Systemic Racism in America
Then and now…
“…despite advances, the United States remains a nation of cowards on issues involving race.” Attorney General Eric Holder in 2009.
The newly sparked debate concerning the existence of systemic racism in this country is utterly mind-boggling, yet not surprising. But clueless members of the feckless GOP, e.g., the incompetent Trump administration, Larry Kudlow, William Barr, as well as Chief Justice John “our country has changed” Roberts and their ilk need only look to televised images of protesters by the thousands who have been galvanized to finally confront this issue and begin this long-overdue conversation.
Taking to the streets after the stirring impetus of video images of the May 25, 2020 police murder of George Floyd moved them to public protest and to stentorian cries of “Enough Is Enough!” and “Black Lives Matter!”. Growing numbers of Americans of every race creed and color displayed their vehement objections to the centuries-old scourge and demanded to be heard. Thousands of our European allies joined in as well.
America’s moment of reckoning has come, and its selective historical amnesia will no longer be accepted. For centuries, systemic racism has been entrenched in the fabric of this nation’s policies and procedures as relating to black people. From the moment we were kidnapped and herded as human cargo in the bowels of a Western-born slave ship.
The offensive and dismissive denial of systemic racism delegitimizes the struggles and long suffering of black people. But for anyone still struggling with the definition or the existence of the centuries-old scourge, perhaps a brief elementary school primer from my early childhood life experience is in order.
“Systemic Racism includes laws policies and practices barring black people like us from stores, public libraries, parks, movie theaters and other institutions.”
This is the way my parents and other Negro parents had to explain to their children why certain racist segments of society viewed them as inferior and considered them less than human. This current debate triggers personal memories for me. Memories from my Southern girlhood in Montgomery Alabama, where I lived for the first ten years of my life.
Montgomery Alabama, the state capitol and the so-called “cradle of the Confederacy”, was in many ways a typical Southern town during my childhood. Segregation was the law of the land and black people in Southern states lived under legalized racial terrorism. For us, the shadow of Jim Crow was omnipresent. But in my neighborhood on the outskirts of town, far from the dictates of our racist white oppressors, ours was a thriving self-sufficient black enclave. A hamlet of verdant greenery and well-tended homes and grounds that had its own reality in its worth. But even so, the reality of systemic racism and the racial caste system were a threatening and constant presence.
For us children, fall and winter months meant long walks to school, over hill and dale — sometimes through forbidden shortcuts where danger lurked. Following my older brother Winston on his preferred shortcut route through forbidden enemy territory. Our parents’ daily ritual and mantra never varied as we left our house each morning:
“Remember. You are a child of God and you are not inferior to anyone, no matter who or what color they are. No one on this earth is better than you. You are intelligent, and you are polite and you deserve respect.”
The necessity of Negro parents preparing and training their children and making them aware of perceivable dangers was the norm. In preparation for any potential encounter with a person of the white race, my siblings and I were trained to be polite and well-spoken and to always state our full names when asked. In my case, and invariably almost without fail, the encounter went as follows:
WHITE PERSON: “What-cho name girl?”
ME: ‘Aundra Maria Willis’.
WHITE PERSON: “That ‘ain’t yo name, girl. What kinda fancy name is that for a little nigger girl?”
Typically, when I reported these incidents to my parents, they had their own ways of dismissing the traditional ignorance of the perpetrators as well as a few choice names of their own for them. And as in all black families, we simply ignored our detractors, stoically kept our heads erect and continued to move onward.
In May of 1954, when the announcement of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision revealed the high court’s ruling that state laws enforcing racial segregation in public schools were unconstitutional, the ruling was met with wide-spread resistance from the local white community. With two of my older siblings finishing high school and preparing for college, my parents sensed the potential difficulties they could possibly face. Even though we were all enrolled in a Catholic school, St. Jude Educational Institute, our parents became convinced that better education opportunities existed “up North” for their children. So, after years of consideration and discussion, they made the difficult decision of leaving their home and extended family in Alabama to join the Great Migration and settle our family in Detroit.
The following year, several startling examples of the results of systemic racism exploded in national headlines and shook the country. First, the grotesque and inhumane murder of 14 year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi, then four months later, Mrs. Rosa Parks, my mother’s childhood friend and classmate, lit the spark that ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycott which led to the Civil Rights Movement. Soon thereafter, numerous family members in Montgomery informed us of their dedication and involvement in the movement as newspapers and televised news reports also began reaching us in Detroit. We watched proudly as images of our loved ones began blazing across the headlines as they sprang into action and took up the cause of civil and voting rights in the Deep South. Finding themselves on the front lines of one of the greatest social movements of all time. And their courage and vision changed the course of history.
The years-old comfort zone of the denial of virulent systemic racism in this country must be confronted and exposed each time it is encountered. It’s not enough for whites to claim “I am not racist”, and/or “I did not own slaves.”
In as much as it was forced upon us by recent tragic events, the long-overdue conversation on race has finally begun, and we must seize this opportunity to resolve old issues and be the America we can be.
In another crucial moment in this nation’s history, President John F. Kennedy recognized the necessity of confronting the issue of race. And in one of the most powerful and important speeches in presidential history, he rose to the occasion appropriately and addressed the nation.
Several hours later, 37 year-old Medgar Evers, a civil rights activist, NAACP field secretary, World War II veteran was assassinated in the driveway of his home in Jackson, Mississippi.
The “great change” that President Kennedy spoke of is at hand once again. We can no longer afford to miss this opportunity.