In April, COVID-19 was rated in a Gallup poll as this nation’s biggest problem. Race relations didn’t even garner a mention. Now, according to a recent CNN poll, 42 percent of Americans have declared it to be this presidential election season’s most urgent issue.
All it took was another police killing of another Black person, and another generation of protesters crying “enough is enough.”
It should not have taken George Floyd’s tragic death to force many white Americans to think about the scourge of systemic racism. Black people think about it every day of our lives. From our earliest years, we’ve never had any choice. Navigating its deeply embedded prejudices and racist suspicions is America’s oldest minefield, and any wrong step can cost us our lives.
Of course, it’s too soon to tell how much of what we’re seeing, from the smallest towns to the biggest cities, will reshape this nation. If all that remains of these weeks is empty performative activism or social justice tourism popping up on social media influencer feeds, then we will have failed again. We’ve been here too many times to declare this a tipping point; we’ve watched too many videos of police officers extinguishing the lives of Black people.
It’s not even the first time we’ve seen a Black person saying “I can’t breathe” as a police officer chokes the life out of him. Eric Garner died in New York nearly six years before Floyd in Minneapolis. We know there are others. In recent days, a March 2019 body camera video from the Austin, Texas, police department showing Javier Ambler’s last moments was released.
After he was stopped by police, Ambler was forced to the ground. He told the officers that he suffered from congestive heart failure, and at least twice he says, “I can’t breathe,” now a too-common lamentation that conjures centuries of state-sanctioned Black oppression and subjugation. Within minutes, Ambler lost consciousness.
The silence of every stilled breath now roars across this nation. Yet I fear white America and its institutions lack the stamina and will to ensure that there will be no more Floyds, no more Breonna Taylors, no more Ahmaud Arberys. Even now, I receive angry e-mails from white people who act as if Black necks exist to be their footrests.
A reader recently asked me, and not for the first time, “What is it you people want? Why do you always make it about race?” This time, I decided to answer: “We want to be treated as the human beings that we are. Why does America always make it about race?”
He then went on a nasty rant about the erosion of white people’s rights, at which point I did what I should have done months ago: I blocked him.
His fear was as palpable as his anger, and no less misplaced. Nothing terrifies white America more than the false notion that racial equality means they will be treated as Black people have been treated for 400 years. It proves that they recognize inequality and its horrors but don’t care about it so long as it isn’t at their door.
It resounds now in their streets, in their neighborhoods. It has not been tempered by the criminal charges, including second-degree murder, against four former Minneapolis police officers. It won’t be resolved if they are convicted and sent to prison. These protests are about the racism that led to Floyd’s death, that sustains police brutality, minimizes opportunity, and has forced communities of color to suffer disproportionately from the coronavirus and its economic devastation. One pandemic has fostered another, and neither will be easily defeated.
What is happening in the streets is an unvarnished American mirror. For centuries, nothing has made this country more uncomfortable than looking directly at the systemic racism that corrupts and erodes its foundation. Black people know that this nation’s as-yet-unattained greatness lies only in inclusiveness, compassion, and justice. And before America can ever be great, white America must be willing to be uncomfortable.