Yesterday we lost a legend in John Lewis, but his work is not done. Eight years ago, I had the opportunity to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge (which should be immediately renamed for John Lewis by the way) with a number of other civil rights leaders commemorating both Bloody Sunday and also ultimately the Voting Rights Act later passed as a result. I wrote about that experience then. One thing that sticks out to me still to this day is the unfinished work that began over 50 years ago, and the shock to the national conscience that arrested white America to the plight of black America’s suffering.
For weeks, perhaps even months I’ve resisted the idea that somehow, what we’re living through right now feels different. Of course, what I’m referring to isn’t simply the public health pandemic, but the longer lasting epidemic of racism and white supremacy that has plagued our country since its inception. In fact, in conversations with black friends and family members, we often arrive at the same unfortunate conclusions: we’ve been here before. Something big happens to capture the attention of mainstream America, and suddenly there’s momentum for change. I’ve even remarked to several colleagues that this moment feels bigger for white people than it does for us. In many ways, I believe that’s true. However, I am finding it increasingly difficult to explain away the sustained momentum that keeps the conversation focused on issues of racial equity. That’s why I’m starting to acknowledge that perhaps, this does feel different. Here’s why.
Yesterday while riding home from the Dekalb Farmer’s market, we drove through our old stomping grounds, downtown Decatur and North Druid Hills, where my wife and I lived after undergrad at Emory. We drove past people lining the streets with signs announcing that Black Lives Matter! and Vote! End White Supremacy Now! Almost all of the participants were white. One of the signs asked drivers to honk if they believed black lives mattered. I guess I got caught up in the moment (and surprised by the show of support) so I leaned on the horn like so many of the other drivers. Meanwhile, our daughters in the back were reading the signs. Riley mentioned that one of the signs said the same thing as a shirt that I was wearing. Suddenly in that moment I felt co-opted.
There certainly has been a sudden shift in popular attention given to the movement for racial equity and social justice. I can’t tell you the number of emails I received from businesses and organizations affirming that black lives indeed mattered to them over the past few months. Never mind that for many of them, likely their own internal institutional practices spoke different values. And why now all of a sudden was this particular company or organization suddenly rushing to affirm my value? It all seems conspicuously convenient.
The black friends that I talk with right now are experiencing the same cognitive dissonance as I. It’s hard to size up the intentions of even well-intentioned folks when you have such a checkered history with this country. Now all of a sudden our stories matter? Now, perhaps you might be willing to believe us when we say that something’s wrong with the criminal justice system? At some point I was on a call and was asked to share my thoughts about what was going on. Ordinarily I volunteer to speak, but lately I’ve not been interested in being the poster child for black America’s experience. I wasn’t sure if this particular group deserved to hear my own stories of being pulled over for the first time at 19 years old and racially profiled, scared for my own life on the side of I-95 in Virginia. What’s more, I wasn’t interested in carrying the burden of any misdirected white guilt.
So I waited. And I later shared my story with those it felt safe to share it with. It turns out, that was my family back in South Carolina. We were home visiting my parents who both recently got out of the hospital for various ailments. While home I ended up at my aunt’s house for about 3 hours discussing a wide range of topics including faith, race, and growing up black in a small town. My aunt asked me had I ever been pulled over, and my uncle incredulously replied on my behalf, of course he’s had run ins with the police. He’s a black man! He was right. But over the next 3 hours, we did something that I love about what black people do: we commiserated, we talked about God, and we figured out how we have to move forward. We don’t have time to wallow, our lives depend on navigating these barriers.
Talking about race is a regular ongoing conversation in my circles, and it’s one of the reasons why I’m pleasantly surprised that it’s now going mainstream. It’s about damn time. Whenever I hear a white person say that they don’t often talk about race because they fear saying the wrong thing or they don’t know what to say, I dismiss this as a cowardly excuse. One of my favorite quotes by Austin Channing Brown is, sadly, most white people are more worried about being called racist than about whether or not their actions are in fact racist or harmful. (Her book Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness is giving me so much life right now!)
Dialoguing about race isn’t about having the answers, it’s about having the conversation. For too long white America has been afraid to even have the conversation. And while white folks are having this conversation amongst themselves (remember, black folks have been doing this for centuries amongst ourselves), don’t rely on us to lead you to your own conclusions. The emotional burden of initiating and leading this conversation has always rested on black folks, it’s time you play your role.
So, for me the reason why this moment is starting to feel different is because at least it looks and sounds like white America is starting to have the conversation. Good for them, for that’s where it begins. But it certainly can’t end there. Let’s not mistake shifts in language, for progress in other outcomes such as institutional and systemic change (i.e. laws, policies, or funds allocated to marginalized communities). We need to change both hearts and minds, and systems and institutions. I’m starting to have hope now that perhaps we can do both, and finally finish the work that heroes like John Lewis began so many years ago.