Let’s dispel a myth. Bad police officers killing defenseless black men and sometimes women is not the only kind of racism Black people face in 2020 America. Although it is a heinous form of racism that now, thanks to video, we can plainly see and that has led millions of Americans of all colors to peacefully protest, many of our white brothers and sisters still do not want to see it.
But even those who are recognizing it now need to know that police brutality is not the only kind of racism that Black people experience and carry each day. We carry the kind that we must suck up daily and suppress. The kind that breaks our hearts and taints our optimism. The kind that causes hypertension and strokes. The kind that keeps us in fear of losing our jobs, our lives and our children’s future. Racism kills, and not only in ways that are captured on viral videos. Racism kills the human spirit.
For weeks now I have been reading with great dismay and disappointment social media posts on Facebook written by people who I thought were friends, who I thought were Christians, whining and ranting about how sick they are of all the “race talk” and “race-baiting,” by which they mean the people out pushing for justice, equality and systemic change.
To my white brothers and sisters: If you think that you are sick and tired of all of this race stuff after three weeks, imagine how tired those of us who must navigate and live it daily are. If we are going to really attempt in this moment to eradicate or even address racism, we must start by acknowledging it as the virus that it is on the souls of Black people. This moment is about Black people, Black lives, and recognizing the hell that has been rained down upon us and our ancestors since we first arrived on these shores as enslaved people in 1619, the backbreaking, heart-racing strain that racism has placed on Black men and women in particular and people of color in general. The fact that congressman Matt Gaetz and many like him always want to revert to "All Lives Matter" is proof positive of how far America has to go before we can even agree there is a problem with honoring and protecting Black life.
I am happy to see some of our corporate leaders and political leaders are taking this seriously. Kudos to Quaker Oats and MARS companies respectively for rebranding their famous Aunt Jemima Pancake and syrup brands and Mars for Uncle Ben’s Rice. Two images that we all know of an older Black man and heavyset scarf-wearing woman that fit the racial stereotypes of their day. That we are just addressing them in 2020 is astounding.
And big kudos to Boston’s white, male, Irish Catholic mayor, Marty Walsh, who also gets it! Last week, after meeting with black citizens and Black Lives Matter activists, Walsh declared racism a public-health emergency as he reallocated $12 million from the Police Department's overtime budget to public health, housing and counseling initiatives and support of Black-owned businesses. This is a huge move and one that public health advocates and civil rights leaders have pushed for for decades.
With the onset of COVID-19, the Black community has been hit disproportionately hard, with Black people as likely to die from the virus as white people 10 years older. Health experts argue underlying health challenges, financial challenges, and lack of access to health care have made this population so vulnerable. The reality is that if you are Black in America you are more likely to be poor, unhealthy, and live in a community plagued with vast socio-economic ills that negatively impact your quality of life.
If the nation is to heal the gaping wound of racism for real, then we must start by fixing systemic racism. The kind of racism that allows police to shoot and kill unarmed Black men and women with impunity. The kind of racism that creates white fear and justifies keeping us out of the system of economic wealth, professional advancement, educational parity, fair housing, safe communities, and on and on. These are the daily injustices that correlate to Black people having hypertension and a host of other toxic health issues. Let’s face it, racism is a chronic health stressor, and one with no cure.
The reality is that white skin matters. White skin is more valued. And white people, whether they admit it out loud or not, know it to be so. In his bestselling book after the LA Riots in 1992, Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile and Unequal, Professor Andrew Hacker describes an experiment in which his white college students are asked to imagine that they are paid a visit by an official who informs them that at midnight they will become Black. Not simply darker skinned, but with the bodily and facial features associated with African ancestry.
The students were further told, “Inside you will be the person you always were. Your knowledge and ideas will remain intact. But outwardly you will not be recognizable to anyone you now know.” Finally, the students are asked to say how much money they would consider a fair sum to compensate them for this dramatic change in their lives.
“Most seemed to feel that it would not be out of place to ask for 50 million, or $1 million for each coming black year,” Hacker writers. “This calculation conveys, as well as anything, the value that white people place on their own skins.”
Here’s my point: The murders of black people at the hands of police officers may be the most graphic representation of racism that many Americans see, but that is only the tip of the iceberg. Racism is a deep-seated hatred, misunderstanding of, and devaluation of Black people. Until we can face this truth, and break down the systems that perpetuate it, we will never, ever, get beyond it.