This nation was built on a foundation of slavery and, despite massive bloodshed to end it, continued on a racist path with Jim Crow laws, segregation, and a century and a half’s worth of discrimination and oppression that continues to this day. Discrimination that has served to effectively create two Americas: one which whites experience and one for everyone else.
Racism is so ingrained in American culture that it has become functionally invisible to white Americans. White Americans who believe that, since slavery ended and anti-discrimination laws were passed, racism only exists and can only exist in the form of the most obvious and vile forms of bigotry. White Americans who believe that, where such obvious bigotry is absent, so too is racism.
That is, of course, a lie. It’s everywhere you look, if you look. And if you listen to black people who will tell you about it in great detail. Again, if you listen. Which most white Americans routinely fail to do.
Racism is most lethally perpetrated by the part of society which has a monopoly on legalized force: law enforcement and our criminal justice system. Law enforcement which has targeted and killed countless black men and women with almost complete legal impunity. A criminal justice system which has demonstrated over and over again that it treats black people differently, and more harshly, than it does whites. And that it considers black lives to be worth less than white lives.
We, as white Americans accept this almost unthinkingly. We accept it because we have been fed images, accounts and rank propaganda about the nature of black people, black neighborhoods, and cities with large black populations. We accept it because we have been told that there is nothing more important than “law and order” and being “tough on crime,” but we rarely if ever examine the way those terms are deployed or the underlying concepts which they allegedly support.
George Floyd was murdered by a police officer. He is just the latest to have been so murdered. The unrest currently roiling the country is not just because of George Floyd’s killing, however. It is a function of all of those killings, none of which has managed to bring about changes that would have, if implemented, prevented the next one. It is a function of decades and even centuries of pleas for black lives to be treated as though they have value. Pleas which have been ignored, even when offered silently and peacefully. Indeed, the silent and peaceful pleas have themselves been slandered as provocative and uncalled for in the most racist of terms.
I am not happy about the unrest currently taking place. But I am far more unhappy that we have created a country and a legal system in which there is no effective means of redress. I am far more unhappy that white America refuses, routinely, to acknowledge the violence being perpetrated against black Americans unless they are absolutely forced to acknowledge it via people literally taking to the streets and demanding to be heard.
Just as we must not look away from violence we so often visit upon black Americans, we must not look away when they cry out for redress. Nor can we deflect or diminish that demand by claiming that they did not do so in a way that is acceptable to us. They have tried to get our attention our way for longer than all of us have been alive. It hasn’t worked. It is not our place to tell them how to protest our killing of their brothers and sisters under color of law.
Rest in peace, George Floyd. Your life mattered. Black lives matter. Hopefully, one day, our country will believe that in word and in deed.
(Featured Image: Fibonacci Blue via Wikimedia Commons)