It’s Not Enough to Just Not Be Racist. We Need Anti-Racism.
It Feels Different This Time
Nikole Hannah-Jones is a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist who writes about racial injustice for The New York Times Magazine and creator of the ongoing 1619 Project, which examines the legacy of American slavery. The project was released in 2019, 400 years after slavers brought the first group of captured Africans to American shores to be sold as slaves. On June 24, Hannah-Jones published an article in The New York Times Magazine called “What is Owed,” arguing for the necessity of financial reparations for the descendants of enslaved Black people. In the first article, she writes, “It feels different this time.”
And it does.
On May 25, four police officers arrested a Black man, 46-year-old George Floyd, in Minneapolis, Minnesota for allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill. While Floyd was in handcuffs, one officer—Derek Chauvin—pinned him to the ground and kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes as Floyd begged and pleaded for his life. On May 26, protests broke out in Minneapolis and on May 27, they spread to other cities as communities rallied under the simple demand for acknowledgement that Black lives are worth saving. Central to the movement is the decentralized Black Lives Matter global network.
I think of the BLM movement as a central piece in a “new” era in the fight for civil rights against racial injustice and systemic oppression. BLM led protests after the death of Trayvon Martin in 2013—especially after his killer, George Zimmerman, was acquitted. The network led protests following the deaths of Michael Brown (2013), Eric Garner (2014), Tamir Rice (2014), Freddie Gray (2015), Walter Scott (2015), Sandra Bland (2016), the Charleston Nine (2015), Alton Sterling (2016), and Philando Castille (2016).
Unfortunately that list goes on and on. And possibly even more unfortunately, the murders tend to light a small fire under America’s underbelly, we protest and then eventually the fire burns out and the momentum dies with it.
But now we’ve reached the end of June, the momentum is still going, people are still in the streets, and the Black Lives Matter movement is bigger than it’s ever been. The Black Lives Matter network is only about seven years old and the system of over-policing and over-surveying Black lives is centuries older. Just like the three other officers who watched Derek Chauvin kneel on George Floyd’s neck, America has been watching the destruction of Black bodies since 1619. It’s unbelievable, but not necessarily surprising. So where is all the momentum coming from? What’s so different about this time? Why now?
In another New York Times article called “7 Lessons (and Warnings) From Those Who Marched With Dr. King,” award-winning journalist Ellen Barry spoke to “surviving veterans of the civil rights era” who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s to compare their strategies with those we’ve seen in the last month or so.
89-year-old Don Rose served as Dr. King’s press secretary in Chicago and acknowledges that today more people are witnessing police brutality firsthand with viral videos on social media and more specifically that white people are seeing it. In the article, Rose says, “In those days when we spoke of police brutality, we weren’t often believed…. The fact that more whites are participating in these marches all over the country is evidence that over the years, more and more has been heard. The messages are getting across.”
88-year-old Andrew Young is another former activist, former mayor of Atlanta, Georgia, and ambassador to the United Nations. He claims that the major difference between the 1960s Civil Rights Movement and the modern Black Lives Matter movement is social media. He says, “Not only did we not have social media, we hardly had phones… [and] it took us three or four months in Birmingham to organize.”
90-year-old Xernona Clayton helped organize marches for Dr. King and, in the article, expressed optimism in younger generations’ urgency. She says, “I’m hoping—I’m a positive thinker—I believe this day will create the change we all want…. Now [young people] got the urgency. Now I think the young people are really bringing the problem to the fore. They got everybody’s attention.”
The Call for Reparations…
A lot of my own momentum to write this article came from Nikole Hannah-Jones’ recent article calling for reparations. For decades, scholars, historians and civil rights activists have been arguing in favor of reparations for slavery to offer economic opportunity, of which Black Americans have been deprived and owed for centuries. The article claims that this country cannot make any real change in regards to racial injustice without serious discussions about not only addressing the economic disparity, but also correcting it.
Central to this disparity is the difference in generational wealth, specifically between Black and white Americans. (Note that Hannah-Jones does not equate “wealth” to being “rich” or “wealthy,” but the option for economic opportunity.) Historically, white Americans have accumulated generational wealth through the institution of slavery and the exploitation of Black bodies. Slavery was the United Sates’ main source of economic movement and the nation relied on free labor from Black bodies to generate national wealth that Black people could not benefit from.
Even after slavery was abolished, the United States government did everything it could to keep wealth circulating amongst white Americans, repeatedly denying restitution to formerly enslaved Black people and their descendants and discriminating against Black people to perpetuate inequality. As a result, one can track the legacy of wealth in white communities, with policies like the 1862 Homestead Acts, which promised the opportunity for Americans—including freed slaves—a claim to federal land in the U.S. western territory.
However, historian Keri Leigh Merritt writes that while land acquisition generated wealth for white Americans, for Black people, it is rooted in the legacy of poverty. Because they were used as unpaid slave labor, Black people did not have capital after emancipation. Therefore they did not have equal access to this land when the government passed the Homestead Acts. In contrast, there were more than 1 million white families that benefitted from the policy between 1862 and 1934. The article also states that in the year 2000, about 46 million white adults in the United States could trace their legacy of wealth to national policy, so one can track a legacy of Black poverty in the same way.
She writes, “The Homestead Acts excluded African Americans not in letter, but in practice—a template that the government would propagate for the next century and a half.” Merritt continues to explain that after the Civil War and emancipation, Black people “became the only race in the U.S. to ever start out, as an entire people, with close to zero capital. Having nothing else upon which to build or generate wealth, the majority of freedmen had little real chance of breaking the cycles of poverty created by slavery, and perpetuated by federal policy.”
…Is a Call for Anti-Racism
While Black slaves were treated as property and considered symbols of wealth, the entire race was set up with a 400-year-old disadvantage both socially and economically. In the case of reparations, that means closing the wealth gap between Black people and literally everyone else so that we at least have an equal playing field to start off on. Then we can talk about equal rights.
Even though it’s a start, it isn’t going to be enough to just demand that Black lives matter. It’s not enough to simply not be a racist. We have to act against the system and adjust our behaviors so that we can actually correct it. We need to be anti-racist.
In the year 2020, we have tools that no generation has ever had before. We have social media to connect communities and spread messages across the world faster than ever. We have the time. We have the energy. To answer the question I asked before, that’s why now.
Another former activist, 85-year-old Bob Moses says in Barry’s New York Times article, “It is revelatory that the pressure now is coming from within. It’s been sparked by this one event, but the event really has opened up a crevasse, so to speak, through which all this history is pouring.”
But ultimately, if we really want to see change, we have to be open to it. Some things may not look the same; some things may be torn apart and rebuilt in the process. Right now we are seeing history take place before our eyes to create the space for change. But in the article, after his optimistic sentiment, Moses immediately asks an important question: Can the country really handle it?