The killing of George Floyd, a member of the Yates High School family, has poignantly exposed and made abundantly public the lives that blacks have lived for centuries in America. It is heart-breaking and calls several things to question: Why have we not, as the “privileged” class, done something over all these years to bring justice to the black community – a community that has made amazing contributions to our society?
Why have we as the “privileged” closed our eyes to the unjust treatment they have endured all their lives? Our doing nothing shines a bright light on our lack of respect, understanding, and empathy for others. The blame rests on our shoulders for our insensitivity and lack of courage to stand up for what is right.
Do you worry about your safety while jogging? Do you fear being killed by others who suspect you of doing something, even though they have no evidence of having done anything wrong? Can you empathize with Ahmaud Arbery? Do you fear when your child wears a hoodie and goes to a convenience store to buy Skittles that he will be fatally shot on the way home by a neighborhood watch member, as happened to Trayvon Martin? I could go on and on. The incidences are too numerous and are well-known but not acknowledged by everyone. While some of the acts did not involve law enforcement officials, many were committed by rogue police officers. Even when these tragedies occur, the perpetrators are rarely, if ever, brought to justice.
My grandson, Austin Fendley, a recent graduate of the University of Texas, and I discussed our concern for the unjust treatment of the black population and why few people have ever taken a stand in support of them. He told me about a quote attributed to Will Smith that he had read. Will said, “Racism is not getting worse; it’s just getting filmed.” We discussed that perhaps it is about dominance and power. The empowered do not want to lose control. He also reflected on the fact that the situation is complicated by many things, including the reality of poverty.
In some cases, blacks are born into an environment where they may have had to steal food to live. Many of the “privileged” class have never had to choose between survival and legality. I responded that even though many white lives experience poverty, they are not treated the same by the justice system when they break the rules.
I asked Austin why he had always had black people among his best friends and why he didn’t feel hesitant about those relationships. His answer was something we all know but do not acknowledge. He said, “Race was not a defining factor in picking friends. How they acted, not how they looked, was the important thing.” He continued, “You learn your values from authority figures. You are taught to discriminate based on race. I was never taught that.” He also said that he had heard some white people say to a black person, “I don’t see the color of your skin. I am colorblind.” Austin said, “That statement wipes away the identity of that person and diminishes the individual’s worth. We must go further to learn that we are more alike than different, and we must embrace and celebrate our differences.”
Austin’s statements reminded me of the song from South Pacific: You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught.
You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear.
You’ve got to be taught from year to year.
It’s got to be drummed in your dear, little ear.
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
Perhaps there are lessons to be learned as to what we might be able to do to correct the discrimination that has been a reality for so long. Talking with Austin reminded me that today’s youth can change the world and make it a better place for all people. Perhaps they can bring unity to the nation. The following are steps that we must take to set the example for the youth:
- We must exercise our right to vote. We must vote for those people who will bring equity and empathy to our government.
- Rethink education in such a way that we model and teach all students to respect, embrace, and celebrate our differences. We must teach civility. Include all parents in the effort to rethink education.
- Individuals and groups must join hands to start a movement to demand equal treatment in the justice system and insist upon systemic change.
- Rebuild the relationship between the police department and the community and insist on ethical leaders in these departments who will ensure all people truly receive equal protection and justice under the law. Unify and retrain law enforcement officers and make sure they police themselves and one another.
In Houston, we are standing together. Congresswoman Shelia Jackson Lee continues to be a champion for social justice. Police Chief Art Acevedo exhibited inspiring leadership when he offered to march with protesters constructively and provide a police escort for George Floyd’s funeral. I was encouraged when our mayor, Sylvester Turner, noticed a black man power washing to remove graffiti left by some marchers. Turner said, “This is the Houston I know and love.”
Let us follow these examples and take action. Perhaps the unity we so desperately need will be found, and we will create a better world for everyone.
Dr. Bertie Simmons new book is Whispers of Hope, The Story of My Life.