Moving Forward (While Being Held Back)
As we enter the fifth week of protests since the death of George Floyd, it’s fair to say that the progress being made throughout the country and world is nothing short of remarkable. It’s far from perfect, mind you, but concrete progress it is. Especially when you consider that the type of change desired — awareness, acceptance and, critically, a willingness to address systematic and ingrained oppression of significant portions of the population — is typically resistant to movement and, therefore, is incredibly difficult. Yet, in four eventful weeks we have witnessed actions that many have dreamed of for years but few thought possible. These include:
Police departments are responding. Following the deaths of unarmed African Americans at the hands of police, which shockingly continue even now, the officers responsible are now being fired and charged. Choke holds in many cities are now illegal. Some departments are examining their hiring and training procedures. Some municipalities are considering a significant revamping of their policing practices. Dramatic changes have yet to occur, but this is a start.
Statues and monuments honoring those advocating oppression are being removed. Monuments to and statues of Confederate generals, slave traders, and Christopher Columbus have been removed or unceremoniously taken down throughout the country and around the world. A statue of Robert E. Lee, shown above, was destroyed in Fort Meyers, Florida. Many of them were erected during the Jim Crow era as a way to reinforce the belief among African Americans and Southern whites that while slavery had been legally abolished, segregation and oppression remained the unwritten law of the land. Removing these statues and monuments will not expunge those they depicted nor their memories from our history, but it will eliminate the respect and honor a monument and statue bestow. It will also reduce the number of reminders that exist throughout our country and the world of people who chose to pursue oppression over freedom.
Name changes are in the works. Cities and towns across the country are considering changing their name, as well as the names of streets, parks and schools, to remove reference to Confederate generals, slave owners and slave traders. The most dramatic to date: Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C.¹ There are also serious conversations taking place within the military about renaming ten bases named for Confederate generals.
Juneteenth received widespread attention, as did the 1921 Tulsa massacre. Many were unaware of the 300 African Americans murdered by white men bearing baseball bats and axe handles and the burning to the ground in 1921 of an affluent section of Tulsa known at the time as Black Wall Street. The bombing of this part of town by airplanes, the killings, and the displacement of thousands of African Americans was and has been a well-kept secret. The massacre should be studied in every U.S. history class. Additionally, there is now talk of making Juneteenth, an independence day for African Americans, a national holiday. One can easily make the case that June 19, 1865 is the first day in our country’s history when we could truly say that we are a nation of the free.
The world of sports has taken a stand. The National Football League, Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, Major League Soccer and the National Hockey League have taken strong public stands against oppression. Many coaches and players have spoken out and have become actively involved in the Black Lives Matter movement. There’s even a widespread call to have an NFL team hire Colin Kaepernick. NASCAR has banned the presence of the Confederate flag at its events. One day after college’s Southeast Conference banned championships from taking place in Mississippi, due to its prominent use of the Confederate symbol in its flag, the NCAA expanded its policy banning states with prominent Confederate symbols from hosting its sponsored events. The Minnesota Twins removed a statue of former owner Calvin Griffith at Target Field, citing his racist remarks in 1978 and saying the team could no longer ‘remain silent.’² The University of Virginia changed its sports logo to eliminate an overt link to slavery.
Corporations have joined the chorus. Many companies are publicly committing to the Black Lives Matter initiative and its values and are examining their potential contributions to oppression. Some are contributing heavily to BLM organizations. Brand names and iconic images will be changed, too. The 130-year-old Aunt Jemima brand name will be redesigned, as Quaker Oats admitted that its origins are based on a racial stereotype. Uncle Ben’s Rice, a name used since 1946, will follow suit, as will Mrs. Butterworth’s syrup.³ (‘Aunt’ and ‘Uncle’ were used in the South to address older African Americans due to the refusal of slave owners and other white people to use the more respectful ‘Mr.’ and ‘Mrs.’⁴) Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream, owner of Eskimo Pies, will change the brand’s 100-year-old name. (‘Eskimo’ is considered a derogatory term for the indigenous peoples of Alaska; it is no longer used to refer to the Inuit or the Yupik.) Business Insider has compiled a list of the most racially-insensitive logos, including that of the Washington Redskins football team.⁵ It’s worth a look.
Entertainers are responding. Racially-insensitive television programs, including at least two British ones and a classic film depicting slavery in a romantic way, have been either pulled permanently (e.g., Come Fly With Me, The League of Gentlemen) or will be repositioned with appropriate ‘historical context’ (e.g., Gone with the Wind).⁶ Scores of actors, musicians and other performers have come forward with powerful statements supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as the need to attend effectively to systematic racism and police mistreatment of people of color.
The Supreme Court contributed to the momentum. In two unrelated, but relevant, decisions last week the Supreme Court ruled in favor of extending sex discrimination rights in the workplace to the entire LGBTQ+ community. It also ruled that the approximately 700,000 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) DREAMers are safe from deportation, at least for the time being. Maybe we are entering an era in which we care for people, as opposed to disenfranchising or, worse, oppressing them.
And most importantly, we’re talking, we’re staying active. And we’re listening. Even now as we enter Week 5, marches and tributes continue globally, typically with a highly diverse group of participants. The concept of ‘systematic racism and oppression’ is being discussed openly and acknowledged. Many are receptive — if not eager — to make long-needed changes. At very long last.
This is what progress looks like, at least in its early stages. We should pause, if momentarily, to celebrate how far we’ve come since George Floyd’s death. It is worth reflection and appreciation.
Too bad the story doesn’t end here, on this uplifting and optimistic note. But, alas, it does not. Let’s not overlook:
The pandemic. On the downside, there’s the ever-frightening and ever-threatening coronavirus. Last week, the country surpassed the 2.2 million mark of confirmed COVID-19 cases and approached 120,000 deaths.⁷ Upward trends were reported in 24 states, with eight alarmingly reporting their highest number of new confirmed cases since the pandemic began. Downward trends were reported in 18 states. Vermont has seen a decline of at least 50%. Let’s be clear: we are nowhere near the end of this thing. There is no successful treatment, nor a vaccine. The virus causes death. Maintain your distance and, please, please, wear a mask! Anything less is lunacy and selfish.
Purposely slowing testing. Speaking of lunacy, if not outright criminality, the president at his Tulsa rally last Saturday night told the adoring crowd that he instructed his administration to slow down coronavirus testing. “Here’s the bad part,” he said in all seriousness, “when you do testing to that extent, you’re going to find more people; you’re going to find more cases. So I said to my people, slow the testing down please.”⁸ Not testing to depress artificially the number of confirmed cases is like disconnecting your car’s odometer in order to record less mileage. The actual mileage doesn’t change, nor does the actual number of people getting the dangerous virus. It just lowers the numbers. Slowing testing also has serious short- and longer-term health consequences, as any public health expert will attest, especially since testing is one vital way to understand and control the transmission of the virus. The White House later said that the president was joking. With about 120,000 COVID-19 deaths in the United States and counting, and confirmed cases increasing in 24 states, it’s not something to joke about, if it was a joke at all, nor is it remotely funny.
Voter suppression. A day before Saturday’s rally, it was reported that individuals hoping to participate in Kentucky’s June 23 state primary will have only one place to vote in each precinct. The state reduced its 3,700 polling places by 95%, down to 200. This means that the 616,000 registered voters in Louisville’s Jefferson County, where half of the state’s African American population lives, will have one place to vote. Absentee ballots, which have been distributed, have been fraught with errors, with many voters receiving ballots for the party they are not affiliated with — forcing those people to vote in person.⁹ Mitch McConnell is a senator from Kentucky and is running for reelection. He and seven Republican candidates are vying for the opportunity to face a Democratic challenger in November. It’s 2020 and blatant voter suppression is alive and well and out in the open. Yet again.
And the week had been going so well.
For every few steps forward, we are forced to take a couple of big steps back. Such is our reality. It’s an uphill battle. Let’s remain steadfast and focused on the prize. We can get there, we can confront and work to eradicate systematic racism and oppression. We can make everyone feel safe. We can reduce the need for parents to have The Talk with their teenage children of color.¹⁰ We can turn the corner on our very dark past of slavery and oppression and create a future in which all of us — all of us — enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It’s why we have been the envy of the world. It’s what we have fought for and died for these many years. It’s our dream. It’s our time. Together, can we make it happen.
⁷ As of 9:00 p.m., ET, June 21; https://www.cnn.com/interactive/2020/health/coronavirus-us-maps-and-cases/