Over the past few weeks, I have encountered many well-meaning white liberals (and even some conservatives) who have expressed to me their desire to be a part of this global liberation movement that has developed in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. These sincere gestures and promises of action have been moving. I am not sure what others see right now, but through my eyes, it has become clear that African Americans are experiencing a moment unlike any other our race or the world has ever seen.
The marches in the streets of Belgium and Paris, Dublin and Tokyo prove that for the first time ever, the entire developed world is standing in solidarity with Black Americans demanding change — and in effect reparations — for the catastrophic harm vis-à-vis very intentional systemic oppression that has shaped the Black experience since the first slaves arrived on the shores of North America. While no one could have predicted the power of this movement or the swiftness with which it would be assembled, I am imploring policymakers at all levels not to allow this moment to pass without taking bold action. If the world’s attention is anything like America’s, this moment could be gone from us as soon as the hashtags stop trending.
Nothing would be more devastating, more deflating than knowing we missed our opportunity for change because we tried to calculate the political feasibility of reforms before moving forward, which in my view would be immoral; or because we sought to develop a process that would appease all interested parties (including the systems we are trying to reform), which in my view would be a mistake of historic proportions that borders on the unforgivable. Here, I set out to explain why we must avoid the two traps of the political and procedural variety.
Explaining the first of these two issues is simple. Basing your support for bold police reforms on any sort of political calculus is cowardly, immoral and a casual reinforcement of white supremacy.
Moving on to the procedural trap. There are many problems with creating a task force or using a public safety committee to develop the more urgent recommendations for reform. I have listed some below:
• Both of these bodies are formal appendages of municipal government, which of course oversees the police department — the primary target of reform. There is an inherent structural and institutional bias in this approach. This bias would undoubtedly and necessarily place limitations on the recommendations. Involving institutional actors at this level of ideation is backward and nonsensical. It does not mean institutional actors have no role to play, it’s just at this stage, that role should be a resource to explain complex inner-workings and policy minutiae, so that the changemakers can do their job better. It is absurd to invite the police department into a role where it could essentially wield a vote in a forum where the conversation centers on how that department should be radically changed to better serve a race of people historically oppressed by it.
• Another way to place limitations on the recommendations that could emanate from a task force or committee is by determining its membership. If it is within the purview of a municipal authority to decide who sits on the task force or committee, then here again we would find institutional bias. It is in the best interest of the city to appoint members it believes will develop policy recommendations that are in its best interests. Not only does appointment privilege come with an obvious bias, it also limits the participation of a broad array of community members, whereas the young leaders who have developed the Advocates for Social Justice coalition, have brought together hundreds of voices. One way to avoid this bias is by negotiating directly (and perhaps even publicly) with the young leaders of ASJ who developed the seven demands alongside of a cadre of Black leaders in the community.
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• The work of task forces and committees often takes months, sometimes years, to arrive at an acceptable consensus. I have already established how this moment in time is unique in that the entire world is standing in solidarity with Black Americans who are calling for change. This momentum sweeping the country has allowed municipal governments to take extraordinary actions, moving from ideation to policy in a matter of days. Governments are moving with the speed in which both the county and city moved to head off the worst impacts of the novel coronavirus. We are now facing another virus — one borne of racism, police brutality, and systemic oppression. We must address this virus with an equal sense of urgency. If ever there was a window for meaningful change, this is it. What is more is that we staring through that window and the Promised Land is finally within our sights.
• The “process” of a committee or task force also presents the problem of acceptable consensus. Black Americans are facing a crisis of survival. A committee or task force that can only move forward with a majority consensus or strong intervention from institutionally biased policymakers, risks only agreeing to the least controversial proposals, which often yield little change. The severity of the problems faced by Black Americans requires drastic measures. My life — and that of my brothers and sisters — is worth more than a potential race to the bottom in an effort to solve for the problem of consensus. In academic vernacular, this is referred to as the problem of collective action.
Toward the end of his life, Malcolm X petitioned the United Nations to investigate the United States for crimes against humanity, for its treatment of American Negroes. He was unsuccessful in this effort. Stoking the conscience of the developed world was too large a task then, as many accepted the plight of Black Americans as an extension of this country’s Original Sin would never be fully atoned. However, now we find ourselves living in a new human rights movement, only this time, the entire world is standing with Black Americans in solidarity.
If Martin’s Dream was equality for all people in this country, Malcolm’s was global solidarity and a redress of grievances on behalf of Black people everywhere. Interestingly, we have realized Malcolm’s Dream, but still find ourselves chasing Martin’s. However, we may not be too far off, and we can likely get there if we seize the moment. The social math of it all suggests that Martin’s Dream was only ever possible, if Malcom’s was realized first. The confluence of wide-scale social protest here in America, and the collective voices of white people around the world calling for change is what seems to have moved this country to the point of deciding the problem of systemic oppression was actually worth addressing; a pity our own morality was not enough.
If ever there was a time for politicians to be courageous, to do the right thing, and not only call for bold change, but fight for it with heart and conviction, it is now. We know it is the right thing to do in this moral moment. Respectability politics be damned. The survival of our race depends on how we act in the here and now. We may never get this opportunity again.
I repeat, Black people in this country and elsewhere may never get this opportunity again. Nothing could be more urgent. I implore my city councilors to continue meeting with your citizens (especially those who have been oppressed by the systems you govern), hear them out, negotiate the terms of change and vote to make it reality.
James Baldwin, a titan in the pantheon of great intellectuals, once famously asked how much longer must we wait for progress. Given that this point in time could end up being the single most important moment for the fight for human rights in the history of the Black race, I hope he finds his answer soon.
Stacey Walker of Cedar Rapids serves on the Linn County Board of Supervisors.