We wake each morning to the news of another night of widespread unrest. Our own small city of Richmond, Virginia, is ablaze with the incendiary actions concomitant with national protests: more individuals harmed or killed, desecration of property, and homes, busses, and automobiles quite literally smoldering from the fire. Enough cannot be said about how clearly unacceptable the behavior of those looting and destroying property is, but it is also critical to keep focused on the root cause of the righteous protesters. The three remaining officers who watched while Derek Chauvin took the last gasps of life from George Floyd were only charged with aiding and abbeting murder on late Wednesday, June 3, 2020, almost a week after Chauvin was charged with third-degree murder. Without the global outcry—there were even protests at the American Consulate in London—Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng, and Thomas K. Lane might have gone the way of others involved in life-and-death issues for black people, many of whom have not been charged, too many to recount here.
Meanwhile, a country that only days before the death of Mr. Floyd had slowly begun to crawl out from over two months of quarantine faces the brink of utter chaos. The unrest is all too familiar. The setting of the buildings ablaze, the stand-offs with police and city officials, and the display of stark social, economic, and educational contrasts, could have been 1991, in my birthplace of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, when the death of a young boy named Gavin Cato at the hands of a driver set off three days of unrest; or 1992, in Los Angeles, where the videotaped beating of Rodney King led to over 12,000 arrests; or even 2011, in Tottenham, England, when the police killing of an unarmed Black man, Mark Duggan, sparked five days of unrest across the United Kingdom.
We wonder where it will end, awaiting the soothing words of leaders, knowing that this time we, most certainly, wait in vain. This time no national president will tell us that if he “had a son, he would look like” those desperate for our compassion, our kind words, and a bit of hope.
In lieu of those somber and grave words, perhaps there are actions we can take on our own behalf. I offer three.
First, we must know our history. The three examples of civil unrest that I cited above are just three of many that I could have listed across American and modern world history. When we take a bit of time to understand these incidents, we can perhaps come to a clear-eyed assessment of what is happening in real time. We are quick to call these instances of unrest “riots,” but they are far more, whether some elements are spontaneous, provoked, or to whatever extent fueled by local, national, and international interests. In each antecedent, profound class-based and economic distresses conspire with race and historical realities for a toxic brew. By the end of April, 2020, the unemployment rate for African-Americans was 16.7% and rising; for Hispanics 18.9%; and more broadly, less than 35% of people 25 or older in the United States–of any race—had even a bachelor’s degree. To what are America’s youth returning, after COVID-19 quarantine?
These numbers likely echo something of the reality of life in Cincinnati in 1829, the year of the first recorded modern incident of public, social unrest—or “riot.” The conflict was initially between Irish workers and Black slaves and free people. By 1919, forty American cities saw public, civil unrest, in what James Weldon Johnson named the “Red Summer” for its bloodshed, sparked when veterans of the First World War contended with Blacks who had moved to northern cities after slavery and the failure of Southern Reconstruction (see Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Random House 2010). And the social unrest cinematically described in Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man found its factual roots in the Harlem Riots of 1935, when a young Latino man accused of stealing candy from a store ignited two days of disturbance and led to three deaths.
Cato, King, and Floyd have a context, as do Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Ahmaud Aubrey, and countless others whose names we should hear and remember.
Once we know our history, we must work against our own implicit biases. It is too easy to stereotypes the “rioters,” protestors, or the Black and Brown men and women whose existences we ignore. Something about the common plight of civic crisis having to do with COVID-19, however, has exposed America’s underbelly. Tensions are high. As the behavior of one White woman, Amy Cooper, showed when she threatened to call the cops on the birder, Christian Cooper, and to weaponize his Blackness, our biases are most obvious when we are under pressure. She had her face mask, but her dog was not leashed. What nerves had the months of quarantine rankled in her?
Although we might not necessarily be in Amy’s position, her behavior should really be no surprise. Biases are, after all, the stuff of our societies. What we do once we are made aware of them is what matters most.
The work of understanding our implicit biases is ongoing. Checking them is the difference between perpetuating the ugliest features of our society, or making sure that they stop with us. Without this work, the next George Floyd could have been Christian Cooper.
We must work toward anti-racism, once we are awakened to social realities and our own role in them. In his 2016 National Book Award-winning publication, Stamped from the Beginning, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi began popularizing the language of anti-racism. His How to Be An Antiracist (2019) continues this work. Kendi posits that even a champion of social equality and Black pride like Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois had racist thoughts and practices. Knowing this might put Amy at ease. There is no need, Amy, to double down on the rhetoric of “I am not a racist.” Race is foundational to our nation, its original sin. We live in a racist society, so we all do racists things. Racism, moreover, is systemic. We can no more escape it than we can avoid breathing in polluted air. A recent Wall Street Journal editorial pointed to Chicago’s Black-on-Black violence as justification for police action. This is racist, if the presentist analysis fail to equally account for Chicago’s history of red-zoning after slavery, emancipation, and sharecropping that led to the current conditions, as Ta-Nehisi Coates does.
On the Sunday-morning talk shows, National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien blamed Antifa (anti-fascist militia) for the George Floyd riots, saying, “I don’t think there’s systemic racism.” Needless to say, O’Brien’s words bring us full circle.
Not only is there systemic racism, but it is also historically repeated and insidious. Not to know this is to perpetuate the invisible systems we uphold. It is the height of ignorance. In addition, O’Brien might have check the COVID-19 infection and death rates for Blacks and Latinos of those cases reported, at 50% and 90%, respectively. Racist systems mean disparate treatment and outcomes for Americans, which is a collective—as much as individual—moral failure.
Simply to acknowledge individual and systemic racism is not to claim defeat. It is, rather, to say yes, the air is terribly polluted, and I, Amy Cooper, I, Patrice, cannot breathe either.
Dr. Patrice Rankine is the dean of the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Richmond.