Friends–Minneapolis is a wake up call.
The tragic police murder of George Floyd highlights the sad truth that racial profiling of African Americans and the country’s racial divide continue. The juxtaposition of this incident and the fits and starts the nation is going through in its battle against the coronavirus provides us with an opportunity to declare another war — a war on racism in America. With race on the front pages, the opportunity is ripe for national, state, and local leaders to declare war on bigotry and hate.
More than 150 years after the Civil War and 55 years since the Civil Rights Act and the end of the national origins immigration system, racism continues in the United States. From hate speech and hate crimes to employment discrimination and forms of social preference, subtle actions and institutionalized racism continue to challenge our nation. Almost 20 years ago when Trent Lott was sharply criticized for racist sentiment at Strom Thurmond’s retirement party, we saw Democrats and Republicans alike agree that racism is wholly and completely unacceptable. But after Lott stepped aside, addressing racism was pushed to the back burner again, allowed to eat away at our nation’s character. We now see Donald Trump getting away with calling neo-Nazis and white supremacists at Charlottesville “very fine people” while labeling Minneapolis protesters as “thugs.”
A dozen years ago, presidential candidate Barack Obama gave a stirring speech on our nation’s racial divide. Then a few years later he sat down to discuss profiling with Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and his arresting Boston police officer. But after that, we heard little further discussion nor witnessed much direct public action. Any talk of improving race relations remains hushed and polite when it occurs at all. Hushed until there’s another black victim of police brutality: Amadou Diallo. Sandra Bland. Manuel Loggins Jr. Ronald Madison. Kendra James. Sean Bell. Eric Garner. Michael Brown. Mario Woods. Philando Castile. Walter Scott. Freddie Gray. Sam DuBose. Tamir Rice. Eric Harris. Akai Gurley. Terence Crutcher. William Chapman. Jeremy McDole. Alton Sterling. Ahmaud Arbery. Breonna Taylor. Sadly, George Floyd was not the first black murder victim of Minneapolis police—just Google the name Jamar Clark.
The problem with polite talk on these issues is that it lets the vast majority of the nation off the hook. The nation ends up treating overt incidents as the exception, regarding those instances as rare—as they move on to the next day’s headline. What will it take to realize that we should be taking aim at what should be our prime target—the foundation of institutionalized racism that has created an environment that enables subtle and unconscious racism, emboldens perpetrators of racist speech, and licenses acts of hate.
We need more than polite talk. We need a sense of outrage and indignation. We need massive mobilization over the issue. We need a declaration of war. The declaration of war on the evils of hate and racism must be loud and constant. Just as we have poured millions of dollars into campaigns against COVID-19, against drugs and smoking, and into efforts to address recycling and other environmental concerns, we need attention-grabbing strategies to begin now, in the midst of current recognition that improving race relations matters.
We need a clear vision statement on these issues to serve as the basis for this moral declaration. We must be driven, not politely, because we are beyond politeness on the evils of hate and prejudice that our sensible leaders acknowledge are not American values. Let’s put our heads together on this national priority. Be creative and imaginative in approaches. Set an example. Call for new laws, enforcement of existing regulations, smart coalition-building, civility, respect and approaches to addressing private attitudes and actions. Make that call loud and clear and remind us over and over. Make it part of the national psyche, not just part of the national agenda. That call and that declaration of war against racism is happening right now on the streets of Minneapolis.
The public face of American pluralism — dominated by politicians, professionals and community leaders — has its positive moments in spite of Donald Trump. The problem is with the private off-camera face of America that fails to teach our children and challenge our neighbors to be respectful of others. We all share to varying degrees the blame for a culture that gives rise to hate speech and ethnic animosity. Every time we engage in even subtle racism or the fostering of stereotypes, we perpetuate that culture. As much as each of us shares the blame, each of us can be part of the solution. Every time we reach out to others whom we have been conditioned to distrust, fear, or subordinate because of culture, race or class, we begin to chip away at the wicked culture that gives rise to irrational hatred, animosity, and violence.
In the aftermath of 9/11, President Bush spoke out against hate crimes directed at Americans of South Asian, Pakistani, Arab, and Muslim descent. He urged “Americans not to use this as an opportunity to pick on somebody that doesn’t look like you, or doesn’t share your religion.” But then, he and other leaders did little to demonstrate an informed understanding about the racialized structures of our society that continue to subordinate blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, and many Asian Americans. President Obama called on Americans to do better, but his efforts have been derailed by the MAGA-wearing president. So we must take it upon ourselves to support and get on the war path against racism. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and get serious about racism as a nation and as individuals.