I’ve been a practitioner in the diversity, equity and inclusion space for more than 20 years. However, I’ve been dealing with issues overt as well as insidious acts of racism for more than 57 years. As early as the 1st grade, I saw my black friends funneled into special-education, non-academic tracks, although their cognitive analysis and critical thinking skills were as strong as any of the other students. I really love the job that I do because I believe that somehow, someway, I’m making a difference in expanding perspectives with hopes to improve cross-racial relationships.
Unfortunately, in the past 10 years I’ve become less optimistic and more pessimistic with the rise in police killings of unarmed black people, white silence and the lack of structural changes. We will never stop the killing of unarmed black people until the killers know there are consequences for their actions. White bystanders must become upstanders by speaking up. History shows that as far back as 1783 every recorded civil unrest involved burning and looting. We can’t let that stand in the way of justice.
The Ahmaud Arberry incident a few weeks ago emotionally set me back considerably. Every time I reflect on what progress has been made since the Trayvon Martin murder, I draw a blank. Here is what I do know about that travesty: Trayvon Martin walked to the store at halftime of an NBA Allstar game, at the request of his little 7-year old sister. It was raining and cold that February night, so he wore a sweatshirt with a hoodie. Returning to his father’s home armed only with skittles for his little sister, and an iced tea for himself, he was killed by a vigilante.
Here is where my hurt began from that incident…
The city of Sanford where Trayvon was murdered is close to 40% black. The surrounding Seminole County is nearly 35% black. All of the five police officers that arrived on the scene first to collect evidence were white, the police chief was white, the entire prosecution team was white, the defense team was all white, the judge and the jury who considered the case of Trayvon’s killer were all white. How could this be? The climax happened when I was having dinner in a pub-eatery in Port Orange, Florida the night the verdict from that case was handed down. The place was packed with mostly white people. I’ve never witnessed the high-level of the volume cheering at the announcement of the acquittal of a person that killed a 17-year-old unarmed black child. I was emotionally crushed. My face flowed with tears.
That incident garnered national and global attention. The then Florida Republican governor, Rick Scott, went outside the local area and appointed a special prosecutor for this case. Her name is Angela Cory, a Republican hard nosed prosecutor from Duval County. Her record is crystal clear, she’s transferred and tried more black teenagers in Duval County through adult courts than all other 49 states combined. This was a setup. The choice was deliberate on the part of the governor. Cory was the only women on the prosecution team, yet she never appeared before an all-white female jury. Women are often more sympathetic to women.
I am typically a very optimistic and hopeful person, but my optimism has been challenged like never before. There have been little to no positive changes that I can point to. Since that unthinkable Trayvon Martin case, we’ve had a series of high profile killings where accountability of police officers was not even a part of the equation. Last week watching the police officer take the life of an unarmed handcuffed black man was not the real trigger of my anger, disgust, and rage. The trigger was the delay in the arrests. Only 1% of police encounters are actually caught on video. Thank God this one was. Thank God a brave 17-year old girl stood fast and filmed Mr. Floyd’s murder.
These events shaped my perspectives, which I believe had become inflexible.
However, this past weekend added a new lens to my perspective. As much as I hate being pigeoned holed and placed in a box based upon a dimension of my diversity, my mental state caused me to engage in the very same behavior I hate being applied to me – my pessimism about my white neighbors, the white residents of Port Orange, Florida, and for the most part, white people in general.
Fate called me to participate in a protest rally in Port Orange versus Daytona Beach on Sunday. I didn’t know this at the time, but my wife informed me that the rally in Port Orange was called and organized by a teenage high school student that happens to be white. At this rally I was around people that looked different from me, but shared the same hurt, shame and sense of despair. I saw signs, carried by whites and blacks alike, that spoke to things like “White Silence is Violence”, and “Systematic racism needs to end now”, “Dismantle overt and subtle forms of racism.” Hopefully my story – this revelation – doesn’t come off like a Malcolm X visit to Mecca moment. That is not my intention in sharing it. But my outlook and perspectives about who is complicit with racist acts were challenged in the moment. I attended the rally with one of my high school buddies. As I was taking in the surroundings, I leaned over to share with him what I was experiencing. Just as my perspective was being confronted and challenged, he too was going through something. He had tears rolling down his face. Wow, what I learned is that hopelessness, anger, despair and rage can blind even the best of us. Allies and non-allies come in all shapes, colors and forms. A quote from Tim Wise, a white anti-racist thought leader, and I’ll always keep at the top of min: “Be hard on systems, but soft on people.”
Here is one of my favorite quotes from one of the most brilliant minds of the 20th Century, James Baldwin – a man who was rejected by many of the leaders of the civil rights movement because he was openly gay:
“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”