Haven’t we been here before? I’m thinking of 1968, also an election year, when a major crisis (Vietnam War then, COVID-19 pandemic now) and economic turmoil (rampant inflation then, …
Haven’t we been here before? I’m thinking of 1968, also an election year, when a major crisis (Vietnam War then, COVID-19 pandemic now) and economic turmoil (rampant inflation then, historic unemployment now) and the murder of a black man (Martin Luther King Jr. then, George Floyd now) uncover the deep divide (racism then, racism now) in our nation’s soul and violence erupts.
According to the New York Times, protests surrounding the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis have spread to cities across the country from Portland, Oregon to L.A. and from New York City to Memphis. In 1968, the murder of Dr. King on April 4 sparked violent riots across the nation. Sen. Robert Kennedy was in Indianapolis that night and gave a hastily written address to the crowd to break the news of King’s death directly to the largely black community. Titled later “On the Mindless Menace of Violence,” it came to be known as one of the great speeches of history. Kennedy himself would be assassinated just two months later on June 5.
Most of my readers are familiar with this history, having lived through it. But a shocking number of citizens have little perspective on the events of my generation other than the famous Woodstock Music Festival. By 1968, I was already familiar with street protests, having cut my teeth on demonstrations in Washington, D.C. and NYC for civil rights and anti-war demonstrations. I was only 11 when my mother took us to Washington to hear Dr. King give what was to become known as his iconic “I Have A Dream” speech. After Washington, we drove south to Virginia and experienced the naked Jim Crow extant throughout the Southern states. I remember being admonished by a white woman for drinking at a water fountain marked “colored” and seeing separated sections in a movie theater in Richmond, VA where we watched “To Kill A Mockingbird” in a mostly empty section meant for white people.
The Civil Rights Act of 1965, which made those racial distinctions illegal, had not yet been signed into law by Lyndon Johnson. But they were already immoral and we knew it. It was probably the most important lesson my mother taught me.
I don’t compare my privileged experience with racism in America to the racism black and brown people face. What I was treated to was only an amuse-bouche to the feast spread out by white America for its brown and black brothers and sisters every day. Why was a brown CNN reporter was arrested in Minneapolis while doing his job before the police officer who killed George Floyd was? Can you think of any other reason than institutional racism?
Kenya Barris, the creator of “Black-ish” is sanguine about the progress a former slave class has made in America. “You take a people, 400 years ago, and do the most heinous things to them, and put them back in that same group and 100 years later one of them is President,” he says “I’ll take that.” He is right to see the progress of an oppressed minority in 100 years but there is no progress for Michael Brown or Walter Scott, or George Floyd or Breonna Taylor. There is no progress that can absolve the fact that getting killed by the police is a leading cause of death for black men in America. Two and a half times higher than that of whites during an encounter with police, according to the L.A. Times. That’s better than the odds of winning at a scratch-off lottery game. Being black in America is a game you don’t want to play.