Our country is reeling and the tremors are now being felt across our state. This explosion of energy represents the unheard voices of Black Americans crying out for freedom and justice across centuries. While the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd serve as critical flashpoints, it is impossible to articulate the totality of atrocities committed against Black Americans with any march or protest. As the country burns, the question on all of our minds is what comes next.
In order to better predict what lies ahead, we must first understand what has come before. This is why educating Black students about their history is a primary objective of the Academy for Scholastic and Personal Success, a nonprofit organization that has been in operation since 1989. All of our students graduate high school and 90 percent go on to graduate college. We have done our best to break the school-to-prison pipeline and trim the achievement gap. However, in light of recent events we felt it prudent to offer our insights to the larger community.
There is near universal agreement that the way George Floyd met his end is wrong. The outrage that has embroiled much of the country serves as confirmation. However the outrage encompasses much more than the death of one man. It is an eruption of raw emotion stemming from generations of systemic oppression. It is a reckoning of Black pain, an indictment of white privilege, and a forceful affirmation of the human dignity of an entire race of people.
Systemic oppression is why one out of three Black males born today can expect to be imprisoned during his lifetime. It is also why this same demographic is imprisoned at a rate six times higher than whites, and why one of the leading causes of death for young Black men is homicide and death from encounters with police officers. Given the facts of our history, we must accept that this abysmal situation for Black Americans is no accident of fate. Rather it is the consequence of unrelenting systemic oppression and a broken criminal legal system working together to produce utter devastation, which then becomes the source of Black pain. Liberation from this oppression is not only a righteous struggle, but a matter of survival.
White privilege — a harder concept to digest for many — is at its core the acknowledgment that the color of one’s skin comes with advantages, and the color that comes with the most advantages is white. This fact is further illuminated by studying its converse, whereas in nearly every corner of the earth, the darker a person’s skin, the harder their life. In America, having black skin not only means fewer advantages, but it also increases the chances of coming into brutal contact with law enforcement because black skin has come to be seen as dangerous.
Psychologist Brent Staples writes, “Where fear and weapons meet — and they often do in urban America — there is always the possibility of death.” White individuals do not have to think about their safety during a routine traffic stop, nor do they need to be bothered by these complex questions of race because they are immune to any of the attending danger. Racism does not touch their lives in the way that it can destroy a Black one. Understanding white privilege (and its origins in white supremacy) without a sense of shame or guilt, but rather as an intellectual exercise, sets the stage for an unabridged understanding of the racism that has underwritten the great American project.
Black Lives Matter
All of this leads to our last concept: the affirmation of Black personhood which has been summed up by the phrase Black Lives Matter. Often dismissed as being anti-white and met with the lazy retort that all lives matter, this phrase is a clarion call for justice. Being pro-Black life does not make one anti-white life. In fact, all lives can only matter when Black lives are afforded equal treatment and equal protection under the law.
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In a country that regularly demonstrates cruel disregard for Black women and men — given that our deaths are regularly captured on social media for the world to see — it stands to reason that a movement dedicated to the insistence of our very being would emerge as a counterforce. Our house is on fire. Black Lives Matter is a call to the fire department for help. This call and response does not make your home any less valuable or important. It just means our house is burning down and that problem needs to be addressed if we are to keep the entire neighborhood safe.
These are the concepts that are interwoven throughout the education our students receive at the Academy. Although for nearly all of them, these concepts are not foreign material. Black kids are smothered with these teachings from an early age because they will need this information to survive. We hope these words will guard their hearts as they prepare for a world that does not love or value them. These are our sons and daughters and we work without end to shield their spirits from the wearying trauma that awaits them as they navigate predominantly white spaces filled with individuals who seem committed to ignorance about the complex issues of race — issues that if left unattended could literally destroy them.
We teach them to see the world for what it truly is, and how to move through it with an understanding of how the world sees them; a high wire act requiring the mastering of what W.E.B du Bois called double consciousness for proper balance. They emerge understanding that Colin Kaepernick knelt so that a police officer would not take a knee on their neck. They recognize that they shoulder the awesome responsibility of furthering the movement for freedom. They are the future of Black Lives Matter both by default and necessity.
We cannot know with any certainty what will come next for our state or this country, and we cannot solve a problem until it is fully defined. However, we have done the hard work and developed definitions of the problems of racism, police brutality, white supremacy and systemic oppression. Our lives have become case studies. When this nation is ready to right the wrongs of the past, and course correct the current trajectory of the present, our leaders will commit to meaningful reform and reconciliation.
We will abandon empty platitudes and tired invocations of civil rights leaders of yore, and declare a war on systemic oppression. We will mark George Floyd’s final breath as the last gasp of white supremacy. We will trade in our Black pain for true liberation. What comes next? The answer may very well depend on how hard we are all willing to fight for justice in the here and now.
Ruth White is founder, Amara Andrews is board president and Stacey Walker is vice board president of the Academy for Scholastic and Personal Success in Cedar Rapids.