Now is the time to look inside and fight white supremacy for what it is

The subjugation of black people, enforced by violence and embedded in capitalism, has been the through line of American history.

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Photo by Max Herman

Thousands of demonstrators march against police brutality in The Loop on May 30, 2020 as part of a national day of protest over the recent killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Ahmaud Arbery in Atlanta, and Breonna Taylor in Louisville. (Photo by Max Herman)

Our country’s crisis demands immediate action.

Now.  

Now is the time for more of us to speak out against the police brutality that has ravaged communities of color for generations, to call out the culture of silence among law enforcement that is beginning to crack, but must be eradicated.  It is also time to remove the near comprehensive immunity that those with whom we have entrusted the sacred duty of serving and protecting have been cloaked in for too long. 

Now, while the cleaning up of the glass and ash on the ground and the power-washing of graffiti-covered buildings has begun.  Now is the time to understand that words, even the beautifully honest, wise, heartfelt and moving ones spoken by Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance-Bottoms, are not enough. Words alone will not restore the trust between many elected officials and communities of color because swift justice for the officers who carried out and watched George Floyd’s brutal murder is a necessary — but by no means sufficient — condition for healing. Not enough because the abuse has gone  unpunished for so long. 

Now is the time to state unambiguously that there will never be any moral leadership on this and all manner of issues from our current president. We can abandon any hope, if we ever had any, that the man would meet the challenge of this moment with anything other than the same divisive and hateful rhetoric, the same promises of violence, and the same failure to recognize all people as having equal worth.  We are on our own on this one, and always have been.

But now is also the time for more of us to face the truth that while President Barack Obama’s victory had enormous historical, symbolic and actual significance, far too many residents of African American neighborhoods that played an enormous role in propelling him to victory did not experience meaningful, let alone the transformative, change he had promised.  Beyond that, the past 40 years have seen systematic extraction from, and disinvestment in, many of these communities, while the income gap between the corporate and ultra-wealthy looters and many of our poorest people has widened to historic levels. 

It is the time for more of us to understand that there is a straight line from George Floyd’s quiet plea for his life to Rodney King’s prostrate body being methodically beaten on the side of a Los Angeles freeway to Emmett Till’s mangled corpse being lifted from the Tallahatchie River and courageously shown in an open casket by his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley. She said she wanted the world to see and know what J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant had done to her son.   

From there, the line of white supremacy enforced by violence and embedded in capitalism stretches back through the lynchings of thousands of black men throughout our country in public events often advertised in newspapers, attended by large swaths, of white families, and commemorated on postcards. The line extends all the way back into the fabric of our founding documents, nestled among and alongside the lofty pledges of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and the intention of our people to create “a more perfect union” — declarations that have inspired people around the world for the more than 225 years since their writing. The slavery that began in the 1600s was codified without name in three different places within our constitution: the non importation, three-fifths, and fugitive slave clauses.  These provisions delineated the continued importation of enslaved people to our new nation for its first two decades, the counting of those enslaved as less than a full person, and the requirement that people in states that did not practice slavery return those who had fled to freedom. 

Now is the time to acknowledge squarely the unearned benefits this system has bestowed on those of us who are white — benefits that are not some dim historic legacy, but that continue on a daily basis in far too many areas of life — from health care to education, to access to clean air and water, to the costs of food and insurance, to our interactions with police. While these current protests focus on police brutality, we have too many interrelated levels of inequality and injustice in our society that all call with fierce urgency to be addressed in root ways.  

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Now is the time to understand that the only way to regain any semblance of trust is to listen with humility, respect and non-defensiveness. To not instantly judge what is and is not valid, but simply to listen and try to understand that which may seem incomprehensible to those of who have not had the same lived experiences. Now is also the time to engage in meaningful partnerships in which those who have been adversely affected by oppression lead while we play supportive roles. 

And now is the time to take an unflinching look at history and learn from the fate of other nations that have been in a similar spot before us.  Countries like Germany after World War I, when a fledgling democracy was undermined and eventually toppled, in no large part because those on the left and the right who opposed not just the government in power, but the very concept of democracy, numbered more than half of the citizens. We are not at that same point here, but we cannot look away from the troubling presence of white supremacists, anarchists and antifascists  across the country who have used the peaceful protests for their own destructive purposes. 

The situation is grave and the stakes are high. 

The work is hard and the path will be long.

The outcome is uncertain. 

Our current federal  leadership makes it that much harder, and therefore all the more necessary.  

But we must undertake this task.  

To not do so would be an unacceptable admission that we have failed and given up on all that we have aspired to be as a nation. 

As we tread this arduous journey, we can draw strength and inspiration from the legendary acapella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, who in 1988 adapted the words of the late, great and tireless social justice warrior Ella Baker:

“We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.  

Until the killing of black men, black mother’s sons, 

Is as important as the killing of white men, white mother’s sons.”  

Now is the time. Not in a week. Not in a few days. 

Now.