When a problem isn’t constantly before you, directly impacting you, concern often ebbs. Sadly, it seems to happen regardless of the seriousness of the issue or your degree of previous commitment to address it. This is especially true when you don’t understand how you are impacted by the problem, a problem that, on the surface, seems to be someone else’s problem. That’s the situation as I see it with racial justice. Top of mind – always — for Black people. Out of sight, out of mind – often? typically? — for white people.
It looks like this is the year racial justice has again fallen off the social justice map. The May 2020 televised murder of George Floyd galvanized the country. Finally, many white Americans understood why the slogan, Black Lives Matter, had emerged as a rallying cry and they joined in the push for racial justice. For a minute, it seemed that Black lives did matter. It seemed that white people were understanding how racist narratives had shaped, or misshaped, their perception of the truth of America. They were digging deeply into a topic that many had only scratched the surface of before. Now, interest in learning about race and racism seems to have waned, as have many of the public efforts to fight for racial justice. Not only are states banning the accurate teaching of our country’s history, but books on our racial history and our current reality that once dominated the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list are no longer there. Training of staffs on racial equity has slowed as businesses, governments, and nonprofits seem to feel like either they’ve done it – checked that box — or other social justice concerns have popcorned to the top. Is it my imagination? Has the multi-racial moment/the movement ignited by the murder of George Floyd come to an end without fanfare and without much notice?
Black people live with the trauma and reality of racial inequity and injustice every day, never needing any reminders beyond day-to-day life. Many white people seem to need “punched in the gut,” horrific, visual moments for them to be jolted into racial awareness. Moments like Mamie Till Mobley’s raw despair as she grieved over her son, Emmett’s battered body; the national coverage of water hoses and snarling dogs attacking peaceful civil rights protestors in Alabama, or the plethora of cellphone videos of racially-charged incidents in a hotel lobby, a college dorm, a park, or just about anywhere. These incidents sparked momentary outrage and commitments to racial redress. The images, in 1955, 1963, the 2010s or 2020, got many off their sofas and into the streets to protest or into the voting booths to elect individuals committed to change. But the commitment, the passion, in white communities seems to be rarely sustained. I want to know how to change that.
Understanding and addressing racial injustice is not a one and done situation, not reading one book, or participating in one racial equity training, or voting one time for the “right” candidate. There must be lifelong learning and unlearning of years of messages, and then working, in many ways, big and small, for racial justice. I thought the heinousness of George Floyd’s murder, coupled with so many high visibility, recorded racial incidents, might be enough, but it doesn’t seem to be. While race and racial justice remain top of mind for Black people all the time; for white advocates, other issues seem to have pushed race and racial equity to the back of the proverbial bus.
Racial injustice cannot be recognized and understood only by Black people. White people must see this too if we are to have a racially just America. White people must believe that justice for Black people will enable justice for them as well. White people hold the reins of power in America. Just as women wouldn’t have gotten the vote without the commitment of men, Black people alone cannot overhaul all the policies, procedures, and practices that undergird racial inequity in America. Black people can identify issues/inequities. Black people can march, protest, and vote. Black people can define and humanize the impact, but Black people do not sit sufficiently in those positions that wield the power necessary to transform racist systems and institutions. White people, you must engage on this topic, not just in the moment of a hate crime like the recent ones in California and in Buffalo, but on an ongoing basis. Black people must not die to prove that America continues to be racially unjust. Black people must not die to prompt white people to act. How do we sustain the commitment of the white community to work for racial justice? I really want to know. I need to know.