Polls show that the majority of Americans believe the country is going in the wrong direction. For some, that perception has been consistent over Democratic and Republican administrations throughout the 2000's. Even for the ruling party dissatisfaction boils among a sizable minority. Given that, in January 2020, I wondered what would happen if we made resolutions to heal our cultural disatisfactions much like we resolve to improve our personal lives each new year. Little did I realize that 4 months into the year we'd be watching the horrifying death of a 46 year old black man restrained by police and begging for his life. That video unleashed a torrent of anguished protests in over 700 communities and triggered national and international discussions about racism in the criminal justice system. While there are many issues to solve that will improve our satisfaction with the national direction certainly reinforcing America's role as a country of fairness and "justice for all" will bolster our democracy and buoy our spirits. Would you agree? Recent polling shows America is ready to tackle that big issue. Only 7% of respondents over 55 years of age think racism isn't a problem. So, where do we go from here?
Jacques Attali, a 76 year old French political advisor and theorist, recently noted that pandemics commonly usher in a change in power. Perhaps that explains some of the "why now?' volatility America is experiencing and how suddenly public opinion has changed with respect to institutional racism. Attali believes that the most significant power shift in the post pandemic world will be the full emergence of new technology. Yet, he cautions, will we use it to benefit and improve life or will we let it be used authoritatively? In many ways, that will depend on the leaders we choose and the health of our democratic society. As we slowly strengthen our nation by facing hard issues I'm hopeful. After all, last decade we made advances in balancing power for women through the #metoo movement. Now we have the opportunity to balance power for black, brown and native peoples by bringing more justice into our criminal justice system. A power balance means more voices will be heard therefor more brainpower will be available to guide us through the uncertainty ahead. Balanced power ensures we'll remain a strong democracy and reinforces the American ideal. As we balance power we reduce the misery we tolerate as a society and bring more light into our lives.
Reverend Sharpton, 65, however, can testify that balancing power and changing a system, such as institutional racism, is historically hard. To begin with it's important to negotiate consensus on the definition of institutional racism. Wikipedia says it's "a form of racism expressed in the practice of social and political institutions which is reflected in disparities regarding wealth, income, criminal justice, employment, housing, health care, political power and education, among other factors." In the 1967 book Black Power: The Politics of Liberation, Carmichael and Hamilton explain, "When terrorists bomb a black church and kill five black children, that is an act of individual racism, widely deplored by most segments of the society. But when in that same city – Birmingham, Alabama – five hundred black babies die each year because of the lack of proper food, shelter and medical facilities, and thousands more are destroyed and maimed physically, emotionally and intellectually because of conditions of poverty and discrimination in the black community, that is a function of institutional racism." Racism in policing is similarly pervasive. Outlining that complexity through analysis of the tragic police killing of EMT Breonna Taylor comedian Trevor Noah said, "Every single day in America we're reminded that there are different criminal justice systems depending on who you are. There's one for the rich and one for the poor, there's one for white people and a different one for black people and apparently there's also one for those who oppose police brutality and for those who commit it...What happened to Breonna Taylor is not just a few bad cops it's not even really just about the cops. I'ts also the legislature that gave them the power to break into houses, the judge that signed the warrant, the police department that didn't act against these officers and the county that charged the protesters for challenging these rules. In other words what happened to Breonna Taylor wasn't a failure of the system it was the system working as intended. And that is why people are fighting for the system to be changed." Time magazine discusses that subject further in How Institutional Racism Kills Black People. Prefacing their 1967 book, Carmichael and Hamilton write, "The whole question of race is one that America would much rather not face honestly and squarely. To some it is embarrassing; to others, it is inconvenient, to still others, it is confusing." America? Are we beyond than that now?
In the video above artist Paul Rucker displays objects of systemic racism. Rucker says, "I had an epiphany I had a realization that white supremacy is there but the biggest force of white supremacy is not the KKK it's the normalization of systemic racism."
After defining institutional racism finding a solution means getting specific about what needs repair. At the memorial gathering for George Floyd, on June 4 2020, Reverend Al Sharpton urged communities to focus on and improve racial bias in policing and the justice system. His call for judicial equity was echoed by protests, politicians, and theorists across our nation and Internationally. At 18:02 of Sharpton's remarks above he outlines policy changes that support effective change such as restoring consent decrees (President Trump ended this remedial policy), providing public access to the complaint history of officers, and instigating national tracking for police who are fired because they often relocate and take their problems to work elsewhere. Do you see racism in community policies? Do you see racism anywhere in your life?
To identify racist policies or racist attitudes it helps to explore the issue. Protests in the street, though prompted by outrage about racism, are loud and disruptive. They can be frightening or violent so, for many, they aren't a good way to gain understanding. I encourage you to start by listening to the experience of people of color. Listen to their perception of the police. I asked my walking partner and she told me her dad was always getting pulled over by the police when she was young so she grew up thinking it was normal. I don't know what disturbed me more- that her life experience caused her to believe the police just stopped people as a routine or that I'd been walking with her for more than 5 years and just found that out. If you, like me, haven't encountered unwarranted police stops, suffered excessive sentencing, or been reported as a suspicious person find out how, why and where people of color are experiencing these interactions. Learn how it feels to need to explain to your sons and daughters how to survive a police stop. Examine national incarceration statistics and compare it to prison populations in your own state. Research why our prisons are predominantly filled by people of color. Learn about the laws that perpetuate injustice and, if you need economic background, look at the cost to society of almost 1.5 million people incarcerated 30% of whom are there for non violent crime. Read non fiction? Here's a booklist to get you started. Once you cultivate an interest you'll notice there are endless resources to improve understanding.
As you explore inequities in justice and law enforcement, you'll find that there are related issues which place people of color on a collision course with deadly policing or punitive sentencing. Policies on: health care, employment, and education as well as personal experience and misinformed perceptions all contribute to the situation. Look at the video below, for instance, and ask yourself: what story would I have developed if I'd passed him on the street? If he was wearing a hoodie? If he walked up to my front door one night? Same guy, different situations. You might be surprised who he really is. Listen to what he says in the video below. Our minds can carry cultural stereotypes that lead us to false perception. In a 2018 study from Yale, researchers found that height, for instance, a professional advantage for white men, is a liability for black men because of stereotypes that trigger threat. Brookings scholar Dr Rashaw Ray explains that statistics demonstrate how blackness becomes weaponized meaning even when black men don't have a weapon they're viewed as having one. For instance, black teenagers are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than white teens and, as a whole, black people are 3.5x more likely to be killed by police when they are unarmed and non aggressive. Author, Nikole Hannah-Jones, shows us how her prior experience with law enforcement motivated her decision to not call police after being involved in a non fatal shooting, "For those of you reading this who may not be black, or perhaps Latino," she writes, "this is my chance to tell you that a substantial portion of your fellow citizens in the United States of America have little expectation of being treated fairly by the law or receiving justice. It's possible this will come as a surprise to you. But to a very real extent, you have grown up in a different country than I have."
Two different countries? In some cases the gap seems huge but beneath our differences are our common humanity--always. In an attempt to inform perceptions and create more understanding Tyler Merritt, the actor/activist in the video above, is asking everyone to take the This Is Who I am Challenge so we can get to know one another as fully dimensional people. Let's talk more to one another and share more about our life experience. In this video two Seattle news anchors fill live air time during the protests discussing how talking to each other about their lives led to a special interracial friendship. Anchor Mark Wright states, "What people are being asked to do is what you and I have done naturally over the past years that we've known each other. You have taught me more about race than anyone and it's not like you're preaching to me what racism is. All you've done is share what your life experience has been." Joyce Taylor responds, "But Mark it's because you've had a genuine curiosity and wanted to understand."
Are you at that point, reader? Are you ready to say that the color of our skin should not determine the safety of our children, the education we receive, our economic potential, or the quality and length of our lives?
"America this is the time of dealing with accountability in the criminal justice system," Reverend Sharpton said at George Floyd's memorial. While 93% of Americans see racial bias as a problem the bridge over racial differences is hard to build. It takes time as Senators Kamala Harris and Corey Booker struggle to accept in the video below. They're reacting to Senator Rand Paul, R Kentucky, holding up the annual passage of the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching bill on the day of George Floyd's memorial. Paul called the bill symbolic window dressing and introduced amendments that would've weakened it's reach according to Senator Harris who notes that Paul's amendment "puts a greater burden on victims of lynching than is currently required under Federal Hate Crimes laws." Senator Booker begins, "I do not question the sincerity of his convictions I've had too many conversations with him (Sen. Paul) to question his heart. But I'm so raw today. Of all days that we're doing this. Of all days that we're doing this... because God if this bill passed today... " he continued "... it would not only do something substantive to make a difference on the books of the American federal system but God it would speak volumes to the racial pain and hurt of generations."
Deaths of Black men and women by police or at the hands of government policy or our own lack of interest are not singular or situational. They're connected by a systemic racism rooted so firmly we once thought it was entrenched. Facing institutional racism, such as that in law enforcement and law, challenges us to heal the decades behind and the actions of our ancestors. Yet it also provides us with an rare opportunity to strengthen our democracy and set the county on a more satisfying trajectory before we're swept away by powerful technological forces. I'm in the 93% that see racism as a big problem and want to do something to change that. if you're in the 7% that don't problematize racism or don't believe it exists let me share with you something a wise friend of mine said, "When you're faced with change the best thing you can do is change the way you look at things." America? Are you ready to take another look?
Update July 2020:
Stevie Wonder asks an audience in the Apollo Theatre 1985 Why do we still hate? 15 years later that question is even more relevant.
From the talk below: "America had 246 years of legal slavery. At the time of the Civil War, close to 4 million African Americans were enslaved--13% of the population." Seeing this explains so much about what's happening today and what Institutional Racism really means.
Update July 2020
"Anti-racist ideas suggest that the racial groups are equals. racist ideas suggest that certain racial groups are superior or inferior or better or worse than others...Racist people are people who are expressing racist ideas or are supporting racist policies by their actions or even inaction and I say inaction because if you do nothing in the face of racist policies since essentially racist policies are more or less the norm you're maintaining that norm of racism," Dr. Ibrim X Kendi