Prior to the civil unrest we have been observing in the last couple of weeks, I read two books I had no idea would provide a preparatory experience for what we have observed in our communities and across our country in the wake of the brutal treatment and death of George Floyd.
The first book, my son gave me for my birthday. He knew that I loved history and that I had developed some thoughts around the treatment of Native Americans by the U.S. Government, and even well-meaning whites, that was systemic racial discrimination after reading “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee,” (Brown, Picador).
The book given to me by my son, “The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present,” (Treuer, Riverhead Books), gave an historic rundown of continued systematic oppression and discrimination by tribe and nation throughout North America. Although I was dismayed by a government acting on behalf of “the people” and appalled at the brutal condescension, I was also encouraged by examples of Native Americans that have made their history a part of who they are and their rise to prominence. Note that I did not use the word success, although that could be applied to some Mr. Treuer has given as examples.
Shortly after reading that book, I pulled another that had been sitting on my bookshelf collecting dust since Christmas two years ago, when it was given to me as a gift by my mother. I am ashamed to say that its topic was one that I did not wish to confront, and I wondered at why she had sent it to me. With some reticence, I determined to read it and knock it off my list. However, I found “That We May Be One: A Gay Mormon’s Perspective on Faith & Family,” (Christofferson, Deseret Book), a source to help me understand a perspective of which I was unaware and thus could not recognize.
Reading these two books during the pandemic and shortly before the catalytic incendiary event of George Floyd’s treatment and death, helped me to see things in a much broader perspective than I had in the past. That is not to say I was myopic in my thinking. Rather, I felt I was quite forward thinking in terms of diversity and aware of my actions and even my thoughts. However, these two books helped me to see that I don’t know what I don’t know. Years of corporate diversity training and talk of inclusion led me to believe that I understood, at least I understood better. But really, I didn’t. I was a MAHWG (middle-aged-heterosexual-white-guy) thinking that I got it. Perhaps on the surface, I did to some degree. But truly, I did not really understand the depth of disenfranchisement that exists systemically within our nation “of the people.” But reading these books alerted me to the sense that I might not actually understand.
Then came Memorial Day. I was not immediately aware of the death of George Floyd and by what means. However, my news feeds increased with additional information as it was released through the investigative reporting process. My reaction moved gradually from dismay, to concern, and finally to alarm as I recalled through the reporting and recounting of journalists, the litany of black lives snuffed out at the hands of various law enforcement throughout our country, for various reasons. Not to mention the vigilante attack and murder of Ahmaud Abery and the incident of the woman in the Bramble in Central Park who called 911 on a black man who asked her to leash her dog.
Some have said “you don’t know the whole story” for each of these events. True enough. But the end does not justify the means, or vice versa. Data shows that in the United States, black people account for approximately 13% of the total population but make about 40% of the prison population. Black people are 3.7 times more likely to be arrested than are whites. One study used an empirical focus to determine that race, not confounded with any additional factors was the main point of determination in a judge’s decision to incarcerate, leading to a 51% conviction rate for felony offenses for blacks over 38% for whites.
There are other statistics as well, and to be sure there are additional underlying factors like poverty and population density. But when you consider the disproportionate number of blacks vs whites in the data, it should give one pause to consider, to investigate deeper, to investigate why, identifying the root cause of this inequity and acting to correct it.
Finally, my feelings for this situation moved from alarm, to cringing in disgust, when on MON 01 JUN, our Chief Executive, while opining law and order from the White House Rose Garden, concurrently, forcibly and violently trampled on the 1st Amendment rights of a peaceable crowd assembled to express their grievances at the inequity of the system that promised them they were equal. It was at that point that I really began to understand Black Lives Matter, and when my heart began to truly weep for our broken nation.
Whether you agree with my thoughts on this issue is irrelevant. That the issue is worthy of open and honest dialogue, with a genuine effort to see and understand that there are different perspectives – and to understand that those perspectives have merit – is critical.
The Constitution of the United States of America was not founded on absolutes. A study of history shows that it was a conversation working to strike balance between conflicting priorities, to find a path that would be most beneficial to all. The best part about that conversation is it continues today. Let us do what we can to ensure that everyone has an equal voice in that conversation and that their voice is heard. Only then will the disenfranchised enjoy the benefits of being fully franchised in the blessing of being citizens of the United States of America.
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