By now it is commonplace to discuss the unprecedented nature of both the 2016 presidential election and the racial dynamics of the past several years. It is not that any particular element is necessarily surprising, but the confluence — combined with the quicksilver catalysts of cell phone cameras and social media — that is so mind-blowing.
The murder of Philando Castile in July 2016 by a police officer wasn’t just captured on cell phone video, it was broadcast live on Facebook. The Republican nominee, Mr. Trump, didn’t just label Mexican immigrants ‘rapists,’ and threaten mass deportations, but preys on fear to legitimize a ban on all Muslims entering the country. More hopefully, and on the other end of the continuum is Georgetown University, publicly atoning for engaging and profiting in the economy of slavery. But, then again, just days ago in Tulsa was the killing of Terence Crutcher, another unarmed black, man at the hands of a white officer in Tulsa. At the time of writing, unrest is flaring in Charlotte, North Carolina, in response to the shooting death of Keith Lamont Scott, a 43-year-old black man, by police.
The experience of living through the 2016 election campaign has been full-body and at breakneck speed. But — hopefully — this frenzy of uncertainty will end on November 8th. When the dust settles, however, we will still have record murder rates in the black and brown neighborhoods of Chicago, Baltimore, and Milwaukee. Black and brown people will still be more likely to experience poverty, struggling school systems, police brutality, mass incarceration, depression, and compromised health. We will still have a society dominated by wealthy whites in positions of power, along with too many white working class men and women feeling excluded, resentful, and susceptible to the logics of racism and xenophobia. The situation is untenable. The numbers of hate groups have risen dramatically. Baltimore, Ferguson, Milwaukee, and other cities have already erupted in anger and violence.
As we wait for the outcome of this unprecedented election in this increasingly intense time, our duty will be to fortify ourselves for the time ahead by reading, listening, watching, talking, planning, and taking the steps to strengthen our resolve for a truly democratic society. If we do not want to leave future generations trapped in cycles of racial conflict, we must bite the bullet and take a collective hard look at the root causes of our current — and recurring — racial dynamics. If Americans fully confront that our society’s structure was based on economic, housing and education policies steeped in a cruel, outdated, but nevertheless powerful, economic and ideological strategy of white supremacy, we can be collectively more honest. If we face that the practices and belief systems that both created and flowed from those policies have affected each of us, regardless of how much or little of a hand we had in them, we can be collectively wiser. And if we recognize that what we are experiencing as the heightened turmoil of the 2010s is not new, but the illumination of long-running injustice and brutality in communities of color, we can be collectively stronger.
Building public will for real investment in equity is paramount. Given the pace and intensity, not to mention the precedents of respect and decorum that have been obliterated during this election season, there’s no time to trifle, hedge, or make half-hearted commitments. To progress from where we are now we will need an inclusive framework, a common language, and leaders at every level, across generations and sectors. We need a critical mass of such leaders willing to put in the thought, time and elbow grease toward everything from building relationships to raising awareness to crafting policy and implementing it with integrity.
Fortunately, we are not without tools or examples. We have:
- NAACP Legal Defense Fund
- African American Policy Forum
- Arab American Association of New York
- Race Forward
- Local and Regional Government Alliance on Race and Equity
- Hispanic Federation
- My Brother’s Keeper
- Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund
We also have the many scholars, advocates, and artists whose work broadens understanding and connects across perceived difference. There is also Georgetown University, mentioned above, which both bears a particular responsibility as a powerful, white institution, and is on the vanguard of promoting justice and reconciliation among the staid and traditional. We can also look to the young and intrepid #BlackLivesMatter movement that, while ruffling the feathers of some, is an emblematic achievement, combining social media, empowered youth, and thoughtfulness about power and leadership dynamics in ways that are as unprecedented as the era from which it was born.
We are also fortunate to have myriad outlets for taking informed action. While he is no longer a candidate, we might take a page from the playbook of Bernie Sanders, hanging in until we are certain that concerns for equity and fairness are heard and incorporated. We can show our resolve for a truly equitable and democratic society by participating more robustly in local political processes. Innovative organizations like the Participatory Budgeting Project, which involve community residents in decision-making on how to spend public money, are additional ways to be involved in building equity by building knowledge, relationships and capacity among citizens of all backgrounds and providing an important template for grappling with tough issues and creating new ways of organizing ourselves and our communities.
Above all, we must not squander this precarious moment, but instead choose to honor the knowledge of how to live together in generative and forward-looking ways that was so painstakingly built by past generations. Human beings created a political economy based on skin color, and, should we choose to do so, we can create one based on our common humanity, inclusivity, sincere inquiry, and perseverance. Race “happens” on the psychological, community, regional, national and global levels. We must address each of them, something both daunting and hopeful since it gives us each a role to play, regardless of age or skin color. Forging a new way of being will take both heroics and many small acts. There is no better time than now to amplify, or begin, our efforts to realize racial equity as a cultural value and a socio-economic reality.