This past week the nation reached an important inflection point in our 400-year-old history with race and racism. The horrific murder of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who died in Minneapolis after Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes while he was lying face down handcuffed on the street, touched off nationwide protests and confrontations with the police and the Trump administration. The photo showing Chauvin on Floyd’s neck while casually looking away, hand in his pocket, hit like a punch in the country’s collective gut.
Pictures can both reflect and change history. The iconic May 1963 photographs of Bull Connor’s police dogs and officers with fire hoses attacking peaceful protesters in Birmingham depicted savage assaults that, in civil rights historian Taylor Branch’s words, “struck like lightning in the American mind.” The 1968 photos of sanitation workers, with their “I Am A Man” signs, remind us of why Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was in Memphis on that fateful April day. While I have no idea if it will have the same impact, the video footage and photo of a white police officer’s almost nonchalant pose while snuffing out George Floyd’s life following a complaint about a $20 counterfeit bill shows the casual nature of racism and injustice in a way that is impossible to ignore.
For those who choose not to ignore it, how we respond now and in the future will determine if change takes place.
A number of very smart commentators and activists, people of color who have worked to combat injustice their entire lives, have made various recommendations for those of us of privilege. First, while we should stand up in the moment for an end to racism, white people like me need to listen, listen, and then listen some more. Second, we need to educate ourselves about the systemic nature of racism, the ties to implicit bias, and how we can train ourselves to be anti-racist. But listening and learning, without action, will not change history. And as the first African American presiding bishop in the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, counsels, our actions should come as we walk a path of love.
“I have been wild about (Robin) DiAngelo’s book since I read it last year because the associate professor of education at the University of Washington at Seattle is a white woman writing unflinchingly to white people about race. DiAngelo forces white people to see and understand how white supremacy permeates their lives and to recognize how they perpetuate it. More importantly, she shows them what they can do to change themselves and dismantle this pernicious system.”
For a short introduction, take a look at this four-minute video with DiAngelo talking about the paradigm shift necessary to combat racism.
Understanding how the concept of race was developed can be beneficial in understanding the context of this moment. This podcast may be helpful. Here are other works that may also be illuminating.
- Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt’s powerful book Biased (2019) looks at the hidden prejudice that affects us all. Her reports on trainings she has held through the years for various police departments are especially illuminating in this moment.
- The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010) by Michelle Alexander is an important and disturbing book about police brutality and mass incarceration that contends that “what has changed since the collapse of Jim Crow has less to do with the basic structure of our society than with the language we use to justify it.”
- Michael Eric Dyson, in Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America (2019), argues that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. remains “so important to this generation, to this time, to this nation, to our people,” because he “spoke the truth that we have yet to fully acknowledge.”
- Finally, let me point you to two highly influential works: Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me (2015) and Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy (2014).
When Ta-Nehisi Coates sees hope in this current moment, as he stated on Friday in an interview with Ezra Klein, then perhaps we really are at an inflection point. And when the District’s Black Lives Matter mural can be seen from space, the social injustice that is all around us on the ground becomes harder and harder to ignore.
More to come…
“I Am A Man” image of Memphis Sanitation Workers in March 1968 outside Clayborn Temple (photo credit: Ernest C. Withers/Withers Family Trust)