Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere. As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wherever it lands. But we have to stay vigilant, because it’s always still in the air.
On May 25, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, with the assistance of three other officers, killed George Floyd, a black man, by holding his knee on the back of Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.
Systemic racism has knelt on the backs of blacks since they were brought here in slave ships more than 400 years ago. That racism did not kill them, but it ensured a lifetime of disadvantage with only slow, incremental, and begrudging progress.
The protests that broke out across this nation and around the world can be attributed in part to the shocking and depressing video documenting Floyd’s murder. It must also be attributed, however, to America’s systemic racism.
Floyd’s death rekindled a sweeping national discussion on the killing and horrific treatment of blacks by police and the American criminal justice system. This discussion was last held in 2014 after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the Baltimore riots of 2015. Some have compared the current situation to the race riots and reaction to them in 1968.
The situation is similar but the context today is far worse. Numerous factors account for this including the following major ones:
- The trifecta of the Covid-19 pandemic, the catastrophic collapse of the American economy, and now this maelstrom ignited by the senseless murder in Minneapolis. No one would have ever bet on or wanted this to happen one, two, three, but it has. And, there are only losers from this convergence.
- This era of repression and regression in our American democracy, which we have written about in two earlier blogs. The repression in areas such as federal government agencies, voting, and civic life has been going on for some time but intensified with the presidential political campaign of 2016 and has intensified even more-so under the Trump administration. The scope of the regression is broad and encompassing and has been affecting many areas for decades before the pandemic accelerated the downward slide for so many Americans. Those Americans who have suffered the most from the repression and regression are those who are the poorest and the blackest.
- The dramatic decline of America’s cities. In the May 17 New York Times Sunday Review titled “The Cities We Need,” a statement by the Editorial Board to introduce that section concludes as follows:
Then, cities worked. Now they don’t. Well before the coronavirus pandemic posed its own threats to the life of American cities, they were struggling. Over the last half century, their infrastructure of opportunity has badly decayed. Their public schools no longer prepare students to succeed. Their subways are reliably unreliable. Their water runs with lead.
- Extreme political polarization. Numerous studies by the Pew Research Center have documented how what used to be a relatively small gap between Democrats and Republicans on issues has grown into a chasm. Ezra Klein describes that divide this way:
For a time, in the 20th century, our political coalitions did not echo our social divisions…Today, our political divisions are our social divisions, and that changes everything.
- Congressional dysfunctionality of epic proportions. Members of Congress used to be able to reach across the aisle to get the people’s work done. This is no longer the case. Norm Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and Thomas Mann, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, say the ability to work together in the U.S. House began to deteriorate with Newt Gingrich (R-GA) as speaker from 1995 to 1999. For some time after that, the U.S. Senate remained a chamber where working across party lines was still possible. Then, in 2014, after Mitch McConnell (R-KY) became Majority Leader of the Senate, things changed. McConnell assumed a Gingrich-type role and style. And compromise and collaboration were eliminated from the Senate vocabulary.
- Anarchists, activists, and agitators. In the riots of the 60’s, the perpetrators were probably from the communities in which these events were taking place. This may not completely be the case this time around. Although there is not much evidence to support it, it has been asserted that outsiders from both the extreme right and the extreme left have played roles in shifting peaceful protests to violent and destructive displays, harming people and property.
- The resident President. Donald J. Trump carries the title and sits behind the desk in the Oval Office, but he governs only for his base and his own needs, and provides none of the substantive leadership that this nation needs during these trying times. Because of who he is and what he has done, when residing at the White House and not playing golf or hanging out with his chums at Mar-a-Lago, Ezra Klein of Vox has labeled him a “political arsonist.” Helaine Olen of the Washington Post has suggested he may be the “real anarchist.” And Ishaan Tharoor of the Post asks whether Trump is a “fascist.”
We ourselves, in a recent blog on Trump as a “war-time” president, describe him as a “model of irresponsibility, inconsistency, and incompetence.” That was being kind and nonjudgmental. Given what transpired as the country began to re-open and his miserable performance since the killing of George Floyd, we would add to two new “I”’s to that description of Trump. He is an “inflammatory instigator.”
On the one hand, he tweets to his base to turn out in force in protests to “liberate” states such as Michigan and Virginia. On the other, he tells governors on a conference call on Monday morning, June 1, to “dominate” those who are protesting. And, in a Rose Garden speech, he threatens that “If the city or state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residence, then I will deploy the United State military and quickly solve the problem for them.”
In that Rose Garden speech, Trump declared he was “an ally of peaceful protests.” Then he left the Rose Garden to walk across Lafayette Square Park to pose with a Bible for a photo op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church. Before he began his walk, his allies — those peaceful protesters in the Park — were tear-gassed and forced back by police on horseback and the National Guard so nobody could interrupt his parade.
On the next day, Trump followed his “pilgrimage” to St. John’s by going with his wife Melania to have their picture taken at the Saint John Paul II National Shrine. Both of these visits were shameful and sacrilegious. They had no intent other than to appeal to Trump’s base and to advance his re-election campaign.
Doing this at a time, when the entire nation is gasping for breath would be inconceivable coming from anyone else. Coming from Donald Trump, it is the best that can be expected. He can only fan the flames but can never douse the fire.
In his inauguration speech, talking about the problems of race and poverty in our nation’s inner cities, Trump declared that with him as president, “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”
There was no carnage then. But, there is potential for carnage now. The source for that potential is the President of the United States.
Recognizing these are the current conditions and context of our American systemic racism, what should be done?
A systemic response is demanded. That response must address the policing and justice problems across the country. It must also address the root causes of the inequities and the civic exclusion of blacks created by racism.
The response should be shaped by looking backward and forward. Plans have been proposed in the past that remain relevant today because they were never implemented. New plans are being proposed that provide steps for consideration as well.
The 1968 Report from the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders chaired by Otto Kerner, Governor of Illinois, is the touchstone of plans from the past.
The Kerner Commission, as it became known, pulled no punches. It laid the blame clearly upon the white establishment, observing in the Report’s introduction, that “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” It went on to assert, “…. white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”
Given these conclusions, the Kerner Report set out specific strong recommendations to address the causes of the racial discontent. These recommendations including improved policing practices and “special programs in the areas of housing, education, and employment to eliminate discrimination and to provide greatly expanded opportunities for ghetto residents.”
The Commission presented a “call for action.” But that call went unheard.
President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who had established the Commission, did not embrace its findings. And after Richard Nixon succeeded Johnson as President by running as the “law and order” candidate, the Kerner Report was set aside to gather dust on the library shelves.
A more recent important report also sitting on those shelves is Opportunity, Responsibility, and Security: A Consensus Plan for Reducing Poverty and Restoring the American Dream (Consensus Plan or Plan). This Consensus Plan was presented in December of 2015 by the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute and the left-leaning Brookings Institution.
The Consensus Plan provided recommendations in three interlocking domains of life: family, work, and education. The thought at its issuance was that the Plan might influence the positions of the candidates running for President in 2016 and public policy thereafter to stimulate “going to war” on poverty. Even though it was an excellent document, it did neither.
A final report from the past that is relevant now is The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing Implementation Guide: Moving from Recommendations to Action. (Implementation Guide or Guide). The Task Force was established by President Barack Obama, and its Implementation Guide issued in 2015 sets out recommendations in areas such a changing the culture of policing, embracing community policing, and ensuring fair and impartial policing. The Guide also spell out five things each that local governments, law enforcement agencies, and communities can do to support the implementation of its recommendations.
Moving into current times, in 2019 the Policing Campaign at the Leadership Conference Education Fund published the New Era of Public Safety: An Advocacy Toolkit for Fair, Safe and Effective Community Policing. The toolkit sets out a seven-step process that individuals and groups can use to bring about positive change in community policing through “grassroots organizing, policy advocacy, and civic engagement.”
On June 2, Camille Busette, Director of the Brookings Institution’s Race, Prosperity and Inclusion Initiative posted a blog advising mayors and governors on what they can do “to create sustained racism-free equity.” Her recommendations are:
- Acknowledge racism in a formal public forum.
- Establish equity goals to resolve disparities within two to four years. These goals should be set by an Equity Task Force that has “significant Black and Brown representation.”
- Ensure resource equity by providing funding for the equity goal initiatives.
- Innovate and measure equity impacts.
In May, we proposed establishment of a national American Renewal Commission and an integrated set of four plans to respond to the impact of the pandemic and the deteriorating condition of our American democracy in this 21st century: a Health Care Stabilization Plan, Country Reopening Plan, Economic Recovery Plan, and Democracy Renewal Plan. The overriding vision for that four-plan set would be:
To provide the strategic and pro-active framework for creating a more inclusive and equitable American democracy.
We followed that proposal by recommending a massive and targeted jobs bill. The priority focus for that bill should be women and minorities. The surprising job numbers for May released on June 5, which showed an overall decrease in unemployment but an increase for blacks, emphasizes the necessity of that focus.
There are plans aplenty out there and more will come. But plans are just starting points. President Dwight D. Eisenhower famously said, “Plans are worthless. Planning is everything.”
What Ike meant by that is plans in and of themselves are just words or drawings on paper. What matters is whether they are implemented. And, if those plans are implemented, are they reviewed and modified, as necessary, to ensure they achieve the desired outcomes.
The same can be said of peaceful protests. Taking it to the streets is a starting point. It is a symbolic act. What matters is what is done to follow up on those initial actions.
What matters is the patience and persistence to persevere. This is especially true as one looks at systemic racism, which has been a curse upon this country since before its founding.
There has been progress through the years but it has been halting. And there has never been a full-throated apology or broadly-based acceptance of the extent of racism’s impact in the United States of America and what to do about it.
In his state of the Union address in January of 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson declared an “unconditional war on poverty in America.” In July of that same year, LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act, which prohibited discrimination in public places, provided for the integration of schools, and made employment discrimination illegal.
In spite of these words and the stroke of a pen, the war on poverty was never unconditional and discrimination did not disappear. As these protests in 2020 attest, systemic racism still lingers and it continues to wound all blacks and people of color.
More than one-half a century ago, the United States had a chance to change all of this. For a variety of reasons, it did not. Will this time be different?
It may well be. George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Over 50 years ago, there were many people not willing to remember and confront America’s racist past. In 2020, there appear to be many people of all ages and skin hues who appear to be willing to remember and learn from the past and to not be condemned to repeat it
Barack Obama sees it this way. In his virtual Town Hall, sponsored by the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, he noted that the demographics in the protests this time were not the same as in the ‘60’s. He stated, “You look at those protests (the ones going on currently) and that was a far more representative cross section of America out on the street, peacefully protesting. That didn’t exist back in the 1960’s, that kind of broad coalition.”
That makes former president Barack Obama “optimistic” and gives him “hope”. It does us as well.
A broad coalition of concerned and caring citizens is the fundamental requirement for carrying this fight for America’s head, heart, and soul on to a successful conclusion. It means there will be the will and staying power to translate plans and protests into follow-up actions in a systemic and sustained response to America’s systemic racism.
That systemic response must begin with putting the right people into office at the federal, state, and local levels in this year’s and future elections.
This means electing a new President to take office in 2021. The contrast between the current occupant of the office and Joe Biden, his presumptive opponent, in terms of their views on race and what needs to be done in America could not be starker.
Consider the dignity, compassion, and humanity of Joe Biden. Consider Donald Trump. Enough said.
It also means voting those in Congress who have aided and abetted Trump’s undemocratic behavior out of office. Conservative George Will shares this perspective. As only Mr. Will can, he opines, “Voters must dispatch his congressional enablers, especially the senators who still gambol around his ankles with a canine hunger for petting.”
Finally, it means recognizing, as Barack Obama reminds us, “But the elected officials who matter most in reforming police departments and the criminal justice are at the state and local levels.” And adhering to Obama’s advice: “If we want to bring about real change the choice isn’t between protest and politics. We have to do both. We have to mobilize to raise awareness, and we have to organize and cast our ballots to make sure that we elect candidates who will act on reform.”
It is said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Tens of thousands of Americans have taken that step by participating in peaceful protests across the country.
The journey toward a systemic response to eliminate America’s systemic racism has begun. The destination of a more equitable and inclusive America can be seen in the distance. The journey must be completed because the future of our democracy hinges upon it.
Originally published by the Frank Islam Institute for 21st Century Citizenship. For more information on what 21st century citizenship entails, and to see exemplars from around the world, please visit our website.