From the Classroom

Turning a color-blind eye doesn’t work

America must confront racist past and present to progress forward.

Last month I had a disheartening realization: This country has no intention of not being racist. I’ve tried to recall the context in which this thought occurred. Was it the insensitive commentary during the George Floyd murder trial? The influx of restrictive voting rights bills being enacted and proposed? Or was it another racist comment or video I saw on my Twitter feed? Racial injustice and microaggressions are so commonplace that I can’t remember how I reached that disappointing conclusion.

The failure to acknowledge and address the prevalent racism—historically and present—in American society is the major issue in the United States that must be addressed.

On May 11, a North Carolina district attorney said that police officers were “justified” in fatally shooting Andrew Brown Jr., a Black man, in the back of the head while driving his car. Despite firing 14 shots at Brown during an encounter that lasted just 44 seconds, the DA found the actions of the three officers who opened fire “were consistent with their training and fully supported under law.”The officers faced no criminal charges.

While U.S. laws don’t explicitly state that it is legal for officers to fatally shoot Black people, that’s how it feels to many Black Americans every time the killing of a Black person by law enforcement is deemed “justified” in court, excused by officials, or dismissed with little to no punishment. Brown was killed just days after an officer was found guilty for the murder of George Floyd. But, that rare moment of justice for Floyd proved to be fleeting and Black people are quickly reminded that despite the mass protests of summer 2020, the fight against police brutality and the fight for our lives and rights continues to be a difficult battle that’s nowhere close to ending.

Let’s analyze the way officers interact with suspects like Dylann Roof and Kyle Rittenhouse, and how Trump supporters can storm the Capitol while Black Lives Matter protesters are met with riot gear and tear gas. Black suspects are disproportionately shot and killed by law enforcement. It seems that the law is not enforced nor does it protect us equally. Maybe this is because Black Americans have never been fully accepted as citizens of this country. Dating back to the Three-fifths Compromise of 1787, Black people have struggled to be counted, represented, and heard.

It’s an incendiary assertion to make. However, gerrymandering and the bills being pushed in states like Georgia, Florida and Texas that disenfranchise Black and brown voters add to the sentiment that citizens of color have limited rights. These deliberate legislative tactics keep us from achieving the ideals that a true democracy promises for all its citizens and it’s difficult to combat these laws in court. Meanwhile, bills that could reverse these restrictive voting laws remain stalled by a Congress led by white men who fear losing power. All of this reveals the deep systemic racism embedded in our institutions.

The reluctance—or rather refusal—of the country to reconcile its racist past is also evident in the current debate regarding critical race theory and the backlash against journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones’ “1619 Project,” a long-form piece that “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the United States’ national narrative”

Kimberlé Crenshaw, one of the founding scholars of critical race theory, says the academic study seeks to understand how racism shaped U.S. laws and how those laws continue to impact the lives of non-white people. It also addresses the institutional and systemic racism in education, housing, employment, and criminal justice. According to an ABC News report, at least six Republican-majority state legislatures have introduced restrictions on how to teach racial inequality in schools. Though not explicitly stated in the legislation, the bills come after President Trump repeatedly attacked critical race theory being taught in K-12 schools.

Conservative politicians and parents argue that it teaches students that one race is inherently superior and privileged to another; that America is fundamentally racist, and that those who don’t acknowledge white privilege and white supremacy are racist.

The “1619 Project” faced similar criticism. Conservative critics have questioned the accuracy of the journalistic examination and claim that it teaches white students to hate themselves for the sins of their ancestors and frames American history as irredeemably racist.

Opposition to the “1619 Project” may have been a factor in Hannah-Jones recently being denied a tenured position at the University of North Carolina by the board of trustees, despite being supported by the university’s dean, chancellor, and faculty. One anonymous trustee told news outlet NC Policy Watch that “the political environment made granting Hannah-Jones tenure difficult, if not impossible.”

I wish I had the solution to end the denial and refusal to acknowledge the systemic racism of America’s past and present, but I don’t. For decades, we’ve marched, we’ve boycotted, we’ve protested, but we keep facing the same problems and having the same conversations.

And when Black people and people of color are invited to the table and are asked what can be done, our suggestions—such as demilitarizing police departments and reallocating its resources, criminal justice reform, and investing in underserved communities of color—are deemed too radical, rejected, or outright unheard.

Even the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which addresses transparency and accountability of law enforcement misconduct, remains stalled in the Senate because it has yet to gain bipartisan support.

Until those who minimize systemic racism in America stop being afraid to confront racism and make a commitment to do the work for all of us to live in a more just and equitable society, our best approach is to continue calling out racial injustice whenever we encounter it.

This story was reported and written through a journalism course on opinion writing and edited by USC Annenberg Associate Professor Alan Mittelstaedt. Annenberg Media student editors reviewed the story and published it per newsroom guidelines.

Click here to read more essays from the series “America’s ailments: We’ve got issues.”

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