As we now feel our feet beneath a movement that seems destined to create the systemic change so many of us have yearned for, it might behoove us to realize that it wasn’t that long ago that we seemed poised at another major inflection point. In the summer of 2015 the mass murder of black parishioners at the hands of a young white supremacist fueled a movement not unlike the one we are experiencing today. Out of that tragedy came a renewed awareness that we still had not addressed, the inherent racism so rampant in our country. That summer, people rebelled against the hatred symbolized in the glorification of our Confederacy, and its flag was removed from the Georgia State House.
Some major retailers halted any continued sales of Confederate memorabilia. Monuments honoring Confederate soldiers and leaders were taken down in New Orleans. Efforts were made to label supremacist hate groups as domestic terrorists. While honoring the victims of the church shooting, President Barack Obama, made perhaps his most impassioned plea for Americans to recognize that systemic racism was still very much a part of the American landscape. In that speech he asked for reflection after the horrible tragedy:
Perhaps it causes us to examine what we’re doing to cause some of our children to hate. Perhaps it softens hearts towards those lost young men, tens and tens of thousands caught up in the criminal justice system – and lead us to make sure that that system is not infected with bias; that we embrace changes in how we train and equip our police so that the bonds of trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve make us all safer and more secure. Maybe we now realize the way racial bias can infect us even when we don’t realize it, so that we’re guarding against not just racial slurs, but we’re also guarding against the subtle impulse to call Johnny back for a job interview but not Jamal. So that we search our hearts when we consider laws to make it harder for some of our fellow citizens to vote. By recognizing our common humanity by treating every child as important, regardless of the color of their skin or the station into which they were born, and to do what’s necessary to make opportunity real for every American – by doing that, we express God’s grace.”
Then, on June 26, the Supreme Court voted in a 5-4 decision that the 14th Amendment obliges states to issue licenses for same sex marriages. This now seemed like a summer in which a great leap forward was occurring in our country in terms of moving toward greater racial equality and gender bias equality.
I thought we had reached a cultural turning point where diversity could be celebrated and embraced, and where past injustices could be authentically and deeply addressed and finally corrected. I was wrong. On June 16, 2015, Donald Trump had announced his candidacy for president of the United States. In his announcement speech he made his bold claim that the United States was broken and that we didn’t win at anything anymore. He also made immigration a corner stone of his campaign when he declared:
When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
The left did not take him seriously.
During Trump’s presidency, he repeatedly targeted non-white immigrants, primarily Mexicans and Muslims, as the reasons for our country’s problems. He dubbed non-white immigrants’ origins as “shithole countries.” He tore infants from their parents’ arms to make a point about how much we didn’t want non-white immigrants in this country. In rallies and speeches, he promoted police brutality and getting tough on those who did not respect our country. He did away with nearly all of the previous administration’s policies on police reform and squelched dissent addressing that bias. He forced workers, primarily people of color, back into factories during a pandemic without insisting on creating safe conditions for those workers.
My point is, is no matter how much we may garner hope that change is coming as a result of the horrible tragedy of George Floyd’s murder, there will be a reaction. We need to fully utilize the movement right now; register voters, involve volunteers in the November campaign, strategize about what is next beyond the current protests. In other words, this is not the time to celebrate and rest on our laurels. Nor is it the time to only continue to protest. Meaningful change is coming, and so is a potentially just-as-visceral reaction. If we aren’t prepared, if we aren’t proactive, then this moment, too, like the summer of 2015, will be a summer listed in our history as a footnote, not an exclamation mark.
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