As naïve as it may sound, when I was growing up, I believed that racism was a thing in the past. My grandmother, a Jehovah’s Witness, who practically raised me until I was 11 or 12, taught me to love all people regardless of their differences. In many ways, this message was echoed by my mother and father. During my pre-teens and teenage years, I attended racially and ethnically diverse middle and high schools and my neighborhood in South Philadelphia was rich in diversity. In middle and high school, my teachers reflected the racial diversity of the student bodies, and some of my closest friends were Asian American and Latinx. The curriculum in high school contributed to my naivety about racism and race relations in America. For example, when we learned about American history, there was a deep-rooted focus on slavery, the Reconstruction area, Jim Crow, and the civil rights movements. But we did not talk about modern race relations in America, which had impressed upon me that race relations had greatly improved as a result of the civil rights era.
When I got to college, my utopian view about race and racism in America was shattered. Specifically, my foray into a predominantly White campus environment was greeted with unpleasant and uncomfortable stares from my White peers and I endured various forms of racial microaggressions from my White professors. These and other experiences, such as the student-run newspaper’s refusal to put a photo of the Black homecoming queen on the front page of its paper, as was the norm, helped me to realize that racism was alive and well. Unlike many of my peers, I did not get my driver’s license until I was 27. At that time, I was a second-year Ph.D. student and some of my Black and Brown cohort members were circulating a list that outlined how Black men should conduct themselves if pulled over by the police. I remember casually reading the list, but not in earnest. At that time, I never really feared the police.
However, due to having gained more lived experiences over the years as a Black man, I have come to understand that racism in America is a serious issue that is deeply woven into the fabric of this country. Moreover, as a result of the murders and, in some cases, public lynching of my Black and Brown brothers and sisters, such as Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Tamar Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gary, Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd, I have developed a deep-rooted fear of the police. This fear has manifested itself in a physical form. For example, there have been times that I have been followed by a police officer while driving in Washington, D.C. and I have literally started to experience heart palpitations and sweaty palms from the anxiety. While there are those who want to proclaim that, “All Lives Matter,” to attempt to counteract the message of “Black Lives matter,” there is an unequivocal need to say, “Black Lives Matter,” because those in power have treated Black lives as if they are dispensable. As a Black man, this makes me angry, frustrated, sad, and in some cases, helpless.
Like so many people, I support the protests that are occurring to help bring attention to the systemic racism in America and the ways in which it impacts the policing of Black and Brown bodies. However, one of the aspects that I find vetting about the protest is that it is situational, meaning that once the story about George Floyd fades from the news or once the verdict is reached, a sense of normalcy will resume. I have seen this with the 20th Anniversary of the Million Man March in Washington, D.C. in 2015. While the march itself was a beautiful experience, there was no long-term agenda to fight against the social injustice Black and Brown people have experienced in the “Land of the Free.”
While protesting has power, what is even more powerful, and pragmatic is to formulate an agenda that will help to facilitate meaningful change. This agenda should encompass several aspects, such as voting at the local level for political leaders who are responsible for appointing those who make decisions about policing policies and practices. This agenda should also focus on educators talking openly about White privilege and encouraging White people to use their privilege to call attention to the oppression of Black and Brown people. In addition, this agenda should also underscore holding elected officials accountable at the local, state, and national levels for their inactions to work to not only acknowledge the systemic racism in America but to put forth a plan of action to dismantle racist policies and practices. Last, but not least, we must not merely use our voice to call for reforms in laws, policies, and practices rooted in structural racism when there is a video of an unarmed Black person being murdered by the police, but we must constantly use our voice to bring attention to the plight of those who are oppressed until all Americans experience the promise of liberty and justice granted by the Declaration of Independence.
Robert T. Palmer, Ph.D.
ACPA Senior Scholar