As the life left him…life was breathed into a movement. The scales of justice and racial equality promised by our Constitution, that has leaned so heavily on the backs of Black Americans has tipped ever so slightly in the other direction. For 8 minutes and 46 seconds that police officer, whose name I refuse to use, suffocated an unarmed man in broad daylight while he was being recorded. While this man casually took a life, he had no idea what he had awakened in America.
People who have never been activists have been activated. In 8 minutes and 46 seconds the stark-naked brutality of racism was made clear. Folks who were able to look away previously, couldn’t turn a blind eye this time. It wasn’t just that this officer killed a man while he was being recorded. The shocking thing was how he felt comfortable doing it. In the mind of this officer with around 18 previous complaints alleging misconduct, he believed that he had a right to take that life. To him the life of George Floyd had no value. With one hand in his pocket while three other officers stood guard devoid of humanity, life and urine leaked from the limp body of a man accused of passing a counterfeit $20 bill.
Once the video hit all the news outlets, the outrage spread like wildfire. We had heard the outcries that Black Lives Matter, but this time the chorus was bigger, and whiter, and even blue-er. Protests sprung up across the globe, and while there was always a contingent of white protesters lending their support, this time there were more, way more. There were videos showing police officers marching arm in arm with protesters, some taking a knee in support. There were even videos of police chiefs, officers, and elected officials declaring that George Floyd was indeed murdered, and the actions of the offending officer was in direct contradiction to the mandate of police departments countrywide.
What’s going on?
With this kind of support why do some police officers shoot and kill unarmed black men and women? Some say it’s bad or inadequate training, while others say the reason is a more insidious one…racism. You can count me in the camp claiming racism. I will talk about training but let’s jump in the deep end of the pool first.
Racism is as word that enflames passion in nearly everyone who hears it invoked. Some white folk refuse to acknowledge it still exists and some black folk claim it’s the cause of everything wrong in the country.
What is racism?
The New Oxford American Dictionary defines it this way – NOUN – prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against a person or people on the basis of their membership in a particular racial or ethnic group, typically one that is a minority or marginalized.The belief that different races possess distinct characteristics, abilities, or qualities, especially so as to distinguish them as inferior or superior to one another. (the italics and underline are mine)
I want to sharpen the focus by drawing your attention to a couple of lines from this definition.
Prejudice, discrimination or antagonism directed against a person of their membership in a particular racial or ethnic group.
The belief that different races possess distinct characteristics, especially so as to distinguish them as inferior.
That officer antagonized George Floyd to the point that he killed him, because he believed him to be inferior. That is the only rational explanation for him being not only willing but able to so casually take the life a helpless human being who presented no threat.
Racism wasn’t invented by America; it goes back to the beginnings of our time here on this planet. But America made its mark on it for sure.
How did we get here?
Walter Rodney a prominent historian and academic with a Ph D in African history writes –
“The role of slavery in promoting racist prejudice and ideology has been carefully studied in certain situations, especially in the USA. The simple fact is that no people can enslave another for four centuries without coming out with a notion of superiority, and when the color and other physical traits of those peoples were quite different it was inevitable that the prejudice should take a racist form.”
I’d like to refer to a part of Walter Rodney’s quote above, “The simple fact is that no people can enslave another for four centuries without coming out with a notion of superiority.” Because of the legacy of slavery whose affects have not expired, there is still a “notion of superiority” in the collective mind of White America. Sometimes it’s explicit like when the officer killed George Floyd. Sometimes it’s more subtle like the images of beauty and success we see in the media. I remember a few years ago seeing a TV commercial for a hair care product. The commercial featured an attractive white woman walking in slow motion with her long blonde hair flowing behind her. The narrator said, “Don’t you wish your hair was like hers?”
There was an assumption the white women’s hair was the definition of beauty. I knew for a fact that I’d never see a commercial like that featuring a black woman. Why? Because in the collective mind of White America black is not beautiful, white is. Why? Because here in America there is a “notion of superiority” when it comes to whiteness in America.
I mentioned the collective mind of America, because a collective mind does not include every mind. There are plenty of white people who do not subscribe to this “notion of superiority”. However, the existence of that “notion” is hard to deny, and its affects hard to escape. Some white people complain about protesters rioting and looting, but don’t recognize the reasons why they protest. They say it’s inappropriate and violent. But when Colin Kaepernick peacefully protested police brutality against black folk, many white people complained about that too. They presumed to be in a position to tell black folk how they can and cannot express their grievances. Why? There is a “notion of superiority.”
There have been many complaints mounted against displaying the Confederate flag, because it is seen by black people as a symbol of state sponsored racism and oppression. But some white people are angry and say it’s a symbol of their heritage. But they ignore the central reason for the Confederate States desire to secede from the Union. These people will say the Civil war was about states’ rights, and they’d be right. The states that joined the Confederacy were all states that supported slavery, and the war was to uphold what they believed was their right to maintain the institution of slavery. Expressing his suggestions on the design for the Confederate flag prominent newspaper publisher William Tappan Thompson writes-
“As a people, we are fighting to maintain the heaven ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race: a white flag would thus be emblematical of our cause.”
The actual Confederate Constitution makes it clear what the Confederacy was all about in Article IV section 2 –
(3) No slave or other person held to service or labor in any State or Territory of the Confederate States, under the laws thereof, escaping or lawfully carried into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor; but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such slave belongs,. or to whom such service or labor may be due.
Article IV section 3 –
(3)In all such territory the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected by Congress and by the Territorial government; and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and Territories shall have the right to take to such Territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the States or Territories of the Confederate States.
Flying the Confederate flag or supporting flying that flag in addition to maintaining statues, buildings and other monuments that honor the Confederacy is no less offensive, hurtful, and incendiary as flying a Nazi flag. The Germans have outlawed any public display of Nazi paraphernalia because they have learned the error of their ways. America has yet to learn.
Where are we at now?
Hate crimes have been on the rise. Over the last few months there have been several young black men found hung from trees. There are people posing for pictures with their knee on a person’s neck, making a mockery of the murder of George Floyd. Black people have had the police called on them for using a charcoal grill in a park, for sitting in a Starbucks store, for trying to get into their own apartment, for falling asleep in a common area of their college dorm, for renting an Air BnB, and the list goes on.
I want to say that George Floyd was the latest unarmed black man killed by the police, but I’m sickened by the fact that he isn’t. There was Rashard Brooks who was shot in the back running away from the police. There was Ahmaud Arbery hunted down and shot by two white men while he was jogging. Breonna Taylor was shot dead in her apartment by police carrying out a no knock warrant looking for someone who didn’t live there. Speaking of apartments, Botham John was killed while eating ice cream in his own apartment, by a cop who thought he was in her apartment robbing her, because what else would a black man be doing. Philando Castile was shot and killed while trying to comply with an officer’s request for his license. Eric Garner was choked to death by the police who were called about him selling loose cigarettes. Walter Scott was shot in the back while running away from a policeman as well. I promise you there are enough cases like these to consume the rest of your day.
What does it all mean? One hundred fifty-five years after the abolition of slavery, racism is still alive and kicking the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave. We are more divided as a nation than we’ve been in at least a generation. Every time we see a news report of another unarmed black man or black woman killed by the police the hearts of decent folk breaks just a little bit more. I say we might as well kick back and brace ourselves because more killing is on the way.
In anguish we plead to God and the authorities to make it stop. We see placards saying, “No Justice No Peace”. I say the killing will not stop, not yet, because enough black men and women haven’t been killed. Had we reached whatever that terrible quota is, the people would scream their demands until the necessary changes have been made. But, we ain’t there yet. We get mad for a little while and then resume our lives. Another horrific killing happens, we get mad again, and then chill out. For the first time since the sixties there seems to be a shift under our feet. The killing of George Floyd was so obviously heinous that the moral outrage of a nation has been awakened. I don’t hold George Floyd up as a hero or martyr, he’s a symbol. George Floyd is the fulcrum upon which the future of racial justice in America balances. Which way it tips is entirely up to us.
Where do we go from here?
“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Albert Einstein
All decent people know that racism is wicked. But, one of the reasons the sickness of racism has been so intractable is because we have never asked why and consequently never got an answer.
Let me refer back to the writings of Rodney Wade –
“The simple fact is that no people can enslave another for four centuries without coming out with a notion of superiority…”
Just like a stench that has floated in the air long enough to get used to it, the “notion of superiority” continues to waft in American air.” There have been riots, laws passed and enacted, and there has been some positive change. But we still haven’t addressed the stink drifting in the air all around us and so we collectively breathe in the “notion of superiority’ of white folk over black folk.
I am under no delusion that all white folk are racists. I know that is not true. But still, all around us there is something in the air that makes a certain police officer feel comfortable to suffocate an unarmed and non-resistant black man with a hand in his pocket while he is being video recorded. There is something in the air that makes two white men feel that they have the right to chase a black man jogging, close in on him, and shoot him dead in the middle of a street in broad daylight. I would suggest that it’s that “notion of superiority” that Rodney Wade spoke of.
If you were going to buy a house and found out that it had hazardous mold throughout, the first thing you’d have to do is recognize that there is indeed mold. Then you would take steps to mitigate that mold, and most likely remove things like sheetrock that were infested by the mold. What you wouldn’t do it pretend that it didn’t exist. Even if you painted over it, the “notion” of the mold would persist, then make you and your family sick.
In America we have painted over the racism. We passed some laws and pretended that the problem ceased to exist. The murder of George Floyd has reminded us that we still got mold in the house! So, we have to mitigate the mold, because it’s making us all sick.
What can we do?
- Good people everywhere must stand up against racism wherever it exists. Just like with terror threats, “if you see something, say something”. Being passive is to be a part of the problem. Don’t sit by idly while racist jokes are being told. Don’t let racial bias of any kind, by anyone, anywhere go unchallenged. Please be clear, if you are silent, you are complicit!
- White people…RELAX! The good news is that black people want equality not revenge. Join us in our protests, stand with us in our fight to perfect this American experiment. Stop being defensive and learn the healing art of listening. Black people want and deserve to be heard. Our grievances are not against all white people, but against racism. Be an ally as we tip the scales of justice toward equality for all.
- There must be new more equitable federal standards for policing-
1) Ban on choke holds including the so-called “carotid hold”.
2) All police shootings and deployments of tasers must be reported to a federal agency where each incident will be documented along with the race of each party involved and these reports must be made available to the public.
3) Police must be held to the same standard that civilians are held to when it comes to use of deadly force. The officer must be arrested immediately after shooting a person, unless the evidence of self-defense is overwhelming at the scene of the shooting. Their guilt or innocence will then be decided by a jury, just like civilians.
4) Our police departments have to be retrained and re-indoctrinated to help them realign with the universal mandate of police departments across the nation, to “protect and serve”. The police must be taught that they are not our boss, they are in their positions to serve the communities they work in. When they respond to a call their dominant focus must be on how they can be of service.
5) The police must be trained to de-escalate. The mindset they bring to any difficult situation they encounter can have everything to do with whether or not somebody dies that day. Also, resources have to be put into place to deal with mentally ill citizens they come into contact with. The police should not have to manage mental healthcare.
6) Police unions should be aligned with the same mandate as the police themselves to “protect and serve”. Far too often rotten police officers are kept on the job by unions whose only concern is protecting officers at nearly any cost. It has to be easier for police departments to get rid of truly bad cops.
7) Qualified immunity has to be eliminated or its reach has to be greatly reduced. In the United States, the doctrine of qualified immunity grants government officials performing discretionary functions immunity from civil suits unless the plaintiff shows that the official violated “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known”. This legal doctrine has been used to benefit police officers to the detriment of the citizens they are sworn to protect and serve.
8) Screening must be done regularly to weed out officers with racial prejudices. Racial sensitivity training must also be done regularly.
- In our schools, we must have a robust infusion of the genesis of slavery and its social impact in this country. We must also include in our educational curriculum the plentiful contributions African descendants have made toward the building and betterment of America. This will cast a new more positive and accurate light on the presence of Blacks in this country.
These are just a few suggestions that can certainly make a huge difference in the quality of policing in America, and the social atmosphere at large. But there is more…
Do Black Lives Really Matter?
No! Black lives do not matter here in America. If they did, George Floyd would not have died under the knee of a police officer, and Tamir Rice would still be able to play in the park. Black lives do not matter, but they should. In my mind “Black Lives Matter” is an aspirational statement, it’s something we must fight for until it’s true.
Where I come from, if you want to be respected you must be respectable. Now let me be perfectly clear, the police and white vigilantes killing unarmed black folk is wicked and must be stopped right now! However, if we as black folk want to be honored and respected, we have to behave accordingly.
Crime is a plague in many of our big cities. In fact, the highest cause of death for a young black man is homicide at the hands of another young black man. We as black people cannot proclaim that black lives matter if we ourselves don’t respect the value of black lives. This scourge has got to stop and we as black folk have to stop it.
We cannot continue to let black women be unwed mothers left to support children without the support and guiding influence of their dads living in the house with them. It is true that the welfare system penalizes families when the father is living in the house. The solution is easy, a man should marry a woman before he gets her pregnant. Women should require financial stability, responsibility, maturity, a ring, and a wedding before they allow themselves to get pregnant. A present responsible father living with his black sons will make a massive difference in what black boys decide to do with their lives. I am not criticizing men and women who have made certain choices in the past. We’ve all made choices that could have and should have been better. My intent is to look forward and consider how we can fortify our black communities now and into the future.
To the extent that it is in our power, we must take responsibility for our own safety. When we encounter a police officer the most important thing to us should be to get home safely. On the street with a cop questioning us is perhaps the worst time for our inner badass to come out. We must pick our battles carefully, and in a way that we stand at least a chance to win. If the officer actually is a racist or knucklehead it is even more risky to get that person agitated. So, if you encounter a police officer please keep these things in mind –
- Don’t make any sudden moves. Only do what you’re told to do. Then, advise the officer exactly what you’re about to do, and then do exactly that.
- Do not under any circumstances try to run away or escape.
- Be compliant. Give the officer whatever documents are asked for.
- If you are detained and put in handcuffs, avoid with everything in you the urge to adjust yourself, get more comfortable, or resist.
- Do not ask for the officer’s name or badge number. Once the officer is gone, take note of the exact time, location, and the cruiser license plate.
- When the officer is gone, call in and ask for the identity of the officer, and if you have a complaint, ask for the supervisor, and tell that person you want to file a complaint and why. Once you are no longer in potential danger, you have a much better chance to get favorable consideration.
It is always an unpleasant experience to get pulled over by the cops. But from what I understand, it’s far worse to get shot by one. This section is not about making it easy for bad cops to be bad. My intent here is to help you focus on what should be in your immediate best interest, and that is to get home safely. Please, swallow your pride and make it easy for the officer to go easy with you. I promise you your pride will heal.
If it is ever to be true that Black Lives Matter, then every single black child must have access to a first-rate education. In 1954 the landmark legal case Brown vs. the Board of Education, settled in the U.S. Supreme court, established that separate schools are not equal, and that all American citizens have a fundamental right to a quality education. Yet in 2020 many schools in inner city and rural areas are still segregated and not giving children, especially minority children quality educations. If you are now or will be a parent of a school aged minority child or you care about our children, go to the Board of Education meetings where you live and participate. Even better yet, run to be elected on the Board. You can make a real difference for the children where you live. Additionally, the education of minority children has to become a higher priority in the Federal government. Vote for the people who care, then hold them to task.
Access to quality healthcare should not be a privilege just for affluent people. Poor healthcare leads to poor health which in turn robs families without deep financial pockets of the ability to live comfortable lives. Living under the burden of financial ruin is fertile ground for crime and domestic violence. Minorities are almost always the most disadvantaged when it comes to the availability of quality healthcare. This has to change!
I believe that when can end racism. I know that’s a claim so bold that it borders on the ridiculous. We haven’t ended racism because we haven’t screamed loud enough for long enough. We haven’t ended racism because we made some strides and then quit the fight. We haven’t elected enough political leaders of color, who could in turn represent the needs of people of color. We haven’t gotten enough people of color on school boards nor have enough of us signed up to be police officers to serve in our communities. We haven’t demanded enough from our President and Congress, and we haven’t demanded enough from ourselves.
Until we get to a place where we will accept nothing less than justice for black folk in this country, then we will not have it. Just trying ain’t enough. A rally here or there will not get it done. We must demand that the promise of America be freely available to every one of it’s citizens.
We have an opportunity to finally tip the scales of justice into balance. If we lose this moment in time and not take full advantage, we may never get this chance again. It is your obligation as a fellow human being and as an American to stand against racism and actively pursue equality once and for all.