The brutal and unrepentant murder of George Floyd, almost immediately following the murders of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, have once again reminded us that being Black in America is a crime. Note that I say “reminded” because I am a white person afforded the luxury of forgetting this when there aren’t protesters actively marching down my street; but for the 44 million Black people in this country, I imagine that this is never something that is forgotten. Since drafting this original post just several weeks ago, I can add Rayshard Brooks to the list also – perhaps he was guilty of a misdemeanor, but that somehow led to his execution.
The fact is, our legal system says that we are “innocent until proven guilty,” but when we allow cavalier officers to take a posture of “Fire, Ready, Aim” over and over again, the message is clear: The guilt of Black and Brown Americans doesn’t need to be proven; it’s implied and that’s enough for law enforcement officers to feel comfortable taking on the role of judge, jury, and executioner. Sure, there are consequences for some of these officers, but the fact that they act so brazenly aggressive in the first place indicates how they perceive the system in which they are working. When we watch the video in horror as an innocent man’s life is choked away from him, it’s clear that the issue is Black and White.
But the violence against the African American community is really a microcosm of the greater portrait of racism in 21st century America. I was a year old when the Rodney King riots ignited Los Angeles; 30 years before that, Black Americans were still asking simply for a voice; now, 30 years later, the same turmoil is still aflame. Racism in this country, it seems, is perennial. And every community of color that forms a part of the fabric of our nation is impacted by it.
These most recent protests come on the coattails of a virus whose official name is SARS-CoV-2, but you don’t have to look far to find someone who calls it the “Wuhan Flu” or some variation of that. Our own president revels in calling it the “Kung Flu” like some cat being told not to push a glass off the table and doing it anyway. Except, you know, he’s the President of the United States and perhaps that merits a bit more decorum than a housecat. There are those who argue, “Hey, it came from China, right, so what’s wrong with calling it like it is?” Do I really have to explain why this is ridiculous? Fine, let’s look at the past few pandemics: H1N1 (Swine Flu), Bird Flu, Ebola, SARS. Where’s the reference to the country of origin? How does naming a virus after its epidemiological roots help solve anything?
Yeah, but what about the Spanish Flu? Discounting the absurdity of saying that what was considered acceptable 102 years ago is still P.C. today, the so-called Spanish Flu didn’t actually originate in Spain – but the countries involved in WWI at the time didn’t want to publicize a deadly pandemic so they suppressed the stories, whereas war-neutral Spain was not trying to rally people behind their war banner so their press was the most direct source of information about the virus for the Western world – thus a misnomer was born.
Make no mistake: The people using these names are using the monikers as a smokescreen for more overt racism towards Asian Americans. China is an economic competitor in an increasingly multilateral world – the U.S. is no longer the global monolith, and the new kid on the block has a vastly different culture than our own, so naturally we have to make them the bad guy. The virus was a gift to the bigots desperately seeking a way to make China the enemy. This kind of wordplay is the kind of subtle and repulsive racism that embeds racist ideologies so deeply in society – word association linking one group of people to negative themes… “Black on black crime” instead of just “crime”; “Wuhan Flu”; “Muslim extremist”; “Illegal aliens”; the list goes on.
That last one hits close to home – Latinx immigrants in this country, like my wife, have shouldered an unsettling share of reproachable racism in the past few decades. While this particular group was never subjected to slavery in the United States, it is clear that many people still think of them as an inferior demographic. Millions of the Latinx people in this country are not here because of how great the United States is – they are here because they are refugees seeking the closest place where their families can eek out a life – fleeing debilitating poverty, gang violence, and political structures that oppress and threaten any dissidence, even if that simply means asking for food when you’re starving. So many of the Latinx immigrants here long for their home countries, for their food, for their culture, for a sense of belonging that may be lost to them forever. But weakening the nascent governments of post-colonial Central & South America during the Cold War was a winning strategy for the United States; now we have the privilege of helping some of the people our country’s actions disadvantaged. But we are yet again failing them.
Much like other ethnic minorities, whenever a Latinx person is successful in this country, people may consider them exceptional. On one hand, I do agree that overcoming tremendous systemic barriers to success is exceptional; on the other hand, it nauseates me to think that professional and economic success is largely excepted for a whole group of people due to the barriers they face. Will people view my half-Latinx children as “extraordinary” because they are truly amazing? Or will they be viewed as “extraordinary” because they have found ways to achieve ordinary success as dark-skinned people despite extraordinary systemic racism? What kind of obstacles will they face because of their cinnamon skin that their father never had to face? Will people wonder if they are legal U.S. citizens? If they speak English?
People of Middle Eastern descent must face similarly harrowing racism. In the past 19 years, terrorism and Islam became forcibly and reluctantly married in the propaganda for the “War on Terror.” The enemy was some nebulous concept of fear, and to sell that to people, it needed a face. Unfortunately, that face wears a hijab or a turban and has brown skin. These are symbols of a religion built on peace with many of the same fundamental values as Christianity. But a person wearing a turban is a lot easier to criminalize than a person wearing a cross when that person is “the other.”
One of the big fallacies bloodying the waters is the whole, “White Europeans faced racism too. What about the Italians and the Irish?” Where to begin! First off, let’s not excuse modern racism with past racism. Just because white ethic groups faced racism in this country doesn’t mean that racism should be some kind of rite of passage for other demographics. Think about how that logic would apply to other acts of hate – Do we invalidate the pain of rape victims because other people have been raped historically? Do we tell family members of murder victims that they shouldn’t be upset because the act of murder is as old as the Garden of Eden? No, just because something has happened to one group in the past doesn’t make it acceptable for other groups today.
Secondly, if we do want to look to history, then we can say pretty comfortably that the white immigrants to this country, though they may have encountered racism upon arrival, were able to largely blend into the majority within their lifetime – if you dump rice into a bucket of rice and mix it up, it’s gonna be hard to distinguish which rice was originally in the bucket. Other ethnic groups aren’t able to blend into the racial majority in this country as easily. That should be a good thing – the U.S. should be a place where your cultural roots and race are honored and respected, where you can embrace the unique U.S. culture while not letting go of your ethnic background. But over and over again, we see that isn’t the case. Other racial groups look like “the other” and that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When a child grows up feeling like the outsider in a society, then that insecurity becomes a part of their identity. When a person comes to this country as an immigrant and hears people say “Speak English”, they are reminded that they are not in the majority and are therefore different – not “We love you for your differences” different, but rather “You are not welcome here” different.
Even as I write this, I know that my reflections as a white man do precious little justice to the veritable tidal wave of racism that people of color must face every day. From microaggressions to acts of violence, we as a country have not lived up to our ideal of being a melting pot, and we consistently demonstrate that we have no interest in being a salad bowl of cultures either. Fortunately, we have the ingredients, the knowledge, and the power to fix this, one step at a time – confronting hate and racism head on and calling it out. That is our charge. That is our only respectable path forward as a country.