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America, what took you so long?

Protesters marched through Brooklyn last week.DIANA ZEYNEB ALHINDAWI/NYT

What are you signifying that you can kneel on a man’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds and feel like you wouldn’t get the wrath of God?

That is the question Dave Chappelle posed in his new special “8:46,” released last Friday at midnight. Later that morning, Mayor Marty Walsh declared racism a public health crisis in Boston. That night, Rayshard Brooks was shot in the back by Atlanta police as he ran away. It happened around 11:23 p.m.

Around that same time on Friday night, before Brooks died in an Atlanta hospital and his name went viral, Donald Trump let the world know his Black friends told him about Juneteenth. His rally was to be held this Friday on Juneteenth — a holiday Black people celebrate to mark the end of slavery. It’s been 155 years and it’s not a federal holiday the whole country honors. Telling.

The plan was to have a Trump party in Tulsa, weeks after the 99th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre, where some 300 Black people were murdered by a white mob. Decades later, the city is searching for mass graves.


Trump rescheduled the appearance after an outcry. Now, his rally to make America great again is one day later, on Saturday. No matter what, he’s running his rally the way he ran his election campaign: gaslighting Black folk.

Back in 2015, he suggested the beating of a Black Lives Matter activist at a Trump rally was justified.

“Maybe he should have been roughed up because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing,” he told Fox News back then. Activists were chanting “Black Lives Matter” and “Dump the Trump.” For that, he felt they should be hurt. In 2017, he told officers to be aggressive.


“Please don’t be too nice,” he said to the law enforcement in Long Island, N.Y. He encouraged them to throw detainees in their cars and to not protect their heads.

Last month, as Black Lives Matter uprisings grew nationwide in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, it was Trump who evoked the historical, racist motto, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” He threatened martial law.

In the three weeks since George Floyd was killed, all four of the accused cops have been arrested. The companies that benefit off of Black culture have released statements saying “Black Lives Matter,” while so many have mostly all white leadership. Journalism is facing its own racism. Confederate statues across the country are coming down. Police reform bills, steps to defund the police, and in Minneapolis, a pledge to end policing as it was known have been made. Most of the top 15 books on the New York Times bestsellers list are antiracism books. In Kentucky, where they have yet to arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor in her bed, the Louisville Metro Council passed Breonna’s Law, banning no-knock warrants.

Yet, an anti-lynching bill still has not been passed. In 2020, we have yet to declare lynching a federal hate crime or Juneteenth a federal holiday. In California, Robert Fuller’s body was found hanging from a tree across from Palmdale City Hall last week. It was initially ruled a suicide. The week before that, another Black man, Malcolm Harsch, was found hanging from a tree 45 miles away. Amid protests, there will be further investigation.


But the president of the United States is still determined to uphold standing for the national anthem over the humanity of Black folk. Black people are only 13 percent of the population. We account for 23 percent of those shot and killed by police. In 2019, Black people accounted for 69 percent of stop-and-frisks in Boston. We are only a quarter of the population in the city.

We live in a country where Black folk have always been oppressed, not just by the police, but by a system that makes it hard to survive.

Economic disparity is real: The average Black family has just a tenth of the wealth of an average white family. Redlining made housing hard and food deserts inevitable. It pushed Black folk in neighborhoods far from their jobs and close to factories and dumps, which made the air dirtier. All of this means longer commutes, asthma, diabetes, and hypertension. And health care inequities rooted in implicit bias and access contribute to us having higher death rates and being disproportionately affected by coronavirus.

This is not news. The data have been there. We’ve know about the injustices. I’ve spent years calling the system broken, but it wasn’t. This system was designed to dehumanize and exploit Black folk and other people of color. It’s killing us. We have to destroy it.


So Walsh declared a public health crisis in Boston that could have been declared decades ago. If nothing else, at least three years ago. The Globe, in 2017, laid bare the ways in which racism was rampant in Boston living.

But Walsh, like the thousands of white folk pouring into the streets and buying up antiracism books, is now awake to the reality? What a privilege that must be to finally see what generations of Black folk have been living since our ancestors were trafficked to this land.

Last year, a few months after Milwaukee County declared racism a public health crisis, I sat on a panel at the ICA about racism, public health, and contemporary art. There, Nicole M. Brookshire, director of Milwaukee County’s Office on African American Affairs, showed us how racial inequities correlated to high infant and maternal mortality rates for Black people. And injustices like what we see there in Milwaukee are mirrored in cities all across America.

As coronavirus stormed the nation, we saw the way it ravaged Black and brown communities, especially in Boston. Black people comprise almost 40 percent of known cases. Back in March, Councilor Ricardo Arroyo called for Boston to declare racism as a public health crisis. And he knew we’d need more than a declaration.

“We know that all policies, procedures, regulations, executive orders and legislation at the municipal level impact racial equity,” Arroyo said. “We have the ability in the passage of those things to quite literally subtract years off of the lives of people of color in Boston. That is why we must ensure that racial equity is at the forefront of everything that we do.”


Three months later, in the wake of uprisings, Walsh unveiled his racism-as-a-public-health-crisis plan of action. The city is set to immediately transfer $3 million from the police overtime budget to the Public Health Commission. He will also redirect $2 million in police overtime spending toward housing security programs, $2 million to businesses owned by people of color and women, and $2 million to violence prevention, food security, immigrant advancement, and human rights programs. Another $2 million will go to mental health programs deployed by the police department, and $1 million to trauma counseling and other public health programs. It’s 20 percent of the total police overtime budget.

It’s a start. I’m hopeful. But it’s also heartbreaking.

It took 8 minutes and 46 seconds of a knee on George Floyd’s neck to take meaningful action. The uprisings were never just about George Floyd. That knee on his neck represented generations of brutal oppression.

When the protests quiet down, the hashtag stops trending, and outside opens again, will politicians and white allies continue to show up and do the work necessary to abolish supremacy? America has bad credit in paying off promises. We’ll have to march, fight, and vote every step of the way.

As white America finally wakes up to the injustices, I have to know: Why did Black folk have to violently die over and over for you to see our humanity? You had to see one of our deaths play out for nearly nine minutes for our lives to matter?

Everyone will feel this wrath until freedom is ours.

Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com. Follow her @sincerelyjenee and on Instagram @abeautifulresistance.