The murder of George Floyd at the hands of a policeman unleashed a wave of protest across the US. He wasn’t the first unarmed black man or woman to be murdered by an officer using unwarranted deadly force (there are about 100 per year). Nor is it the first time that we’ve seen mass protests across the US in response to racial injustice. I’ve witnessed such events repeatedly in my lifetime, but this time it feels different.
America has been defined by racial injustice from its very beginnings. We were born with the original sin of slavery and fought a bloody civil war to end this evil institution. In its aftermath, little was done to compensate the millions of freed black citizens. And within a few short decades they fell victim to a new and brutal system of racial prejudice and imposed discrimination that denied Black Americans equal rights and economic opportunity – locking many in poverty that has lasted generations. At the heart of this system was organized violence that worked to maintain inequality and the subjugation of an entire race. A few examples: During a 30-year period, just a century ago, over 4,000 black Americans were lynched in acts of vigilante terrorism; and less than a century ago, in my city of Washington, DC, two entire neighbourhoods of hundreds of black families were forcibly evicted No character style: from their homes in acts of ethnic cleansing to make way for two all-white schools. All of this is our history and must be acknowledged because it lays the predicate for our present-day struggles.
I came of age during the civil rights movement. I marched for open housing in the 1960’s and worked with an anti-racism organisation protesting racial injustice in Philadelphia in the late 60s and early 70s. And I witnessed the urban unrest that devastated major cities in 1968 in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
When I founded the Palestine Human Rights Campaign in the 1970s, I was privileged to get to know most of those great African American leaders who had been Dr King’s colleagues. Those I didn’t meet through the PHRC, I was able to work with during my involvement in Rev Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns.
I was honoured to have been invited with many of these same leaders to a small meeting in the White House with President Clinton to discuss his planned “One America” initiative, national dialogue on race. The concept was a good one, but after a few outings, interest petered out and the project died.
The simple fact of life in America is that despite some real progress made since the time when Dr King lamented that two Americas – one black and one white – that very real division still defines our present-day reality. Most American cities are still deeply racially divided. Inequities remain in income, employment, housing, health, education, criminal justice, and opportunity. The statistics in each of these categories are staggering and should be disturbing to all Americans. The bottom line is that if you are born into a white upper-middle class family, the odds are that you will go to a better school, receive a better education, get a better job and live a longer life than a child born into a black family.
As we enter the third decade of the 21st century, it is important to recognize that while structural racism persists, there is a change in the American people. Young people, black, brown, and white, have a very different view of the world and each other. These are kids who grew up inspired by President Barack Obama and traumatised by mass killings. They are not only tolerant of racial diversity, they celebrate it. They not only find inequality and injustice unacceptable, they feel empowered to act against it.
Some commentators try to find similarities between the protests of the 1960s and those of the present day, but one difference stands out. It is true that, back then, there were civil rights and anti-war demonstrations. But with few exceptions, the crossover, especially among white youth, was limited.
Today is different. The anti-racism protests against police violence and racial inequality have brought together black and white, rich and poor. They are calling for real, fundamental change and it is a hopeful sign that we may be ready, as a society, to address the legacy of our original sin and bury it, once and for all.