If 2020 was the year that White America discovered that institutional racism is a problem permeating society, 2021 must be the year in which the nation begins in earnest to dismantle white supremacy and address the systems of oppression, the unjust laws, policies and practices, and the microaggressions eating away at the souls of Black people, compromise their health and claim their lives.
Most certainly, we will remember the year of the pandemic as an inflection point, a pivotal time in which the evil triplets of coronavirus, economic deprivation and racial injustice joined forces to expose the cruel, coldblooded America that Black people have always known far too intimately. Many White people participated in Black Lives Matter protests following the death of George Floyd and experienced a heightened political consciousness. Some appeared genuinely gobsmacked over the levels of systemic racism people of color face. And yet, both as individuals and as a collective, White Americans have enthusiastically created toxic environments for Black children, women and men for over 400 years, and continue to foster Black trauma in all facets of their daily life.
Most certainly, we will remember the year of the pandemic as an inflection point, a pivotal time in which the evil triplets of coronavirus, economic deprivation and racial injustice joined forces to expose the cruel, coldblooded America that Black people have always known far too intimately.
Racism murdered George Floyd with a police officer’s knee to his neck, just as it killed Breonna Taylor in a hail of police bullets as she lay in her bed. Racism also claimed the life of Dr. Susan Moore, a Black Indiana physician, who accused her White doctors of racial mistreatment weeks before she died of COVID-19. These doctors then accused Dr. Moore of causing her own death and claimed she “intimidated” hospital staff. And America has been treated to a small taste of the harassment, insults and indignities Black people face, such as the son of Jazz musician Keyon Harrold, who was racially profiled, assaulted and falsely accused by a White woman of stealing her iPhone in a New York hotel.
Studies show that structural and cultural racism and individual experiences with discrimination adversely affect the mental and physical health of Black and Brown people, stresses them out and causes them to age faster. In her book, Black Fatigue: How Racism Erodes the Mind, Body, and Spirit, Mary-Frances Winters referred to Black fatigue as “repeated variations of stress that result in extreme exhaustion and cause mental, physical and spiritual maladies that are passed down from generation to generation. It is a deeply embedded fatigue that take inordinate amounts of energy to overcome—herculean efforts to sustain an optimistic outlook and enormous amounts of faith to continue to believe ‘we shall overcome someday.’”
Exhausted for years, Black people were finally granted permission to speak their truth during the pandemic, when America woke up to years of injustice. Organizations, companies, educational institutions and houses of worship conducted listening sessions, where Black people poured their outrage while White leaders claimed they had no idea.
All African Americans have personal stories of the racial trauma and accumulated microaggressions they have endured. These include, but are not limited to including underhanded compliments such as being told they are articulate or have “street smarts”; comments on their hair; being told they are intellectually inferior or “we can’t find qualified Black employees,” or White people in authority telling them not to wear a certain “unprofessional” hairstyle. As a Black man who has experienced his share of microaggressions and racial harassment since childhood, I have come to regard these painful traumatic incidents as life-defining, life-changing moments.
One of those transformative experiences came in my teen years, as a student at Harvard, while I attended the 1987 Harvard-Yale football game. After Harvard scored a touchdown, a white middle-aged alumnus turned to me and rubbed my head for good luck. He told me about his white, blond grandson who was held in awe by the Black children at his daycare. “They had never seen anyone like him before,” he said. Finally, as if to outdo himself, he asked me, “Do you know what we call your kind of hair? Ear-to-ear carpet!” In a letter to me after news spread of the incident, the man urged me to “reconsider your interpretation of my behavior,” claiming he was “both shocked and saddened that what was intended as good camaraderie was interpreted as a racial slur.”
After college and throughout my life, I have experienced a constant mix of microaggressions, harassment, gaslighting, conspiracy and outright White supremacist guerilla warfare. Once a White executive even told me, “Don’t use your race as a crutch.” And yet I am not special. Those experiences haunted me, burned me out and heightened my self-doubt. At one point, I lost much of my enthusiasm, self-confidence and sense of direction, along with my hair, and nearly my mind.
While racism causes Black people, particularly young people to experience depression and low self-worth, they also exhibit resilience when facing racism, and take action, attend protests and fight for racial justice. Certainly, through a lifetime of racial trauma, I became a far stronger person and reinvented myself to help others. I became a human rights activist and journalist, went to law school, worked in government and the nonprofit sector, and now teach journalism. Yet, I wonder how much further I would have soared compared to my white peers, in the absence of institutional roadblocks and exposure to racially toxic environments. An overemphasis on Black resilience ignores the many who perish under the weight of White supremacy, and plays into the American racialized capitalist narrative that the victims of oppression deserve their lot, and must pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
Surely our Black parents and grandparents thought they were making sacrifices to spare us from the hardships they endured. I question whether much has changed.
Before the glow from America’s racial justice reawakening dissipates, we must resist the call to convene another diversity and inclusion task force, or hire another point person to handle institutional racism and white supremacy as a public relations embarrassment. If America has any hope of liberating itself from racism--and coming to terms with its original sin and the Civil War it never stopped waging--the country hold truth, reconciliation and justice commissions to allow the victims of racism to tell their stories. And then the country must repair the damage.
Offenders rarely face consequences for their harmful actions. But what do we do when the entire system is at fault?
David A. Love