“It’s been a long time coming, but I know a change is gonna come” — these powerful and prophetic words of Sam Cooke’s ring in my ears and heart as I write these words looking for answers like the rest of us. I have watched the events of the past few weeks unfold and find myself alarmed, angry, and anguished at what I am seeing happen to our communities and nation.
What I do know is that we foolishly look for simple answers to complex issues. The roots of these issues are deep and entwined in the very foundation of America. Thinking that attending protests or making public confessions and apologies for racism will suffice is analogous to pulling weeds from the ground while the source of the problem lies safely beneath the soil.
The Declaration of Independence spoke about “merciless Indian Savages” while remaining silent about slavery and ignoring the question of freedom and equality for these individuals.
The U.S. Constitution, revered as much if not more than the Declaration, embedded racism and inequality throughout the document. Article I, Section 2 delicately refers to slaves as “three fifths of all other Persons.” Article 1, Section 9 explicitly prohibits Congress from banning slavery until 1808. This clause was used to deny citizenship to slaves and their descendants in the Scott v. Sanford (1857) decision.
Despite the passage of the 13th-15th Amendments, within decades after the Civil War, segregation and Jim Crow laws spread virally throughout not only the former Confederacy but even to free states like Kansas.
We cannot ignore our history and the sinful legacies of slavery, xenophobia and racism that lie at the heart of our national soul. It took nearly a century for America to abolish the “separate, but equal doctrine.”
The senseless deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and others illustrate the pervasive and pernicious extent of societally approved, if not sanctioned, institutional racism and open hostility against people of color. We are not all equally free, far from it.
Just as not all whites are racists, not all African Americans are criminals. The painful reality is that African Americans are vulnerable to surveillance and death by both private citizens and public officials.
Whether it is Glynn County, Georgia; Louisville, Kentucky; or Minneapolis, Minnesota; they are not safe. Whether they are jogging, sleeping in their homes, or shopping, they are not safe. Whether it is the deep south or the far north, they are not safe.
Rather than dealing with this reality, rather than struggling to expose the roots of our national racism, we express disbelief at the protests and riots occurring across the country. I am not condoning the riots, but as I attempted to point out to a friend of mine, these riots did not occur in a vacuum.
The initial George Floyd protesters were peaceful and unarmed. They were met with tear gas and plastic bullets.
The brilliant African-American intellectual W.E.B. DuBois wrote, "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line — the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.”
Over a century later, it is the problem of the 21st century, too. Our challenge is to make fundamental changes to solve this problem.
Nicolas Shump is a longtime educator and writer in northeast Kansas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.