They mostly lived in segregated neighborhoods and were mostly hired only for menial jobs.”

“Well, that’s obviously not true anymore. Are you forgetting that we had a black president?”

“Yes, a lot has gotten better since the Great Migration and the civil rights movement. But there’s so much that hasn’t.”

“Well, whose fault is that?”

“Everyone’s, basically. The War on Drugs, mass incarceration, economic recessions — all of those things have been much worse for blacks than whites. There’s no one person or group responsible for these things, but it’s not like they just happened, either. It’ll take a lot more than one president or one race to fix them.”

“Why can’t blacks take care of their own problems? I’m part-Irish. You think my immigrant ancestors had it easy? But they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps.”

“I’m part-Irish, too. My parents and grandparents told me about the immigrant slums, the ‘shanty Irish’ slurs, the anti-Catholic bigotry. They also told me that Irish immigrants came here voluntarily, not as cargo. There was anti-Irish racism, but they were still white in the eyes of the law and could become citizens. Big-city political machines courted their votes and paid them back with jobs and services. I wouldn’t want to trade places with my immigrant ancestors, but they had way more opportunity than their black counterparts.”

“That’s still a long time ago.”

“And it’s still relevant. Slaves were not immigrants. This wasn’t the Land of Opportunity for them. Emancipation didn’t create a Land of Opportunity for blacks, either. Blacks didn’t have full civil rights until the 1960s.”

“Which is also a long time ago!”

“Not that long. And since then a lot of blacks have moved into the middle and upper classes. Most blacks are middle class now. College enrollment rates for blacks are close to the national average. If you want to argue that there’s a lot more opportunity for African Americans now than 60 years ago, I agree.”

“Then why complain? Why protest?”

“I think you know what the protests are about.”

“Oh yeah. The PO-lice. Like they only kill black people.”

“Why should they kill anyone who isn’t endangering them?”

“The protestors make it sound like the police are evil. And like police lives don’t matter.”

“Of course police lives matter. Just like black lives and all other lives. But there is a problem here. You heard about George Floyd?”

“That guy who got killed by a cop kneeling on him? Yeah. That should not have happened. But that was in Minneapolis. Why should people in Oswego protest about it?”

“Because there’s a pattern. Breonna Taylor. Rayshard Brooks. Eric Garner. It’s a long list.”

“Aren’t there black criminals out there who kill police? It’s a dangerous job.”

“No doubt. But these are people who were unarmed.”

“Everyone makes mistakes. It’s not like there’s no accountability.”

“The same mistakes happen way too often. And there’s not enough accountability. That’s what the protests are about.”

“I thought the protests were about ‘Abolish the police” and ‘Defund the police.’”

“So you have been paying attention. I admit, I don’t buy all of the rhetoric I hear at the protests, but there’s no danger of the police being abolished anyway. We need some serious reforms, though. And ‘reform’ just doesn’t seem like a strong enough word right now.”

“Do you think the Oswego police should be abolished?”

“No way. I’ve had only good experiences with our PD. I don’t know how it is for everyone in our community, but anyway, not every department is like ours. There are 18,000 law enforcement units in this country. You don’t have to watch much video footage to know that there are some bad apples out there, and that some departments and unions have been spoiled by their bad apples.”

“Why abolish any police department? Who would stop the criminals?”

“I think ‘abolish’ really means ‘start over.’ Some departments are so corrupt and dysfunctional that you have to do that. And some things that police do, like dealing with homeless schizophrenics, might be better done by, or along with, social service workers. I don’t claim to have all the answers.”

“But you do have all the beer.”

“So many choices. All beers matter.”

Ranjit Dighe has been living and working in Oswego since 1997. As Professor of Economics at SUNY Oswego, he teaches and researches economics and history.

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