I was born in 1959, just before the Civil Rights Movement. One of my earliest memories of things happening in the world was the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. I was 3. My mother turned on the vacuum cleaner to try to hide the fact that she was crying, but I noticed.
I remember seeing the footage of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. being shot on live TV when I was 8, but the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., just a couple of months before that, has stayed with me much more than the Kennedy assassinations. Maybe the reason is that the Kennedy assassinations were national tragedies, and personal tragedies for the Kennedy family, but the shooting of Dr. King was a human tragedy.
The Kennedy assassinations mark a tumultuous time in American history when change was in the air, and many forces were fighting for footing in the changing political, social and economic seas. Many people, my parents included, put their hope in the Kennedys, who represented a vision of positive change, our very own Camelot.
With the death of President Kennedy that vision died; with the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the coffin was nailed shut; with the death of Robert Kennedy, Jr., that coffin was buried.
Over 50 years have passed since those chaotic times, and some things haven’t seemed to change all that much. People are still people, and the cancer of endemic and systemic racism continues to live on. It’s hard to say whether it is any less ingrained for all these years. Modern technology keeps it burning in our collective consciousness.
We have made strides, right? I think we have.
Though racial prejudice is not as overt or “accepted”, and racism has gotten more subtle and underground, modern technology is like a kind of chemotherapy that targets the cancer and exposes it for treatment. Will Smith said recently that racism is not any greater now than it used to be; it’s just filmed more.
It seems like this cultural cocktail of COVID isolation that has given us more time to reflect, even as our collective pent up energy grows, and the most recent examples of hidden racism exposed to the sunlight have opened the floodgates to a current of active response like I haven’t really seen before. Not just the usual suspects, many people of all political, religious and socioeconomic stripes are coming together in unity, saying, “Enough is enough!”
It seems that marches, and rallies and protests have sprung up all over the United States, in big cities and small ones, organized by young and old, white, black, brown and other, and the resolve to hold the issues up to the public consciousness for a sustained period of time is impressive.
Still, the inertia of emotion and passion can only carry us so far. When it wanes (and it will), what will change? What is different now?
I don’t think anything will change unless we resolve and commit to doing something. That “something” may not look the same for all of us, but we can’t just go on with our loves as if none of this happened. What is different now depends on us.
The young woman toting this sign is right: our burst of emotional and passionate activism means nothing without real sustained action to bring about change.
I recently published the words of a friend, Richard Townsell, the Executive Director of the Lawndale Christian Community Development Corporation: From Where I Sit “Riots are the Language of the Unheard” (quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.). His message echoes the words of the poster.
People need to vote, but voting is the lowest form of Democracy. Pulling a lever can’t be the extent of our commitment.
Protests and marches have their place, but they are reactionary. They don’t bring about real, sustained change (though the can lead to change).
Prayer can be redemptive and life changing. Prayer has sustained many people in the throes of injustice, but people who want change need to wed action to their prayers. Action doesn’t mean simply “guilt driven service projects”, like cleaning up the mess after a riot or planting flowers to adorn the “mess”.
The message to us white folks is that we need to get behind the efforts of the black community in the action that needed to be sustained. They don’t need our solutions; they could use help implementing their solutions. We can come alongside and help.
Something “easy” for all of us to do is speak out. Speak up. Silence is complicity.
But before we speak, we need to listen. We need to recognize and understand the problem. So many of my friends pay a little lip service to racism but minimize it in the next breath.
Some people will respond to “black lives matter” with “all lives matter”. When the City of Aurora, IL (where I live) experienced a mass shooting last year in a local factory, the City rallied around the statement: Aurora Strong. The City unified in response to the tragedy, and no one thought to say that North Aurora (where I actually live) is strong too.
I see people digging looking for dirt on George Floyd in the autopsy and reports of a checkered past. While there may be some truth to those reports, no one has always been a model citizen. He was also known as a gentle giant and for his ministry to troubled neighborhoods in Houston.
More importantly, even criminals are people made in the image of God with intrinsic value endowed by our Creator.
He was accused of passing a counterfeit $20 bill. Did he even known it was counterfeit? We will never know. He didn’t have the chance afforded by our Constitution to defend himself.
I see people digging for statistics that show that more white people are killed by cops than black people and other numbers that don’t match the narrative that racial disparities exist. Instead of working to dig up reasons that we shouldn’t have to listen, maybe we should just “shut up and listen”.
Black people are killed at a higher percentage of the black population than white people as a percentage of the white population; they are charged at a higher rate; they are convicted at a higher rate; they are imprisoned at a higher rate; they are sentenced to death at a higher rate.
Those of us who aren’t black or people of color don’t know what it’s like. Spend some time listening to your black friends, neighbors or church members relate their experiences with racism. They will tell you it starts at an early age and continues throughout their lives, in countless ways big and small.
Watch the documentary, 13th, by Eva Duvernay. Spend some time really looking at the counter facts, not just to attempt to refute them, but to understand them. There are many sources for examples of redlining, disparate banking practices, educational disparities, and on and on.
I am not trying to shame anyone. Most of us are people of good will, and we want to believe the best about people. We don’t experience racism. We aren’t sensitive to it. We don’t “feel” racist. We miss it even when it happens right under our noses. (I speak from experience here.)
I have had a long gradual awakening to the extent of racism in our society, myself. It’s taken me 60 years to realize that the cancer still exists, and it is much deeper and more ingrained than I imagined. We live in a bubble that is insulated from racism and its effects, so naturally we struggle to see it, acknowledge it and accept it.
So what is different this time? Not much really, but it’s getting harder to ignore it. Modern technology and social media, maybe, are helping to uncover it in ways that we didn’t see before.
It’s natural to be defensive when we feel like people are accusing us of something when we feel like we, individually, “didn’t do anything wrong”. But this isn’t about us. We owe it to the black community to listen. It’s been a long history of generations and generations of disparity. It’s going to take more than a generation to root it out.
The current generations didn’t cause the cancer, but we can be part of the healing process. If more people wake up to it and resolve to be sensitive to it, to speak about it, to do what each of us can about it, it can be different this time