As a newspaper reporter, editor and now community blogger, I have written about the evils of racism for almost 40 years. I have pointed out biases, called out politicians, noted historical incidents like lynchings, attempted to define the idea of privilege, saluted black and white leaders who mattered, taken part in Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Day marches and joined calls for equal justice. I began this mission in 1989 shortly after becoming city editor of the Burlington Times-News. My first Opinion Page editorial was about the murder of Yusef Hawkins, a teenager killed by a white mob in Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst neighborhood.
But for the past week or more I have been utterly speechless. What do we say now? What do we do now? I say “now” because there is no later. Not this time.
Our nation is in flames. It is in flames both literally and figuratively. This should come as no surprise because it has smoldered for decades, even centuries — flaring occasionally after incidents disturbing enough to merit what should have been more intense and ongoing attention decades ago — centuries ago. And therein lies the crux of a problem that is swallowing us whole. Nothing ever gets done about it. Not in the short term and certainly not in the long term, which is most troubling.
We are in flames again because of the combustible cultural and political divide in the nation. Gasoline was poured on this by unconscionable acts perpetrated by white men that took the lives of innocent and unarmed black men. One, Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia was simply jogging in February when he was chased, shot and killed by two men with a third taking video. Basically he was hunted and killed because of a mistaken idea. He was only 25 years old. One of the shooters is a retired cop and investigator with a district attorney’s office. It took 74 days and the video becoming viral and seen by millions before the men — vigilantes really — were charged with felony murder.
The most recent killing sent many in America off the edge. On May 25, 2020, 46-year-old George Floyd was taken into custody by police in Minneapolis for alleged passing of a $20 counterfeit check. He was forced to the ground by officer Derek Chauvin, a veteran cop with a history of complaints about use of excessive force. He pinned Floyd face down to the ground and held him there by placing his knee on the back of his neck — a discredited policing technique. Despite Floyd’s pleas that he couldn’t breathe, Chauvin kept him pinned for nine minutes, until Floyd was unresponsive, dying of cardiac arrest. The killing was captured on videotape and there will be an enduring image of Chauvin almost casually atop the dying man with a blithe expression on his face — like this is no big deal. Three other officers were on the scene and none intervened. All were fired and Chauvin now faces charges of second-degree murder. The other three officers are charged with aiding and abetting murder.
And then the nationwide protests erupted, spilling into vandalism, destruction and violence. Pent-up rage for black Americans over decades — centuries — of white indifference to such injustices was a predictable outcome. That those outside of the protesters took the opportunity to join in is even more disturbing. The motives of some groups is still not known. But I hope an important message didn’t get lost. The cry that “black lives matter” rings loudly but more often than not, white America ignores it, wrapping the message into a platitude that “all lives matter.” But if white America truly believed this, we wouldn’t be where we are today. Historically for decades, centuries, to much of white America black lives have mattered less — often far less.
That must change if we’re going to be the country we say we are, a country that really has never existed in its history. From the time Africans were enslaved in America, black lives have mattered less to white America in the day-to-day life and institutions that truly define existence and culture here. We have to become one joined America where all matter equally to everyone.
On Sunday in Burlington while other cities were dealing with vandalism and looting a peaceful rally was held at North Park. I did not attend because frankly I’m not ready to end social distancing due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. A gathering of a few hundred people was too big a hurdle. But I monitored via a live stream, listened to the speeches. noted that people were wearing masks and maintaining safe distancing. Community leaders like Burlington Police Chief Jeffrey Smythe and Mayor Ian Baltutis were there — the chief holding a sign that read “End police brutality.” Many people running for office in the fall spoke, including Dreama Caldwell, who is running for the Alamance County Board of Commissioners. She gave an impassioned plea for people from all walks of life to step up and take part in making changes in our community and nation. She urged people to not simply make a post on social media but make a longer term and deeper commitment. We have to live this every day and not just in horrifying moments as they are reported.
The sign at the top of this post is of a woman at the North Park rally. It was taken by Tony Crider, an Elon professor who spends his weekends documenting events that either highlight social justice or those who wish to end it. He keeps a record of community groups attempting to do the right thing and hate groups who want only the worst things. I was struck by the sign’s message. It’s direct and to the point.
“All lives can’t matter until black lives matter.”
That’s a message I intend to carry forward from now on. My friends have been threatened, hurt, frustrated and denied for too long. While my life and experience is unlike theirs, I can acknowledge and understand it. I can offer to stand with them. And I do stand with them.
The problem of race in our country is damaging us all but for black Americans the stakes and threats are far greater. The vast and invisible network of institutional biases, institutional racism, misunderstandings, misconceptions, mistrust, misanthropy and mistakes must be addressed. White America is the creator and custodian of it and only we can repair it. Individuals are difficult to fix, but institutions can be. We start by weeding out the Derek Chauvins. People in workplaces and communities know who they are and protect them with silence.
I intend to keep this issue in the foreground and hope others will do so, too. I have collected things I’ve written about it under the category of Race, bias and privilege on this site. These are things I have posted on Madison’s Avenue since it started in 2017. But I wish I still had a copy of that first editorial from back in 1989.