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Updated: Aug 21, 2020

It’s Juneteenth and race is at the forefront in America today.

Race, a very deep and painful issue in America, has been a catalyst for change in the past. And then there have been times we thought things were changing — except that, all at once or little by little, they didn’t change. Not really. Or not enough.

This time I do think we’re changing. I think Americans deeply and truly ache for deliverance from the multitudinous ills of racism. It is a gash so deep in our national consciousness that I believe we have no choice but to heal from it if we want to progress. Not dealing with it head on, not healing, won't just mean we will not thrive or prosper as a nation —something that has been happening for a long time anyway. I don't mean our GDP nearly as much as our collective soul.

Yes, we can make money and we can drive flashy cars and invent things and bully other nations and do all the things rich countries do, but we have been sickening as a population. When we can't overcome our addictions, when we can't stop spending or eating, when we poison the planet in our bottomless greed, we're expressing the sickness of our American soul. I, personally, believe that what's making us sick is our division. And one of the ugliest, most profound forms of divisions we have in this nation is racial.

That's why I feel like America has been rejoicing this month. We have been grieving and rejoicing at once. Today, Juneteenth, is an occasion for both.

Is it possible that anyone in America was able to look at those crowds of protesters — people in every major American city, many minor ones, and even around the world, people of all races, all ages, marching together with purpose, and even with love — and not be moved?

The wave of social change that’s washing over our nation is getting almost everyone wet. With a majority of Americans supporting the protests, we’ve seen business, media and government undertaking a vast cleanup that’s as astonishing as it is heartening.

First and foremost, the city of Minneapolis where Floyd was killed has promised to disband its police department. Defunding police departments has become a rallying cry of the Black Lives Matter movement but it seems likely that many cities won’t go that far. Most do seem willing to take a hard look at police practices that have led to abuse, like using chokeholds and other types of force.

Many municipalities are already putting reforms in place. Requiring officers to report misconduct in their ranks, or even intervene in potentially lethal situations, has been a topic of intense debate. This happened after the officers who watched Floyd die at Derek Chauvin were fired and named in criminal complaints of their own. Chauvin himself saw his third-degree murder charge raised to second-degree in response to community outrage.

In New York City and elsewhere, mayors and local governments are laying out plans to redistribute police funding, track incidents of police violence through a new database. On top of this, there are efforts to replace officers with civilians when responding to certain volatile situations. For instance domestic violence, homelessness and mental health crises among others.

But police reform is just one of the changes that’s happening now.

Civil War monuments glorifying Confederate leaders were vandalized and sometimes destroyed by protesters. Some cities and towns voluntarily removed the commemorative statues:

“Moving this statue will not change the past,” stated Birmingham, Alabama mayor Sandy Stimpson. “

It’s about removing a potential distraction so we may focus clearly on the future of our city.”

The media has come under scrutiny, too, with sensitive editorial decisions sometimes sparking fierce backlash within communities. Stan Wischnowski, Executive Editor and Senior VP of The Philadelphia Inquirer resigned after approving the headline ‘Buildings Matter, Too.” A senior editor at The New York Times also stepped down after the paper published Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton’s Op Ed, “Send in the Troops.”

Fitness mogul Greg Glassman, founder and CEO of CrossFit, stepped down from his role after asking, “Can you tell me why I should mourn for [George Floyd]? Other than that it’s the white thing to do? Other than that, give me another reason.”

And the Paramount Network cancelled the reality TV show “Cops” after a monumental run of 32 seasons, in response to allegations that it glorified racism and policy brutality.

And then there’s the corporate response. Monoliths like Apple, Walmart, Johnson & Johnson, and Bank of America, among many others, have taken actions ranging from removing skin-lightening creams from its sales lines to pledging to give employees an annual paid holiday on June 19 to investing in products made by Black-owned entrepreneurs and firms to increasing buying from Black-owned suppliers.

At the grocery store, even Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben have been retired.

Considering this phase of the BLM movement began only weeks ago, on Memorial Day, May 25, it's astounding that so much has already happened.

I grew up in the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement, and I remember the feeling that things were about to change, were changing. And then somehow the movement part of the Civil Rights era stopped moving. I've studied the Civil War and I wonder what life was like when it ended, before the Jim Crow Laws. What about the first June 19th, from which Juneteenth got its name? Was the hope wild then, exhilarating? Or was it measured, careful, and a little weary, the way I feel it is now?

But the changes are happening. And historically hasn’t most broad change been slow, and hard-won, and conceded only grudgingly, with bitterness, by those in power?

I believe in what I'm seeing, but I'm not naive. In individuals as in societies, change is usually born of pain. I do think Americans have been in pain for a long time. But it takes a lot of pain to bring any of us to the point of change, and even then there's often a longing to go backward.

Don’t you wonder, as I do, why it took weeks of mass protests to upend practices and policies that were known by everyone to be racist?

People are hardly just realizing now, are they?

But the fact that the change has been so fast, so far-reaching, so deep, says to me that a lot of us, maybe most of us, were desperate for it. Even if it was half-unconscious in some of us.

The passion that has risen up in this country doesn’t feel trendy, or forced, or fake, or momentary. Not to me, anyway. I’ve written in here before about how hard it is for me to judge how “the nation” is feeling from here, at the northeast edge, in my liberal community. I’ve always lived in liberal communities, even as a child, and that’s probably why I've never been a good barometer of how “Americans” are feeling.

And I didn’t get out there and protest. I’ve protested a lot in the past — for gay pride, for Black Lives Matter, against the Iraq War, and for research and funding for AIDS. Like a lot of people who care about social causes, I’ve protested on my feet as well as by signing petitions, sending money, volunteering, raising funds, sitting on boards, planning events, and of course writing.

So it felt really weird to sit in my house these last few weeks while demonstrations surged all over the country. I almost couldn't believe I wasn't there. Police brutality, racism, are things I feel so deeply about that a lot of the time it’s overwhelming. Maybe I’m not so unusual in that, either. Watching the protests in Minneapolis, in Washington D.C., Chicago, Atlanta, Oakland, Dallas, New York, all places I’ve been, some of them places I’ve demonstrated in myself. I kept picking the emotions of the crowds. The fury, the hope, the solidarity, the weariness, the determination, the grief. It’s like the whole country convulsed with feeling at once.

And the relief. I kept picking up relief.

People of all races are relieved we’re talking about this, marching about it, even rioting over it. We’ve all known racism was a huge problem in this country. We’ve known it was a problem we were all coping with every day, some from a much greater point of intensity than others. I think a lot of black people believe that many whites are unaware, or only vaguely aware, in the abstract. Which may be both true and untrue.

Speaking as a white person (aware I hardly represent all white people), there has been more awareness of racial injustice than people were comfortable talking about. That’s been true for a long time now. Race is a subject many Americans, maybe even most Americans, are scared to bring up.

Having lived through quite a few decades by now, I remember wondering at one point, in the 90’s maybe, whether there was less racism than when I was growing up. It felt like — no. No way. Race in America has never been an issue we “put behind us.”

Rather, racism became something that went underground in polite society. Or anyway in the circles I’ve moved in. I remember hearing a lot of terrible racial epithets growing up. People of all races, but especially blacks, were mocked. So were Jews, Poles and lots of others in the midwest where I grew up. Ugly things were often uttered so casually I would question if I’d actually heard what I just heard. But in time those words fell out of daily conversation.

In the 70’s, TV shows like “All in the Family and Sanford & Son constantly discussed race inequality, as well as other social issues. Was it during the Reagan years that white people stopped talking about it? At some point it felt like black people were the only ones still addressing it head on, in conversation, in art and literature, in music —everywhere. In fact, because there's never a day that black people in America are unaware of racism.

Everyone of every race has known for a long time that the American justice system was grossly unfair to people of color, especially blacks. We’ve known that black people are arrested far more often, for far less cause, than whites. We know blacks go to jail more often and serve longer sentences. We’ve known that all the ills suffered as a result of poverty were distributed with gross unevenness among black populations.

More recently, we’ve known that schools are more segregated now than they were in the 1960’s. Even though the landmark Brown v Board of Education ruling made it illegal to segregate schools by race. We’ve known blacks and whites have continued to have unequal opportunity across the board … as has always been true in this nation.

But white people (many of them) stopped talking about it. And as a result, black people (many of them) believed it was “their” issue to solve, if it ever could be solved. Based on what I've been reading over the past two weeks, a lot of blacks believe that they are the ones who care about racial inequality because it impacts them directly, daily, constantly, whereas whites could drop the issue and go stretches of time not thinking about it much, or at all. And they believed that because our racist system benefits whites, they (whites) wouldn’t ever be motivated enough to push for change.

And now it’s turning out that those things are both true and untrue.

Many whites have been aware that the problem of race continues to roil in our society. But many have not known how to change it or even if it could be changed. There is a level of cynicism and weariness throughout society. Especially these last few years since conservative politics have taken the lead across the nation.

Whatever the Obama era accomplished, the Trump era has sought to unravel. Overt racism has reared its frightful head again, as anti-Semitism has, as immigrant prejudice has, as an unprecedented level of governmental secrecy has. Racism wasn’t a problem anyone thought was solved. Nor was it as tolerated as it has been since Trump came. One of his most highly-placed aides, Stephen Miller, is an avowed racist.

In fact racism in general, up to and including not-so-secret hand gestures at Trump rallies, rollbacks of equal-opportunity policies, and savage targeting of poor, black populations like that of Flint, Michigan, have surged.

America has reeled with shock. Even the most cynical among us couldn't believe the unapologetic race-hatred of the Trump administration. I know I personally have been astonished. The discouragement felt by blacks has also been felt by whites, I believe, and by others too, though we've all felt it in different ways and at different intensity levels.

But we've all felt it, and it has been under the surface, simmering. In late May, at the beginning of the demonstrations, I asked myself whether whites would have been galvanized to act, to protest, if we all had not seen the video of Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes?

It's one thing to hear the words "police brutality" and "institutionalized racism," and it's another thing to see that video.

This nation experienced a deep and excruciating jolt in 2012. That was when Trayvon Martin, a teenager carrying candy, was shot to death by a white adult. who was then acquitted for the crime. Many of us never got over that.

And afterward came all the others, the now-familiar litany of famous names: Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Terence Crutcher, Freddie Gray, Breonna Taylor, Botham Jean, Tamir Rice, Ahmaud Arbery … and the many whose names will never be known, who were killed in a way, or at a place, where no one knew, or no one told, or people were told but no one listened.

I personally took all of those deaths very hard, losing more faith in our system with each one, and I’d say losing some faith in humanity as well. We all know accidental and unjust deaths occur, but a string of them like that, unarmed people, people in police custody, or children like Tamir and Trayvon, or women like Breonna simply in the wrong place at the wrong time — how to bear those?

Breonna Taylor

Worst of all was the leniency shown toward law enforcement in all of those instances — India Kager, for instance, a Navy veteran in a car with her 4-month old son, shot to death in 2015 by police with no one, no one at all, ever held to account for her needless death?

I believe the collective soul of America has been eaten away by these crinmes, but the failure and unwillingness of our justice system to address these monstrous wrongs. White people, per se, have not been targets, as black people have. But I believe we are all diminished by the cruelty and vice of a justice system that allows actual murder. That even rewards brutality — it must, or why would Chauvin have stayed on Floyd’s neck for so many minutes, with witnesses present, perhaps actually lobbying for approval from his fellow officers, who stood and did nothing?

Clockwise from top left, former officers Derek Chauvin, Tou Thao, Thomas Kiernan Lane and J. Alexander Kueng

Can anyone believe that this was the first time that officer, those officers, committed a heinous crime with the support and knowledge of their superiors, of a system that knowingly empowers a “peacekeeping force” to do incalculable harm? And to direct that harm in grossly disproportionate degrees to a single part of the population, African Americans?

My own feeling is that whites have been growing increasingly heartsick and enraged, as blacks have been. I think black despair and terror are at levels whites can’t even imagine: it’s one thing to empathize, and it’s another to know they’re coming straight for you.

I think whites may have erupted eventually, because the injustice was too brutal for any American with any sense of fairness to tolerate. But would it have happened now?

And would whites have marched by the thousands as they did, in the middle of a pandemic, if we had not all watched that video of George Floyd slowly dying?

I don’t think so. I want to say yes, but I really think, in truth, no.

I think Americans have been forced to swallow the unswallowable over and over again during this hideous Presidential administration. Whether it was migrant children held captive in cages, a Senate that refused to hold a trial for an impeached President, the repeated discovery of corrupt and criminal acts emanating from the White House, or the vicious disregard for the pain of Americans suffering during this pandemic, we have been under attack. Even the most ardent patriot, or maybe especially him or her, can endure what we’ve endured over the past three-and-a-half years without losing faith in our system.

Well, consider that African Americans have endured all of that, plus the agony of racism as well. There’s no day in the life of a black person in this country where he or she feels completely safe. There is no rung high enough for a black American, even a box-office star, a top athlete, a judge or a minister, to be a safe perch. The system isn’t set up to protect blacks. Really, I think it’s set up to protect whites from blacks.

And I think at the end of May, 2020, this nation erupted because all of us were ready for change. Whites and blacks are not experiencing the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, or any of the deaths, in the same way. But the fact that the pain is not just being experienced by African Americans right now doesn’t surprise me. The fact that it’s unbearable enough to drive people out of the safety of their homes during a pandemic doesn’t surprise me. The fact that there’s relief in this country because we’re talking about racism again, the fact that white people are taking action instead of wincing in shame and staying silent, the fact that it all just became too much for everybody at the same time, is beautiful. Is astonishing, and actually makes perfect sense, though I could not have predicted this.

John F. Kennedy said of racism in 1964, "The fact of the matter is that this is a problem which faces us all, no matter where we live, no matter what our political views must be."

I once had an intense conversation with a white Afrikaaner in Capetown, South Africa, not long after the end of apartheid. She told me, in tears, “The world thinks white people wanted apartheid. We didn’t. Apartheid was a stain on all on our whole nation."

When the world looks at America in the age of Trump, does it judge us by what he and his racist inner circle do? By what cops have been getting away with over and over again since Trayvon Martin, and of course long before?

Today, on June 19, we aren’t where we need to be in America. But we're facing our race problem, we’re talking about it for the first time in a long time, and many are doing something about it. And that’s better than it was.

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