I don’t want to write this piece. Every morning since Tuesday last, I’ve awoken to news about the death of George Floyd, an unarmed, handcuffed black man in the custody of police officers from the Minneapolis police department. I knew that the questions would come via text, email, or phone from former students asking, in one form or another, “How long must we endure?” And I would have to try to occupy the role of a sage attempting to reconcile recent happenings with incidents from the past. I don’t feel knowledgeable. I feel tired.
As a historian of modern United States history, I’m well acquainted with the racial atrocities that pockmark the country’s past. In my classes, we confront those atrocities of gang violence, police indifference and brutality, and systemic practices that have, collectively, been used to marginalize and maintain African American’s second-class citizen status. We study those events from our comfortable perch at a prominent university among a student body that has come of age in the 21st Century, which allows us to sometimes fool ourselves into believing that racial atrocities are elements of the distant past. And then we see a police officer almost casually apparently suffocate a man that was in his custody. And I knew the questions would come.
When approached by former students, I often want to offer solace and comfort while reminding them that history is not linear; always on an uninterrupted path to better days. While Martin Luther King, Jr.’s argument that the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” may be right, but the physical universe includes people who chase down joggers with moral certainty that their actions are correct. I remind my students, current and former, that we must be as committed to creating and maintaining a society based on racial equality as our ancestors were committed to fighting for freedom. We can’t fool ourselves into believing that the fight has been fought and the victory won.
So, I can’t allow myself the luxury of giving in to my fatigue; nor can you. My students may approach me seeking comfort and solace, but more often than not, they leave with homework to accomplish. Racism is adaptive. Practitioners adjust it contours to the contemporary period. Consequently, those of us who claim to abhor racism must be ever vigilant against new exhibitions of the malady. And we must not tire.
Departments of History and Africana Studies
Co-Director AnBryce Scholars Initiative