In July 2016, once again we are faced with the reality of futile suffering and internalization of emotional pain because another precious child left this earth way too soon. We may find ourselves
overwhelmed by sadness at the capricious, senseless, unwarranted killing by the police of two more Black men. And again I call my Black son, now 20 years old, to assure myself that he is still living and that he has heard and that he remembers the warnings about how to act when approached by a police officer. And now, at 20, he no longer dismisses my worries as if he were invincible. Now he answers my phone calls right away, and he talks to me, and he says “I know, Mom,” and then I hang up and retreat into my sadness at the loss of another precious, powerful, brilliant soul from our country and our planet.
The sense of helplessness and hopelessness that many of us feel, the sense that we can’t protect our husbands or fathers or brothers or sons (or wives, mothers, sisters, or daughters) is quite stressful. Thus, some of us take to the streets in protest and lending our bodies to a visible poll of reaction to the injustices. And some of us write, and some pray, and some keep working for racial justice in a society that is not even ready to acknowledge patent, rampant racial INJUSTICE.
But now is the time to overcome helplessness and dispel hopelessness. And as we acknowledge and mourn the fragility of the human body, easily broken in a moment of irrational fear or hatred or disregard or anger, we must find our strength in collective action. Collective action in the streets, and focused action in organizing, strategic action in becoming part of decision-making bodies, intentional action in running for an office and in voting. We have to exercise our basic human and civil rights with a new sense of urgency.
And what is at the root of police attacks on Black bodies? It appears that many police officers, especially White police officers, fear for their lives in the presence of Black men. Even when that Black man is totally subdued by overwhelming police force (such as in the situations involving Alton Sterling and Eric Garner), or when that Black man is obeying police commands (such as in the situations involving Philando Castile and Levar Jones), or when that Black man is walking or running away from police (such as in the situations involving Laquan McDonald, Mike Brown, and Walter Scott). Is it fear of being disrespected? Is it fear because Black men are seen as super-human or animal-like rather than being the fragile vessels of blood and dreams that we all are? Is it fear of the unknown or unfamiliar?
So now is also the time to overcome fear. And overcoming that fear will involve knowing one another, bursting through the bubbles of our life routines to experience the common humanity across town. Knowing from experience that across town, there are people just as kind, funny, generous, smart, and hard-working as we are who live in very different circumstances. And coming to love those people as we love ourselves. Becoming interested in the stories of their lives. And believing the stories of their lives as they tell them, even if those stories differ markedly from our own. And then joining in the stories of their lives to build joint stories of power and promise.
And then finally, what is at the root of the different circumstances in which we find ourselves? The circumstances which constrain opportunity for many while building wealth for others, the circumstances that result in silos of vastly different experiences and opportunities that contribute to fear and loathing. It is time for all of us in the United States to acknowledge that racism is alive and well in the country. It is not just an unfortunate chapter in our nation’s history, it is foundational in our nation’s history. Historical injustices continue to have profound impacts on the health and well-being of the whole nation, especially as they are perpetuated most perniciously through inaction in the face of need.
It is well past time to overcome inaction in the face of need. We must violently shrug off our complacence with the vast differences in educational opportunities by “race”. And we have to recognize that the over-representation of “racial” minority groups in poverty is not just a happenstance, but is due to institutionalized racism. Each marginalized, oppressed, stigmatized group in our nation experience some initial historical injustice (for example the taking of the land from and near genocide of American Indians; or the enslavement of West Africans and their progeny, whose coerced unpaid labor for centuries built this country). But one might ask, “Didn’t those injustices happen a long time ago? All else being equal, wouldn’t we expect the impacts of those initial historical insults to have washed out by now?”
The key phrase in that question is “all else being equal.” And all else has not been equal since those initial historical injustices, and all else still is not equal today. There are contemporary structural factors that are perpetuating each of those initial historical insults, and these contemporary structural factors are part and parcel of institutionalized racism. The mechanisms of institutionalized racism are in our decision-making processes. They are in our structures (the “Who?”, “What?”, “When?”, and “Where?” of decision-making, including “Who is at the table, and who is not?”, and “What is on the agenda, and what is not?”). They are in our policies (the written “How?” of decision-making) and in our practices and norms (the unwritten “How?” of decision-making). And they are in our values (the “Why?” of decision-making).
So we now have to be intentional in asking the question “How is racism operating here?”, examining our structures, policies, practices, norms, and values to understanding what is creating and perpetuating the senseless state-enacted killing of Black bodies. What structures like Citizen Review Boards of police departments can be put in place to monitor and alter police practice? What policies like Grand Jury indictments of police officers need to be changed to hold killers accountable? What practices and norms like the Blue Code of Silence need to be challenged? And what values need to be changed? When will Black Lives Really Matter?
To move forward in these sad and perilous times, we need to overcome helplessness, overcome fear, and overcome inaction in the face of need. We need to name racism as a system of structuring opportunity and assigning value based on so-called “race” which is sapping the strength of the whole society through the waste of human resources. We must organize and strategize to act to dismantle this system and put in its place a system in which all people can know and develop to their full potentials. No more helplessness! No more fear! No more inaction in the face of need!
by Camara Phyllis Jones, MD, MPH, PhD and Kisha B. Holden, PhD, MSCR