Yet. Still. Once again. Our nation has witnessed another of what has become an horrific sequence of vile and violent acts against black fellow-citizens. This time it was the extra-judicial killing of Mr. George Floyd by a sworn officer of the law while on duty. Among Floyd’s final words were, by an awful irony, the expression of what many African-Americans have long felt and tried to say: “I can’t breathe.”
From a certain perspective, now is a time to listen, not speak (or write). I have tried to follow that wisdom, at least by reading a great deal and attending with especial care to the “Can you hear me now?” that has at long and tragic last managed to put even the current pandemic to the side. Yet speaking (and writing) is what I do by vocation—by calling—so that to remain silent at this moment would be its own violation.
What we surely all must acknowledge by now is that this terrible incident was not an exception. Unlike what appears to have been the case in the murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, what happened to George Floyd in Minneapolis—Minneapolis!—was not a premeditated act by civilians acting as what can only with the greatest charity be called “vigilantes.” Arguably even worse, it was policemen following Standard Operating Procedure who proved deaf to the pleas of a dying man.
And with that we seem to be coming close to the root of the problem: our inability to recognize a “we” when we see a person who for any reason whatsoever doesn’t fit with the group that we de facto define as our own. Specifically, until a much larger preponderance of Americans than is now the case recognize that “Black Lives Matter” (or BLM), then repulsive acts toward those guilty of “Living While Black” (or LWB) will persist.
In other words, what our African-American brothers and sisters have been trying to say to us white folk gently for a long time is true: racism is, at its heart, a systemic issue, not merely an individual one. I accept that truth (including its implications for my own part of the problem). At the same time, I reject as unhelpful definitions of “racist” that include anyone who benefits from “white privilege” (which is quite real, but what’s unhelpful is that what’s true of all whites by definition is by definition going to be well nigh impossible to address). Systemic change will require the strategy of “how do you eat an elephant”: one bite at a time. We might well begin in the current circumstance by asking just why is it that people of color have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and then by strategizing what to do about that.
Finally, I feel compelled to say a word about the violence that has taken place in addition to the many peaceful expressions of discontent with the status quo. First, I have seen and read enough to be reluctant to assert that we’re talking about the same groups of people (the peaceful and the violent). (In this connection, reports of white anarchists adding to the mayhem are particularly troubling.) Second, I welcome what I have read by way of explanation of why some minorities might feel moved to violence, but I cannot accept these accounts as excuse. (I even read an essay this morning that compared recent violence to Jesus’s cleansing of the Temple. But, for starters, Jesus didn’t make off with the coins from the tables.) It has been, after all, all too many oft-minority-owned small businesses in poor neighborhoods that have borne the brunt. Then again, it should not surprise those immersed in a pandemic that sickness begets sickness.
Indeed, why can we not step back at this moment and agree that, surely as with the coronavirus, what we’re facing with racism is a public health crisis, only of vastly longer duration and with nothing approaching “herd immunity”?