Reality exists. Water is wet. Denying reality doesn’t make it go away. There is no powdered water. Although water drowns and kills people, it is necessary for life. Reality is often complex, often difficult to understand, often seemingly in conflict with itself.
Some realities are terrifying, at least to some people. The same realities can be uplifting and encouraging to others. The video recordings of the murder of George Floyd showed the possibility that decades of protected police misconduct can be corrected, punished, and hopefully, limited moving forward. The reality that police around the country followed the Derek Chauvin verdict with a spate of killings of Black men showed the reality that entrenched atttudes take time and effort to change.
Change often happens in ways that open eyes to what was always there. While people may most commonly think of Thurgood Marshall as our first Black Supreme Court Justice, he spent many decades being a successful attorney, litigating wins in courts where Black people were routinely railroaded or denied opportunities to sit on juries, particularly juries passing judgments on white people.
But we didn’t see those victories. We didn’t see the successful business people who built Black cities and towns and sections of major cities. When such neighborhoods felt too threatening to white majorities, the successful Black professionals, business people, prosperous families got burned out, driven away or murdered. Black newspapers might cover the events. But except for a paragraph on a back page, such events were ‘unworthy’ of coverage in the majority press.
Now, thirty years after the grainy, fuzzy Rodney King beating video, we are seeing a sea change in video coverage, and consequently in public awareness, of new parts of the Black experience.
Now, thirty years after the grainy, fuzzy Rodney King beating video, we are seeing a sea change in video coverage, and consequently in public awareness, of new parts of the Black experience. In North Carolina, a white sheriff says that his investigation doesn’t need videos of a police shooting to be kept secret, while his local, cracker DA argues to the Court that the shooting policemen have a greater right to privacy than their black victim. And a local judge, not, apparently, a flaming activist liberal-progressive judge, holds that publishing the videos will endanger the police more than the police endangered the man they shot and killed.
And the nation gets to watch it all on national television, live, with no careful editing by tasteful employees of media giants. We get to see a white sheriff’s lawyer argue against a white DA about what is and isn’t necessary for public safety and an adequate investigation. No backroom bargaining over how to dispose of which cases, or what politician wants what result.
We get to see the system in action, how it articulates knee-jerk reactions which have been honed over decades with simple arguments and diversions: the “perp” (victim) had a long rap sheet; s/he was a worthless piece of shit. drug-addicted and addled criminal who’s loss means nothing; s/he was resisting arrest; s/he made the officers “fear for their lives.”
At least as important, we get to see the Black professionals and the Black victims’ families. When Emmett Till was tortured, mutilated and murdered, his mother insisted that pictures of his dead body be distributed, to show the world what U.S. racism was really like in 1955. She maintained a dignified presence (as dignified as any mother can be while mourning a savagely butchered child), but also insisted that the world take notice of American reality.
Seventy-six years later, the entire world takes notice over and over of grieving families, suffering inside and acting with poise and dignity at yet another press conference discussing what is actually on videos that are not controlled by corporate media gatekeepers. We get to watch while well-dressed, articulate Black attorneys give clear, coherent explanations of what white lawyers say can’t yet be explained. They give the world scientific analysis provided by professional autopsiers, whose color doesn’t matter because they give the Black victim the same level of professional attention as they would give any white victim.
What we see are lawyers, autopsy doctors, and everyday families who could be the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who built the towns that scared whites so much they needed to be burned down. We see ministers comforting the grieving families, citing scripture and principles as eaily as any white minister.
The construct of white supremacy rests on convincing the population that different skin colors mark different levels of intelligence, of capability, of moral merit. What the world sees in the press conferences of Black attorneys are men and women as articulate, as legally knowledgeable, and often more honest and less evasive than white attorneys on the same issues. What the world is seeing is that Black Americans are no different, certainly no less intelligent, legally knowledgeable or articulate than White Americans.
That thought, that reality is no longer a secret known only in the Black community, overwhelmed by the constant messaging of racial differences which started in the 17th century. We have long been told that Black people can’t be educated, while centuries of law made it crime to even try to teach them. We’ve been told that Black people can’t learn Christian values, after centuries of laws making it illegal for Black people to preach, and even to read the bible.
The trade paper edition of Gilbert King’s 2012 Devil in the Grove includes a new “Afterwards” which presents letters to King from white people who were school children when schools in Florida were first desegregated. Some of them comment that the mere fact of going to school with Black children, playing with them at recess, playing on sports teams, and working on school projects worked transformations in their understanding of students who had always been simply “other” and “inferior” to them
Today’s social media tools, bring similar daily exposure to all ages and social classes. Sure, there are those who still blather about race and superiority. But Reality exists, and once placed in the public view, is harder and harder to deny. There are those who will continue to argue that one race is better than another. There are others who argue that the earth is flat, not a sphere.
But such arguments are unreality. They might as well argue that water is dry. When made by people who know the reality, such arguments show people to be hypocrites or motivated by something, often financial interests, other than truth. And that rejection of truth undermines their credibility on other matters.
Truth is not partisan, which is reason enough for some partisans to reject truth. To spread what they know to be falsehoods. For the rest of us, it is important to remember, always, that truth can be a disinfectant to lies. It is important to keep the cell ‘phones rolling, taking images of questionable behavior, both public and private.
It has become a new reality that even holding a cell ‘phone can be truth provoking. Despite Derek Chauvin’s blase attitude and expression as he slowly murdered George Floyd, most people prefer to commit misdeeds in private. So the lowly cell ‘phone, unobtrusive, not violent, non-partisan, can be among the most powerful weapons in social struggles.
Maxine Waters was correct, we need to keep confronting evil when we see it, expose to the sunlight of truth. This is the “good trouble” for which John Lewis advocated. Marching across the Edmond Pettis bridge was a confrontation of entrenched values. Confronting a Derek Chauvin with a video camera did not and will not end racism. But every time one of us makes that gesture, we move society another step on its never ending journey of self-improvement.