“Let all the ends thou aimst at be thy Country’s, thy God’s, and Truth’s. Be noble and the nobleness that lies in other men, sleeping but never dead, will rise in majesty to meet thine own.”
—Inscription at Union Station, Washington, D.C. circa 1908
I remember first reading those words as a young congressional intern when I came to Washington, D.C. for the first time as a sophomore in high school. I have always held them close to my heart because they affirm that one man or woman can make a difference and in so doing, inspire others to follow.
I have reflected a lot in the past few days on the “sleeping but never dead” words, because they ring true right now, at this moment in our nation’s history. Our collective conscience has been awoken. The American people have risen. They have met the call of this moment. Something has shifted in our cities, in our suburbs, in our churches, in our culture, in our corporations, and in our hearts. And it has shifted big.
America and Americans are seemingly awake from a Rip Van Winkle-like slumber as Confederate statues that never should have been erected after the Civil War and during Jim Crow are now being torn down. Unfair laws that have given police unfettered powers to restrain and use lethal force against citizens are being revoked and rewritten.
Civil rights organizations, attorneys, and a new generation of black leaders long considered unnecessary in a “post-racial” America are now very relevant again. And for the first time in my life, I am seeing and hearing people, white people, have hard, courageous, uncomfortable conversations.
It isn’t just the death of George Floyd that has awakened our white brothers and sisters here at home, and indeed around the globe; it is the fact that we have all been side-lined in this moment. We were all sitting at home for the past two or three months, and we were finally paying attention. Unlike at other similar moments in our national consciousness, when we were distracted with work and with living life, this time we were all paying attention. All of us.
So now that George Floyd has been laid to rest, now that Breonna Taylor’s murderers still walk free, and now that Ahmaud Arbery’s family seeks justice, what will we do with this moment?
It is one thing to march, and protest. Both have been very effective in these past two weeks. They have galvanized the attention of literally every continent on earth. They have made the NFL admit it was wrong. They have made corporations acknowledge that they are failing at diversity. They have made politicians of conscience, conservatives like Mitt Romney, march in solidarity and proclaim “Black Lives Matter.”
Within 10 days of sustained protests, Minneapolis banned the use of chokeholds. Charges were upgraded against Officer Derek Chauvin, and his three fellow officers were arrested and charged. Dallas adopted a “duty to intervene” rule that requires officers to stop other cops who are engaging in inappropriate use of force. In New Jersey, the attorney general said that the state will update its use-of-force guidelines for the first time in two decades. In Los Angeles, the City Council introduced a motion to reduce LAPD’s $1.8 billion operating budget.
The time is now. So what do we do?
First: We are going to have to address systemic racism in America. That means an overhaul in educational curriculum K-12, and post-secondary education. How we teach American history is flawed. We leave a big part of the story out. We need to tell the whole story, so that our kids grow up understanding how we got here. Where dangerous racial stereotypes emanate from and why they cause so much hatred.
Second: We are going to need to rethink how we allocate money to police departments and municipalities in America. We have allowed our policemen to become militarized with weapons of mass destruction, armored vehicles, swat teams, and unlimited power to use whatever force they deem acceptable.
Third: We need financial reforms. Housing reforms. Access to capital for black businesses reform.
Fourth: We need equal justice under the law. We need the laws of this country to apply to all of us equally. No black man or woman or child should have to fear being brutalized, beat-up, shot, or killed by a policeman at a routine traffic stop. Or as we are sleeping in our beds. Or as we are running for our lives from a rogue cop.
And last: We need unconscious bias and conscious bias awareness training in every institution in America from our colleges to corporations to correctional institutions to our churches. We must be intentional about seizing this moment. We must be very intentional indeed.
By We, I mean simply: We The People of the United States of America. That is the “We” that has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to further perfect this union.
As I watched the funeral services held in Houston, I felt hopeful. I see a nation wrestling with her racial demons, and praying to be exorcised of them once and for all. I believe in the forces of good. The forces of justice. The forces of equality and humanity that have been awakened from their slumber. I believe in an America that is ever becoming a more perfect union. And I believe that unlike at any time before in our history, we are going to live up to our founding credo, e pluribus unum: out of many, one.