America, what have we learned?

By Dr. Wendy Ellis, DrPH, Director of the Center for Community Resilience

On May 25, one year ago, a man in Minneapolis went out to buy a pack of cigarettes and never came home. He didn’t travel far, yet by the end of the week the images of his death made him a household name and fueled outrage around the world. His dying words — ’I can’t breathe’ — became an anthem. Nine minutes and 30 seconds of video were more riveting than any march on Washington and more evidentiary of racism than any prior conversation on racial violence.

Person stands with a protest sign. Photo by @breasoul via nappy.

What happened to George Floyd was not extraordinary from the perspective of Black Americans, but it certainly was received as beyond comparison to white America. The abject disregard for the humanity of a Black man is not shocking to Black children who have grown up with a steady diet of videos capturing police violence on Black bodies. The generation before had its own public trauma, such as the photos of young Emmett Till in a casket. Those images and those of George Floyd’s murder remind us of not only the disregard for our lives, but also reminders that we are in a society that provides little punishment or censure for those who would take our lives for the only crime of being born in a black skin. For the generation before me, it was strange fruit hanging from trees and celebrated in newspaper articles and town gatherings. Whether lynching was sanctioned ‘officially’ or conducted under the cover of darkness, without warning — we learned that our bodies could be ‘claimed’ by White hate, randomly, sometimes methodically, and most importantly — without consequence for the perpetrator(s).

For many White Americans watching the video of George Floyd being murdered in plain sight on a street in Minneapolis was unfathomable, without precedent, indefensible, and overwhelming. Overwhelming because perhaps it was a lesson in white supremacy and racism that they would have preferred to not be taught. Once heard, we cannot unhear the plaintive cries of Mr. Floyd and the desperate pleas from onlookers. The scales fell from the eyes of those who would be blind to white supremacy so visibly illuminated.

So, a year later, what have we learned? Unpacking the statistics, we’ve learned that violence against Black people at the hands of police officers is endemic. Not a week goes by that does not prove this point. As I write this blog, police have killed 408 people so far this year. In fact, according to one of the most comprehensive sources for these data, there have only been six days this year that a deadly use of force has not been used by police. In 2020, 28% of all police killings involved Black people, more than twice the proportion of Black people in the United States (13%). Doing the math, Black people are more than three times more likely to be killed by police compared to their Latino or White peers. But anyone who has watched the news, read a newspaper, listened to talk radio, or any number of talk show pundits are familiar with these statistics.

We’ve learned that the COVID-19 pandemic hit communities of color much more severely than their white counterparts — but only the very rich may have been inoculated from the economic impact of the pandemic. Even middle-class white families and certainly all those of lower economic strata felt the sting of America’s long-standing inequities. We learned that systems designed to prop up Wall Street did so at the brutal expense of most American workers.

What have we learned since May 25, 2020? More than half a million Americans were taken from us by an unseen virus, 18 million Americans have been added to the list of the hungry, there has been a seven percent increase in homelessness and our children have lost anywhere between 66 and 44 percent of learning gains in reading and math. These outcomes have been inequitably distributed across race and class.

People move through a line at a food bank. Photo by Joel Muniz on Unsplash

We learned that even in the face of this stark reality some white people clung to a false narrative of superiority to insulate themselves from a hard truth — in the face of a global pandemic — they too were expendable. Instead of learning anything from this lesson, many double-downed on the false narratives of American exceptionalism. The nation watched in disbelief on January 6, 2021, as some fueled by hate, others fueled by fear and racism sought to overturn a national election. At best those who raided the Capitol did so because they truly believed the election was stolen, but what is most apparent is that the events that day are an obscene display of white supremacy as it lost grip on power and reality. We have come to understand that it is far easier for some to continue to live in denial by any means necessary rather than learn the lessons of our country’s fundamental flaws and intentional, brutal inequalities.

We’ve learned that partisan politics and the racial divide are still effective distractions from the issues that tear at the fiber of our wellbeing. In the wake of an election loss and while still in the grips of a deadly pandemic — lawmakers in 47 states introduced bills that would make it harder to vote. Rightfully considered ‘voter suppression’ laws if enacted, these bills such as SB 202 in Georgia will make it harder for the poor and people of color to vote. Instead of addressing inequity — lawmakers seek to limit the voice of those who already suffer the most.

American voters wait in long lines to cast their ballot.

We’ve learned that it is considered by some to be dangerous to teach critical race theory and the history of racial violence and oppression to America’s students. Any narrative that tries to dismantle the realities of America’s bloody beginnings are considered unpatriotic, divisive and anti-American if not outright lies. This year governors in Idaho and Oklahoma signed into law bills that prohibit the discussion of white supremacy, privilege or structural racism. Similar bills have been introduced in nearly a dozen other states.

America, we have learned that structural racism and the narratives that support systems of oppression are durable. The first colonists arrived on the shores of this nation in 1492 and began a long and brutal plundering of land and people. We have learned that inequities measured by race, place and economic standing in addition to immigration status, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity and language are endured by millions of Americans. We have learned that an America built on a foundation of inequity resists change. In 2020, we began to learn and say other names, not just Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbury but also, Emmitt Till, Claude Neal, and learn about policies such as the Chinese Exclusion Acts, Jim Crow, redlining, and events like the massacre at Wounded Knee, the Trail of Tears, and Japanese Internment.

We have learned that when confronted with our brutal history, America will fight hard against change. But we have also learned that while some would fight to maintain the status quo, at our heart is a thirst for justice. We know that change takes a long time, but we know it is coming. This is what we are learning in 2021. As Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

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Center for Community Resilience

A Milken Institute School of Public Health collaborative seeking to address the root causes of childhood & community adversity.