By Stephen G. Hall
Hands Up, Don’t Shoot, I Can’t Breathe, Get Your Knee Off My Neck, these statements have become familiar refrains in the American lexicon. Often the last words of African American citizens subjected to police brutality of varying degrees as the lifeblood slowly drains from their bodies, they reflect the nightmarish reality of America’s tortured racial landscape. A landscape marked by raging pandemic in which Black and Brown people are 3 or 4 times more likely to die than the majority population. Police brutality inflicted on unarmed Black citizens premised on the logic of utilizing lethal force first and asking questions afterwards. A general insensitivity to front-line (essential) workers who are mostly people of color regarding wage and housing stability and unemployment assistance. Calls for reform, economic assistance, defunding the police and legislation to stem the ongoing tide of police brutality seems slow and halting. The long summer of our racial discontent seems unending as Black bodies continue to pile up either through COVID-19 or at the hands of law enforcement. The list of those dying, displaced or murdered increases daily and as we enter the fall, it seems we can expect more of the same. Are we destined for more or the same or can the nation chart a course toward more tranquil waters. Will we resolve as a nation to steer a clear and unambiguous course towards full racial equality or chose the path of least resistance by either romanticizing the past or resorting to token or half measures to address the nation’s most searing problems.
At the close of the long Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King Jr’s asked a prescient question: Where Do We Go From Here, Chaos or Community? King’s query is more important now than ever. The course a nation charts can determine its destiny. Chaos is the willful and callous disregard of pleas for change. It is the belief that critiques of the nation are unpatriotic and incite lawlessness. The misconception that civil disobedience spawns riot or looting. The false assertion that law and order can be substituted for dignity and respect for all citizens. It is the slow and halting or nonexistent movement toward justice we see in the Breonna Taylor and Jacob Blake cases. Community involves acknowledging and grappling with the issues which plague the nation. This process requires a direct confrontation with structural inequities in society, the realization that the content of one’s character, as opposed to the color of one’s skin, must inform our perceptions of one another and our collective strengths overcome our individual weaknesses. Engaging these issues seriously requires courage and determination.
Recognizing structural inequities in our society is an important starting place. We need to look no further than our current pandemic. Black and Brown people, as we have abundantly shown on the pages of this blog, are impacted in an outsized way. Whether attributable to co-morbidities, underlying health conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, or high blood pressure, the losses are staggering. Yet it is clear many of these conditions and deaths are related to the structural impediments in Black communities. Impediments such as food deserts, inadequate and dilapidated housing, lack of employment and access to preventative care and general disinterest and lack of engagement of medical professionals in communities of color are real barriers to social justice and equality. Inequality is also highlighted in vaccine trials, where Black and Brown people are woefully underrepresented. Recognizing these impediments and correcting them through requires more than goodwill and intentions, it requires real actions.
Intricately linked to the issues of structural inequity is an underlying belief in the superiority of color. King’s articulation of the importance of character over color is a uniquely humanistic posture. It is not, as some commentators suggest, a promotion of a colorblind society. The goal of the beloved community is not the avoidance or pretense that difference does not exist, but rather the embrace and acknowledgment of difference. Acknowledging difference and promoting inclusion allows us to utilize the full range of humanity to create a just society. The misnomer that one group is inherently superior to another based on color is a fallacy. This approach promotes white supremacy, which all can plainly see has brought our society to the brink of collapse. The normalization of white supremacy is all facets of our society from our everyday lived experience and throughout all the institutions of our society requires a rethinking of much of what we have come to accept as “the system.” It literally requires the unmaking of many things we have come to cherish and believe and have come to accept as unquestionability right and correct.
Addressing this situation requires drawing on our collective strengths. It is true that we cannot progress without working together. This process, however, must be based on mutual respect and a true belief in attaining equality. Our biggest challenges lie in the criminal justice system. We must fight to reform it. Reformation must be multi-pronged and address assumptions about Black criminality to the abolishment of cash bail to sentencing reform. It is also more subtle abuses such as the exorbitant cost of prepaid collect calls from the incarcerated to loved ones, commissary requirements and restrictions on books and educational materials. These facets of an inhumane system not only punish the incarcerated but those family members trying to support those who have been imprisoned. Beyond our criminal justice system, we need a comprehensive overhaul of our economic, political, social, and cultural institutions. Much like the Me Too movement, a searing interrogation of patriarchy, sexism and misogyny, and rape culture, we have witnessed a number of African Americans and People of Color in educational institutions, the media (television and print venues), film, tech, and finance who have come forward to discuss rampant racism and the need for equity and inclusiveness. Removing offending parties is only part of the problem, we must also fundamentally change the culture.
The challenge to change our collective reality, address the police brutality and racial injustice is momentous. This moment is more than an inflection point. It is a real opportunity to reimagine the American landscape. To fundamentally rethink and reconfigure our collective reality. Doing so is hard and will require courage. We can either do what is symbolic and easy or push for substantive change. The latter requires courage. Courage to move beyond our deeply ingrained beliefs and ideas about American exceptionalism and progressivism, reimagine our ideas about race and privilege and respectability, and to draw on our collective strengths across class, race, gender and sexuality to affirm our best selves. If we are to avoid chaos and affirm community, we must work together to bring it into existence.
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Previously published on Historianspeaks.org.
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