I think it was seeing in the video the smug callousness of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, in broad daylight, hand in his pocket, knee on George Floyd’s neck as he pleaded for his life, that so disgusted the world.
The eight minutes of confident power that took this man’s life as the other officers kept the shouting bystanders back. Clearly, that is what it looks like to lynch a black man, as if it is the most normal thing in the world.
Since Floyd’s killing last month, the aftermath of local violence, worldwide protests, and continuing corporate and political responses, I have seen more white Americans become newly aware of our nation’s essential racial bias, as if we have finally heard what black social critics, artists and politicians have been saying to the country for generations. The truth that in a society built upon the historic belief that the white race is essentially best, dark skin still means you are automatically suspect, possibly dangerous, and certainly inferior.
While many of us have been taught to “not see color,” to not see the difference in our society around race is actually a kind of willful blindness.
We have not reckoned with the fact that slavery made the economic growth of a young America possible, or with the full meaning of the Civil War, or taught all our children that the Emancipation Proclamation while proclaiming slaves free, also suddenly thrust hundreds of thousands into the chaos of homelessness, poverty, and hunger.
Most of us don’t know how haphazard the federal Reconstruction era policies were, or that southern states created their own brutally enforced laws of segregation and other “black codes” to keep black families shut out of neighborhoods, schools and jobs that could provide a secure future.
We turn away from the fact that mob lynching was a frequent, brutal and widespread event meant to kill, humiliate and terrorize black people. We have passed laws, and memorialized great leaders. But some 400 years after the first slaves were traded on American soil, we have never found a shared way to heal our culture from the ways that owning persons and being owned poisoned our beloved values of dignity, equality and individual freedoms.
We have not had the political courage or national will to repent. While a much smaller country, and challenging a shorter historical frame, Germany is a democracy that has done this differently. While treaties signed following World War II dismantled amassed land and material wealth, later generations continue to legislate and repent of Germany’s national fall into the madness of Adolf Hitler, the Nazi party, eugenics, social holocaust and massively destructive world war.
While current bans on neo-Nazi symbols, speech and beliefs are controversial, Germans have nationally attempted to reject the hatred of the past. Such efforts toward cultural repair are so contentious in the United States that a bill to simply study this idea (HR 40) has been repeatedly submitted but never passed out of committee since it was first introduced in 1989.
Will the next generations of Americans figure this out? I have great hope that the youth who have taken to the streets and social media will now take to the ballot box, will file to run for school boards, and county commissions, state representative offices and Congressional seats across the country.
We need this generation’s passion and commitment in government. It’s by applying our messy, complicated, hard-won democratic systems that we can change the way those systems have maintained our national white preference.
I am hopeful that increasingly Americans understand the truth that racism isn’t just an attitude, like the white man who flies a Confederate flag on his truck, or people who shout hateful slurs, or a local event, like marches at night in Charlottesville or shooting black neighbors dead at a Charleston church Bible study.
Racism is the all-encompassing way we unconsciously normalize the white person, have assimilated European culture and perspectives that have communicated in every way possible, including with policing policies, that white bodies are superior and valued. The cultural belief in the supremacy of the whiteness even infuses minority communities with social “colorism” in which lighter skin or straighter hair is afforded higher social status and preference. No one is exempt.
When persons of color — black, indigenous, Latino/a, Asian or islander — are viewed as the other, they are being compared to a standard. Our standard has been white European legal, religious, social and political power.
The death of George Floyd on a street corner in Minneapolis on Memorial Day is but one violent death in a long line of racial wounds. This time, the world watched.
Many more of us want change. Black leaders wonder if it will be any different this time. Angry entitled white citizens blame the lack of order, speak viscous words of hate, and demand a return to the status quo.
What shall we make of this thunderous outcry for justice and the surge of resistance against cultural repair? I pray it is the long death cry of empire, the erosion of bigotry and the slow, sacred rise of healing.