By Derric J. Johnson, Founding Director of the Crossroads School Equity & Justice Institute
There’s a reluctance to writing this letter—a position that is grounded in my outrage at the societal condition and my thoughts regarding the civil unrest becoming institutionalized.
It is difficult to share so publicly my emotional state, private reflections and perspective on the world right now. These issues are deeply personal, and words are not nearly enough. For instance, I often take issue with the way social media is utilized as a substitute for action-oriented solutions. So people’s scribed musings as a replacement for work that needs to be accomplished has little appeal to me. If the approach for social change engagement is to commercialize, sanitize and package the offering with a bow, then that becomes exploitation, which is antithetical to its purpose. I have little appetite for diluting messaging to satiate refined palates. And I’m not interested in minimizing white discomfort or tiptoeing around sensitive spirits when addressing plight and despair. Institutionalized racism is a literal matter of life and death that must be eradicated!
But nevertheless, today I write as an outlet for maintaining sanity and as a symbolic line drawn in the sand…I/we have had enough! I’m sick of the ideal being aspirational whiteness, the erasure of identity and the concept of a monoculture. And I’m not alone. In the past two weeks, I’ve fielded myriad phone calls, texts, emails, direct messages and participated in Zoom meetings with brothas and sistas of all hues as check-ins regarding: mental and spiritual wellness/fatigue, treading water to avoid being drowned by apathy and people being incensed to the point of contemplating retributive street justice. We have surpassed the tipping point.
This is another critical moment in our collective histories of extreme tribalism. A time when news source accuracy, political critique and protest are viewed with increased skepticism. Where marginalized voices are often muted in a culture of cancellation, misconstruing intent and definition of cause. The entire country is literally on fire and many wrongfully correlate its main origin with the massacre of black bodies. There is no question that government-sanctioned domestic terrorism is a catalyst, but also consider the following: the traumatic and psychological effects of a global pandemic; the distress caused by a nearly bankrupt U.S. economy; joblessness; a polarized political environment helmed by an ineffective, instigating and loathsome federal administration; and the surreptitiously complicit/implicit systemic racism that persists. All of this has exacerbated inequities and produced the primary elements required for civil unrest.
“…a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? ... It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.” - Martin Luther King Jr.
As stereotypically scripted, however, the media has reduced the current narrative to looting and the damage of property. This is an old playbook used by upholders of a system of white supremacy, and it diverts the message. (On this topic, though, social media has been used as a positive tool to record reality). The cost of human lives—specifically black human life—and the weathering that people of color have endured throughout the history of this country continues to be trivialized. Without a true recognition and reconciliation to remedy America’s original sin, no efforts toward atonement can begin. Not a single transformation or societal reform effort can be made manifest without historical context and foundational grounding. Racism in the United States has existed since the Colonial era, when white Anglo-Saxon Protestant “settlers” illegally (and/or socially) acquired sanctioned privileges and rights that were denied to others. Fast forward and consider the following:
- Vagrancy laws
- Debt peonage (e.g. sharecropping and “contract for deed” arrangements)
- Segregation/Jim Crow policies
- Poll taxes/literacy tests/denial of voting rights
- Discrimination (jobs, housing/G.I. bill, education, etc.)
- Redlining/indiscriminate predatory bank lending
- State-sponsored domestic terrorism and murder
- Mass incarceration
- Etc., etc., etc.
All of these systemic constructs and policies are prevalent in both the historic and current experiences of African descendants brought to American shores. The effects of this institutionalized limitation of a people’s access to opportunities, their well-being, and their sense of agency is often ignored/rarely considered. This persistent exposure to discrimination can lead individuals to internalize the prejudice or stigma that is directed against us, manifested in anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, fear and stress, as well as poor health and a host of other negative outcome indicators. As a people, our frustrations and determined stance do not start with George Floyd, or Breonna Taylor, or Ahmaud Arbery or Trayvon Martin or Eric Garner or Tamir Rice or the experiences of my brother or father or his father or me…they are deeply rooted! THIS. IS. OUR. AMERICA.
The Atlantic article “America Is Not a Democracy
” further illustrates this point. The author elevates the need to stop acting like it is inherently undemocratic to criticize aspects of our democracy, a view that is held by too many in our country, including those elected to the highest offices. We must rid our democracy of the notion that it is un-American not to unequivocally support everything America is or does. It’s a call to action: We need to give more worth to the values and ideals that stand behind the American flag, the pledge and the singing of the national anthem, and less weight to the symbols themselves. Yes, symbols and words matter, but actions and principles matter more, and we obscure the real issues when we stop an important conversation by calling it unpatriotic or un-American or let it get sidetracked because the approach wasn’t done “the right way.”
During these times of introspection and deep need for uplift, James Baldwin provided me guidance with an articulation of mood. He once wrote, “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
“Decolonizing Wealth” author Edgar Villanueva similarly calls for an honest reckoning with our country, explaining: “We need to look back at our history. We exist with all these contradictions and we have to understand that the work of equity is messy. How far are we willing to go to change things so that it’s not in service of our own comfort?”
There is a clear contrast in the official response to white protestors and protestors of color. We recently witnessed mostly white protestors demanding an end to social distancing restrictions—dressed in full military fatigues, confederate flags and Nazi symbols, armed to the teeth with assault weapons—aggressively confronting law enforcement, rushing and entering capital buildings and shutting down democratic processes. They were not met by police outfitted in riot gear using rubber bullets and tear gas canisters or chasing down and running over protestors. And the response to this militia occupation from your elected president is companionable support and a request for understanding. The blatant hypocrisy of one country having two sets of rules is both maddening and spiritually numbing. Macroaggressions build from the million paper cuts caused by daily microaggressions. The traumatic and profound psychological impact on both the aggrieved party and of the oppressor is consistent: presumption of criminality. There is no true equal protection under the law in America if your skin is dark.
Lastly, to directly address my white friends and colleagues who ask, “What can I do?” or “How can I help?” First, stop asking that question. That is a passive position that places the work and responsibility for action on someone else’s shoulders. Though I understand and hear your sincerity, the inquiry is an indication that you haven’t already been actively engaged in finding solutions, which is one of the major problems. The construct of white supremacy is not an issue that people of color can solely address. It is a systemic construct that primarily impacts us as people of color. What you bear witness to is an intergroup dilemma that requires white allies to address. Working for change is a daily commitment; it is difficult and (most times) there are only incremental wins. Civic engagement is not seasonal; it does not only occur when there is unrest. It is 24/7/365.
So, you ask, “What can I do?” my answer is something! Plan, plot, organize, challenge the status quo, vote, fill out your census report, leverage political relationships for reform, educate yourself/children/family/friends/neighbors to the issues, acknowledge your privilege, support organizations and individuals doing this work daily, have courage, stand against racists/racist policies/racism, support Black-owned businesses, volunteer your time, join a neighborhood council, demand the prosecution of civil rights violators, fundraise bail for protestors, etc.
Simply wake up and speak out loud!