“But times must alter, or this is a ruined country. Nothing but integrity in private and justice in public bodies can preserve a republic. If calamities are necessary to teach us wisdom and virtue, I wish God would rain down showers of them upon us.”
– Benjamin Rush to John Adams, January 1777
It seems as though the good doctor, abolitionist, and signer of the Declaration of Independence is getting his wish. Our country and the world are trying to negotiate a storm of difficulties. I just hope we are open enough to the important lessons 2020 is offering that we find our way through them together and become wiser and more virtuous.
One lesson to be learned from the COVID19 pandemic is how stressful uncertainty is. What we feel now is a taste of what it’s like to live on the margins. And even so, we middle-class white people who are stuck in COVID detention are privileged. Low-wage workers who haves lost their jobs; who can’t afford to stay home; who can’t stay home, because they are essential; who must work because others depend on them, have felt this kind of stress not just for months, but often for generations. What are they supposed to think and do while making these sacrifices for their families and ours when they see their neighbors abused and killed, not only by vigilantes and criminals, but by the very institutions we expect to represent, support, and protect us all?
The demonstrations sparked by the killing of George Floyd shouldn’t have come as a surprise. This was just the latest in an endless stream of murders of unarmed black men. Many police departments don’t keep accurate records, but investigative reporting indicates that black people are at least three times as likely to be killed during police interactions as white people in America. The only surprise is the patience of those who are affected every day. The reforms they are demanding in policing are long overdue. And they really are asking so little of us as individual Americans: stand beside them, educate ourselves, and educate one another and our children. I am a teacher and a child of the ’60, so I offer a little personal perspective to help illuminate this moment.
Young friends, former students, have asked, “Why does this keep happening?” The full story is over 400 years in the making. The brief answer is institutional racism, a system explicitly designed to keep black people “in their place” (a phrase I actually heard growing up from my otherwise relatively enlightened parents). Violent, overt racism went underground for a time after legalized discrimination under Jim Crow laws was dismantled in the ‘60s and ‘70s. It has re-emerged with a vengeance in recent years, encouraged by shameless hate speech in media and at the highest levels of government. But the pernicious racism baked into our institutions has been here all along, costing millions of people their opportunities and their lives.
I can’t say a whole lot about what racial discrimination feels like, but I do know about its conjoined twin, white privilege. This is how it works, just on an economic level: my father, a Navy veteran and Pearl Harbor Survivor, was able to rise in rank and receive a corresponding pension when he left service. Sailors of color, once they were finally allowed to serve, were denied the promotions available to white servicemen. This impacted their pay and pensions, and so their relative incomes, over many decades. And, just as interest compounds over time, so has economic injustice.
My father also had access to low-interest VA loans, which allowed my parents, in 1950, to buy a nice little house in Burbank, CA, where “Officer Friendly” was actually seen as our friend. Home ownership led to many years of being able to upgrade, accumulate wealth, and live in safe neighborhoods with good public schools. White veterans were also given funds for training as part of the GI Bill, which led to my dad being employed as a draftsman for the LA County and Sonoma County Water Agencies for almost 40 years. The “good old days” really were good–for white men.
Many veterans of color were denied GI Bill benefits. Almost all were prevented by “redlining” in real estate, banking, and hiring practices from living where they wanted, sending their children to schools of their choice, or gaining employment they were as prepared and eager for as my dad was. This resulted in decades of economic stagnation, living in neighborhoods poisoned by industrial waste, and renting unsafe and unhealthy houses and apartments owned and neglected by absentee landlords. Until after the Civil Rights Era and subsequent reforms, the kind of discrimination that advantaged my family and disadvantaged others’ was legal, widespread, and brutally enforced. That’s two generations of being denied equal opportunity.
As children of a white disabled veteran, my brothers and I were able to go to any in-state college tuition-free. We were prepared for college by our economic and physical security and well-funded schools, and I graduated debt-free from UCLA. Meanwhile, even in relatively progressive California, most of my same-age peers of color were growing up without that kind of security, self-confidence, and academic preparation. These are advantages my husband (the son of an Air Force Chief Master Sergeant) and I were able to pass on to our daughter and grandchildren. Even if racism had only begun in 1940 and magically ended in 2020, people of color would still be 4 generations in the hole. That’s just 80 years out of the 400 they have been brutally and systematically excluded from the promise of America, while being absolutely essential to its successes as a nation, including fighting and dying in our wars, and now, risking their lives as essential workers.
Before the Revolution, a friend in England advised Dr. Rush, “If you can but preserve an equality among one another, you will always be free, in spite of everything.” As long as racism persists in our hearts and institutions, none of us is free. But we are heartened by the protests, marches, and vigils of these past few weeks. The 1960’s were “mighty times,” and brought about substantial changes. Today’s demonstrations are bigger, more colorful, more purposeful and powerful than we could have imagined 50 years ago. We are so proud of these activists’ steadfastness in the face of brutality. With every authoritarian attack and every threat, they have grown in number, in peacefulness, in fearlessness, and in hope.
They are the America we strive for, not the bitter, grasping men hiding in bunkers and behind lies, walls, and military force. We know our privilege is a gift of grace, and the proper response to gifts is humility and gratitude. And the language of gratitude is action: march, speak out, donate, join, educate, advocate, listen, learn, and understand.