The murder of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer has shaken us all and completes a trilogy of Black people killed by a white person just since February, two of whom were killed by police. George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor broke no laws. George was picking something up at his local store, Ahmaud was jogging in his neighborhood, and Breonna was in her own home. It is clear that all three are dead because of the color of their skin. This is not the first time we have witnessed such injustice, but it feels like a final fall into an abyss of bigotry. Finding the words to guide our students toward hope and compassion without diminishing the horror of their deaths is a challenge in an already fearful time.
These deaths force a stark and brutal conclusion: the lives of people of color are more precarious than the lives of white people. Guiding our students toward hope and compassion has never been more difficult nor more important than it is now. We must clear the fog of complacency and look fearlessly at the components of hate and inequality that combine to jeopardize and limit the lives of our fellow Americans. We must listen better to the people of color who live in our communities.
In the aftermath of the 1965 Watts Riots, California Governor Pat Brown organized the McCone Commission, headed up by John McCone, former head of the CIA. Among his many conclusions he highlighted what he described as a “spiral of failure” to address the concerns of the Black community. The report urged “reforms in police procedures” and found that the “Board of Police Commissioners is not visibly exercising the authority over the department vested in it by city charters.” The report identified a chasm of opportunity, education, and safety from police abuse between white communities and Black communities, concluding that “if allowed to persist, could in time split our society irretrievably.”
What we face today is not new nor are the solutions. We must be prepared to examine the large and small layers of racial bias that exist in our society. Each time we excuse a slur on behalf of being polite, each time we step away from discussing the role of race in American history, we contribute to an environment in which it is not safe to be a Black person.
The best tool we can offer our students is bravery. We all need to be brave enough to examine carefully the American systems that operate on a set of prejudices that are so deeply embedded in our culture that white people are oblivious to the harm inflicted on people of color. It is a system that empowers agents of the state to murder Black Americans with little or no consequence. It is a daunting and frightful exercise to look through the layers of history that built white supremacy, but as Frederick Douglass said so well, “There is no Negro problem. The problem is whether American people have loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough, to live up to their own Constitution.”