So here we are again wondering if at last we’ve reached a turning point in the country’s 400-year history of brutal abuse and oppression of black and brown people.
To watch the compilation of videos that document the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers is to witness a hate crime committed by agents of the government. Decent people everywhere are horrified and disgusted.
But is it a turning point?
That’s what Americans thought in 1964 when the Civil Rights Act was passed after Congress had for two decades defiantly rejected legislation to ensure civil rights for black Americans.
Back in those days, racism was a sickening point of pride.
In expressing his opposition to the measure during a blistering filibuster, Georgia Sen. Richard Russell proclaimed, “We will resist to the bitter end any measure or any movement which would have a tendency to bring about social equality and intermingling and amalgamation of the races ….”
When Russell’s side finally lost and LBJ signed the bill into law, the president said, “we have come now to a time of testing. We must not fail. Let us close the springs of racial poison. …”
It could have been a turning point. It wasn’t.
Frustration at the lack of real change mounted, leading to riots in LA, Chicago, Newark and elsewhere.
In 1967, LBJ appointed a commission to study the causes of the racial discord. The famous Kerner Commission report was released in 1968 and concluded, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.”
The problem was clearly identified: white America.
“White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it,” the report said.
Urban violence was the direct, predictable outcome of white racism, the commission concluded. It called for a raft of policy changes, including dramatically increased spending on improved policing practices to end the brutality inflicted on black Americans at the hands of the cops.
It should have been a turning point. It wasn’t.
Two months later, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and riots fueled by grief and frustration erupted in cities across the country.
The government response came quietly a few months later through an infamous memorandum written to the newly-elected President Nixon by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, an adviser on domestic issues.
“… The American Negro is making extraordinary progress,” the memo said. “The time may have come when the issue of race could benefit from a period of ‘benign neglect.’ The subject has been too much talked about.”
There was nothing benign about what ensued.
The War on Crime, the War on Drugs, the defunding of public education, the dumping of toxic waste in the air and water in inner-city neighborhoods, blatant housing discrimination, unjust mass incarceration, tax policy that eviscerated the middle class, discrimination in health care … .
This is what people are referring to when they talk about systemic racism. For decades, we elected leaders who reinforced a system that is the legal and institutional embodiment of our white supremacy.
If this is to be a turning point, that has to end. And the first step is to elect leaders who have the guts to dismantle that system.
So, what are the guys who seek to represent us in the U.S. Senate saying about white supremacy and the Black Lives Matter movement? How has the image of the killing of George Floyd affected them? What would they do to address systemic racism if elected?
Your guess is as good as mine.
Sen. Cory Gardner says, “something has to change,” but law enforcement has to “stop the carnage that is happening.”
Former Gov. John Hickenlooper says that “every life is sacred and every life deserves the protections of our system of public safety and our system of justice.”
Former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff says that “racism is baked into our nation from our founding documents. It’s not enough to say Black Lives Matter when every single day we act as if they don’t.”
I know this is just campaign rhetoric – and, let’s face it, some responses are better than others. But if we elect people who respond to state-sanctioned murder with varying degrees of calculated platitudes and don’t demonstrate a commitment to real change, we’re all guilty of the next murder by cop.
We need leaders who have the guts to take a stand and act on it. It’s up to us to demand that before we’re faced with a critical election decision.
You don’t have to wear a white hood or drive your car into a group of civil rights activists to engage in deadly racist behavior. We all know that.
All you have to do is nothing.
Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant.
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