By Larry Levine –
Next time you’re driving down the street and you see a police car in your rear-view mirror, will you look down at your speedometer and keep glancing back to make sure it isn’t after you, or will you fear for your life?
How you answer that question will define whether you are African American or white.
That’s what’s at the root of what is happening across the nation these days, not the death of George Floyd. His death did not cause this, it is simply the latest release of the pent up response to oppression that has been building for centuries. Every now and again something like the George Floyd death, or Rodney King’s beating, or a Marquette Frye’s car being impounded comes along and ignites a volcanic eruption.
In response to the current explosion, we hear clear echoes of the rhetoric of those earlier explosions. It starts with support for the cause of the demonstrators, sometimes sounding sincere, other times gratuitous and obligatory. It quickly slides into denunciation of what always is called “a small group that breaks from the demonstration, turns violent, loots and starts fires.” That inevitably is followed by calls for unity in confronting systemic racism.
We hear it from elected officials. We hear it mouthed by TV news anchors in search of something new to say when nothing new is happening but the microphone is still hot. We hear it from police chiefs and fire chiefs and community leaders. And we heard it again the last two days as America once again confronted its history of racism and oppression and tried at the same time to deny them.
Ask yourself this: would every TV station in Los Angeles have been covering peaceful demonstrations late into a Sunday night, pre-empting normal programming? Would every TV station in Los Angeles have been repeating the details of George Floyd’s death late into the night had the demonstrations remained peaceful? Will the white community and its leaders do anything more to address and resolve the racism that has infected American for more than 400 years a year from now than they did in the last 20 years? Or will this be consigned to the pages of history, as have those earlier out-breaks, as racism continues to beat in the heart of America. Sadly, history teaches us which of these to expect.
We take heart from the line of white women formed in Louisville to protect black demonstrators from police. We take heart from the black demonstrators who rallied to protect a white police officer who had become separated from his colleagues. We tell ourselves there are good people among us and that gives us hope. But 65 million of the good people among us voted to put a racist in the White House and are prepared to do so again.
The Mayor of Santa Monica CA was one of many mayors seen on television yesterday. His message was the same as those of others: demonstrators exercising their first amendment rights is a good thing, but violence and looting are bad. To a number, they called for societal change to bring us together and overcome racism. But no one asked him if he knows what it’s like to be a black man driving through Santa Monica, or Long Beach, or Beverly Hills after dark. No one asked him if he knows what it’s like to fear for his life every time he sees a police car in his rear-view mirror.
Will these demonstrations spawn the kind of societal change of which those Mayors speak? Probably not. It’s woven into the fabric of the nation. It’s part of our education system, our criminal justice system, our economic system. It has been handed down from generation to generation. The targets have been blacks since they first set foot on our shores. But they also have been Native Americans, Irish, Italians, Polish, Jews, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Chinese, Japanese and others. While each of these still are targets of racism at varying degrees, many in each of group, as they have assimilated and gained increased acceptance and position, have themselves become the racists of the next generation.
I don’t know the solution. Others far wiser than I have searched for a solution for longer than I have been alive and others will continue that effort after I am gone. What I do know, or suspect, is that it will continue as long as some can gain profit from its continuation, from the marginalization and oppression of others. Whether that profit is financial or psychological, as long as politicians can demagogue their way to power by igniting the match of divisiveness, as long as people can be made to fear their economic security is threatened by other groups of people, as long as some can be made to believe their station in life depends on the keeping of other down, it will continue.