By Cheryl Alethia Phelps
Our nation is caught in the throes of two lethal pandemics. One is a highly infectious and tenacious novel coronavirus that has to date* caused more than 490,000 deaths in the United States and forced nearly 50 million people into temporary or permanent unemployment. The number of known positive COVID-19 cases in the U.S. is more than 27.8 million, with California leading the nation with 3.5 million confirmed cases. *Updated February 17, 2021.
The disease is not affecting all communities equally because our communities are profoundly unequal. The COVID-19 pandemic has pulled back the curtain on acute racial, economic and other inequities in American society that make Black people, Latinx people and other people of color more likely to become exposed to the virus, more likely to become seriously ill, and more likely to die.
RACISM IS A PUBLIC HEALTH CRISIS
The other pandemic plaguing our nation is systemic racism. It is reinforced by white supremacy ideologies, imagery and narratives, and manifested in the unequal distribution of wealth, power and life opportunities afforded to people based on skin color and now, by unequal COVID-19 impacts. Unlike the coronavirus, the myth of white supremacy is not novel, but so deeply rooted in American culture as to be considered benign by its beneficiaries, if they recognize it at all. Even so, systemic racism in the U.S. is quite literally killing Black folks.
“White supremacy is a lethal public health issue that predates and contributes to COVID-19," reads a May 30 open letter signed by more than 1200 public health and infectious disease experts and community stakeholders. “Black people are twice as likely to be killed by police compared to white people, but the effects of racism are far more pervasive. Black people suffer from dramatic health disparities…Biological determinants are insufficient to explain these disparities. They result from long-standing systems of oppression and bias which have subjected people of color to discrimination in the healthcare setting, decreased access to medical care and healthy food, unsafe working conditions, mass incarceration, exposure to pollution and noise, and the toxic effects of stress.”
I CAN’T BREATHE.
The brutal public torment and murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis on May 25 forced our collective awakening to the truth of systemic, anti-Black racism and police violence in the United States. The nation watched in horror as a Black man, handcuffed and face down in the street, begged for his life from police officers who instead used the weight of their bodies to immobilize him and deny him breath. One notably cruel officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck for several minutes until long after he was dead.
Caught on video by a young bystander, the truth could not be denied or explained away with the standard tropes used to justify police and vigilante violence against Black people. The July 8 release of the transcripts of the police officers’ body camera footage confirmed what we already knew: George Floyd was not a threat to the public or the police and was killed, nevertheless. Breonna Taylor was asleep in her bed and was killed. Ahmaud Arbery was on a run through his neighborhood and was killed. Rayshard Brooks was fleeing police after failing a sobriety test and was killed. Walter Scott was fleeing a traffic stop for a broken taillight and was killed. Alfred Olango was in need of medical attention and was killed. Trayvon Martin was wearing a hoodie and was killed.
Eric Garner was suspected of selling loose cigarettes. Like George Floyd, he told police officers “I can’t breathe” several times before he too was killed.
In Between the World and Me, a searing analysis of anti-Black racism in America framed as a letter to his adolescent son, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote: “It is not necessary that you believe that the officer who choked Eric Garner set out that day to destroy a body. All you need to understand is that the officer carries with him the power of the American state and the weight of an American legacy, and they necessitate that of the bodies destroyed every year, some wild and disproportionate number of them will be black.”
THE COLOR OF MY SKIN IS NOT A CRIME
Driving While Black; Sleeping While Black; Running While Black; Walking While Black; Standing While Back; Playing While Black; Shopping While Black; Holding a Cell Phone While Black; In Police Custody While Black; even Breathing While Black are unsafe conditions in the United States of America.
IT’S BEEN 400 YEARS, GET YOUR KNEES OFF OUR NECKS
The video documenting the killing of George Floyd went viral, sparking visceral anguish and outrage around the world and galvanizing widespread protests against racial injustice and police brutality. The video was especially disturbing for many African Americans for whom the lynching of George Floyd by police, in full view of the community, reinforces our lived experience that Black lives are perpetually in peril.
Four hundred one years after the White Lion arrived at Point Comfort, Virginia, with its human cargo, 244 years after the Declaration of Independence, 233 years after the signing of the Constitution, 157 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, 155 years after Juneteenth, 155 years after the Thirteenth Amendment, 152 years after the Fourteenth Amendment, 150 years after the Fifteenth Amendment, 79 years after Executive Order 8802, 72 years after Executive Order 9981, 66 years after Brown v. Board of Education, 63 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1957, 56 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 55 years after the Voting Rights Act of 1965, 52 years after the Fair Housing Act of 1968, 46 years after the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974, 12 years after the election of our first Black president…George Floyd died in shackles with a police officer’s knee on his neck.
Said the Pulitzer Prize winning creator of the groundbreaking New York Times Magazine essay series, The 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones, “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true.”
Black Americans have been fighting for liberty, justice, equality and opportunity in this land for 400 years. As my 96-year-old mother says, “Why do you think it’s called a Struggle?”
SAY HER NAME
SAY THEIR NAMES
In the seven weeks since his horrific death, millions of people have taken to the streets and social media to demand justice for George Floyd. They join the legion of voices demanding justice for the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Taylor, Elijah McClain, Sandra Bland, Eleanor Bumpurs, Michael Brown, Tanisha Anderson, Eric Garner, Alfred Olango, Rem’mie Fells, Tony McDade, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Atatiana Jefferson, Eric Harris, Yvette Smith, Stephon Clark, Riah Milton, Rumain Brisbon, John Crawford, Laquan McDonald, Oscar Grant and so many others.
People of all races, genders, ages and walks of life are bearing witness to the unending crisis of Black lives lost to systemic, anti-Black racism: I Can’t Breathe. Whose Child Is Next? Don’t Shoot! I Run With Ahmaud. Trans Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter. Say Her Name. Say Their Names.
It’s a long overdue reckoning that’s playing out in all 50 states and on all our devices.
FREEDOM DAY JUNETEENTH
BLACK LIVES MATTER
These disrupting events – a deadly virus that exposed acute racial inequality in our society, our collective awakening to the pandemic of systemic racism, and the massive, multiracial protests that followed the unconscionable police killing of George Floyd – converged on Juneteenth 2020.
Juneteenth is the day we traditionally commemorate the liberation of African Americans from bondage and racial injustice. No, President Trump didn’t make Juneteenth famous, as he boasted in a June 17 interview with the Wall Street Journal. But in scheduling his MAGA revival on June 19-20 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, (the site of the 1921 massacre of hundreds of African Americans by white mobs) in the face of widespread civil unrest over racial injustice, Trump succeeded in bringing even greater public awareness and condemnation of our country’s “pattern and practice” of brutalizing, terrorizing, dehumanizing, lampooning, erasing, disenfranchising, criminalizing and killing Black Americans long after chattel slavery was abolished.
It was a dog whistle blown through a megaphone.
Before this moment, Juneteenth was a marker for what occurred. In this moment (with Trump’s unwitting assist), Juneteenth is a marker for what’s due.
It is fitting, I think, to imagine Juneteenth, aka Freedom Day, as the point of intersection between these disrupting forces and the moment in which Black America’s 400-year Struggle for liberty, justice, equality and opportunity – ideals upon which the United States was founded – was joined by millions of Americans of all races.
We are in a moment of reckoning and transformation from a profoundly unequal nation to one that is truly equitable. How will we commemorate where we find ourselves today? When the COVID-19 pandemic recedes, what will be left in its wake? Will we have the power and resolve to dismantle systemic racism? What will we rebuild and how? What shared values will enable us to move forward as a more just and inclusive society?
Considering these questions through a Juneteenth lens, it’s clear that the Struggle for Black liberation – the unceasing petitioning of America to live up to its founding ideals (to the benefit of all marginalized people) – is and must be at the center of our collective fight for a more perfect Union – a pluralistic, democratic nation in which “We the People” truly means all of us.
Juneteenth commemorates the belated emancipation of Black people held in the last of the rebel states, two and a half years after President Lincoln’s executive order was issued. When Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, with 2,000 Union soldiers on June 19, 1865, one of his first official acts was to enforce the liberation of some 250,000 Black Americans, giving notice to the people of Texas that “in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”
This was not actually true. Time and again, freedom has eluded Black Americans.
Slavery was legal in all thirteen colonies when the Declaration of Independence was issued on July 4, 1776. To control their enslaved population (and prevent uprisings), each colony had decades earlier enacted Slave Codes that codified slavery as a race-based system and enslaved Black people as property no different from livestock or real estate.
Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation ordered the freedom of enslaved Black people held in eleven Confederate states “then in rebellion against the United States,” but it did not apply to Black people held in parts of the country not in rebellion, including the slave states of Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri.
The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in December 1865, abolished slavery and involuntary servitude in the United States, “except as a punishment for crime.” Former Confederate states immediately enacted laws known as Black Codes to replace slave codes to continue to control the behavior, movement and labor of Black people, subjecting them to severe consequences for a variety of offenses that did not apply to white people.
Under these Black Codes, newly freed African Americans were readily charged with criminal acts for which they faced arrest, exorbitant fines, beatings, imprisonment and forced labor (known as convict leasing). For example, formerly enslaved men and boys, looking for work or to reunite with family members from whom they were separated while in bondage, were criminalized for vagrancy then involuntarily leased to private parties or the state to work off the fine. The roots of mass incarceration today are in these Black Codes and the subsequent medley of explicitly anti-Black state and local statutes commonly known as Jim Crow.
Wrote Michelle Alexander in her thought-provoking bestseller, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, “Like Jim Crow (and slavery), mass incarceration operates as a tightly networked system of laws, policies, customs, and institutions that operate collectively to ensure the subordinate status of a group defined largely by race.”
When Black Codes (1866-1867) were made unlawful with the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment (1868), southern states immediately replaced them with Jim Crow laws, policies and customs that served to: roll back gains Black Americans made under Reconstruction; deny Black people economic opportunity and political access; and perpetuate a racial apartheid in which white people were deemed superior to Black people in almost every way, from intellect, acumen, morality and civilized behavior, to culture, beauty and even personal ambition.
The Jim Crow era flourished for 100 years (1868-1968). It was a century of legal segregation sustained by extreme, often public violence against Black people and others who defied its mandates; and carried out by white individuals, mobs, extrajudicial secret organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan and on occasion, the police.
Born to enslaved parents in 1862, trailblazing journalist Ida B. Wells reported extensively on lynchings and other efforts to control Black people through violence and terror. Wrote Wells, "In slave times the Negro was kept subservient and submissive by the frequency and severity of the scourging, but, with freedom, a new system of intimidation came into vogue; the Negro was not only whipped and scourged; he was killed."
The magnitude of postwar racial terror and violence suffered by Black Americans during the period was revealed in the Equal Justice Initiative's June 2020 report, Reconstruction in America that documents 2,000 lynchings of Black people between 1865 and 1876. This is in addition to nearly 4,500 documented lynchings between 1877 and 1950.
In what is known as the Great Migration, approximately six million Black people fled the terror, violence and lack of justice and opportunity of the Jim Crow South for northern, midwestern and western U.S. cities. Said Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson in her 2017 TED talk: “...this was the first time in American history that American citizens had to flee the land of their birth just to be recognized as the citizens that they had always been…It was actually a seeking of political asylum within the borders of one's own country.” As Wilkerson wrote in her historical study, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration: “They did what human beings looking for freedom, throughout history, have often done. They left.”
But racial discrimination was prevalent throughout the United States as federal, state and local governments actively planned and facilitated Jim Crow-like disparities of opportunity between white Americans and Black Americans, often in partnership with the private sector. Said renowned socialist, activist and co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), W.E.B. DuBois: “North as well as South, the Negroes have emerged from slavery into a serfdom of poverty and restricted rights.”
California has its own troubling legacy of oppressing Native Americans and African Americans, documented in stunning detail in the 2019 ACLU of Northern California report, Gold Chains: The Hidden History of Slavery in California. The state enacted several Jim Crow laws related to voting, education, employment and interracial marriage. An 1850 anti-miscegenation law (banning marriage between white and Black people) was amended in 1901 to make it unlawful for white people to marry people of Asian ancestry as well. This law was repealed in 1948. California refused to ratify the Fifteenth Amendment (1870) prohibiting race-based voting restrictions until 1962.
The advent of civil rights laws and policies, beginning in 1941 with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8802 to end discrimination in national defense and other government employment and President Truman’s 1948 Executive Order 9981 to end discrimination in the military, and most notably, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Voting Rights Act of 1965 and Fair Housing Act of 1968, served to overrule Jim Crow and other overtly racist laws
Nevertheless, the American experience continues to be fundamentally different (in terms of wealth, health, educational achievement and other factors affecting social mobility) between Black people and white people. A 2017 study by the Pew Research Center revealed the median wealth of Black America ($17,100) to be one-tenth the median wealth of white America ($171,000). And Black people continue to be criminalized and killed by law enforcement at rates higher than whites everywhere in the United States. Said former NFL quarterback and social justice activist, Colin Kaepernick: “There has never been a period in the history of America that anti-blackness has not been an ever-present terror.”
Black people are not free. I’m not free.
But, in this moment, in the throes of two lethal pandemics, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks and so many others, uplifted by millions of protestors of all races who have joined the Struggle for Black liberation, I have hope.
Monuments to the Confederacy, colonialism and white supremacy are coming down. Stories of racial injustice are receiving prominent news coverage. Liberating voices are being acknowledged as truth-tellers. Tributes to Black lives abound as mainstream America embraces symbols of racial inclusion with the fervor of the newly converted.
Mississippi has at long last retired its state flag. NASCAR has banned the display of confederate flags at its events and properties; NASA tweeted that will rename its Washington, D.C., headquarters in honor of its first Black female mathematician and aerospace engineer, Mary W. Jackson; The New York Public Library has released a Black liberation reading list; and the U.S.-based multinational corporation Johnson & Johnson will introduce a palette of skin-toned Band-Aids. J & J’s 100 year-old brand announced the decision via Instagram on June 10. (Please know that themed Band-Aids featuring the Muppets, Spiderman, SpongeBob SquarePants and Hello Kitty have been in the marketplace for years.)
Under pressure from its corporate partners and public opinion, the Washington, D.C., National Football League team announced it will retire its racist name. The NFL commissioner issued a public apology for mishandling players’ protests against police brutality and systemic racism. The league will play "Lift Ev'ry Voice And Sing” before every game in the first week of the 2020/21 season too.
According to Forbes’ Corporate Donations Tracker, a significant number of companies are now donating to anti-racism organizations and initiatives, responding to social pressure in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. One heartening example: Netflix is shifting $100 million of its cash holdings to Black-owned banks. The streaming giant is also marketing its anti-racism content and has created a new category to make that content easily searchable. Further, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and his wife Patty Quillin have pledged to personally donate $40 million to Morehouse College, $40 million to Spelman College and $40 million to the United Negro College Fund (UNCF).
Companies are also issuing public statements of solidarity with the Black community, some in contradiction to their business practices. When Amazon tweeted its solidarity statement, the ACLU responded: “Cool tweet. Will you commit to stop selling face recognition surveillance technology that supercharges police abuse?” Amazon later announced it would stop selling the technology to police for one year. Microsoft has issued a number of statements in support of Black Lives Matter as well. And while the tech behemoth adopted a similar one-year moratorium on selling its surveillance technologies to police departments, Microsoft is still marketing these products to federal law enforcement agencies
Accepting corporate (white) America’s long overdue acknowledgement of our belonging with grace and gratitude is yet another burden Black people are expected to carry, in addition to our trauma.
Removal of monuments to Black oppression are important. Capital investments and donations are necessary. Gestures of understanding and solidarity are more salve than salvation. All are preferable to Trump’s racist buffoonery, but they are woefully insufficient, given the enormity of the challenge of eradicating systemic, anti-Black racism in our society.
RACISM IS A PANDEMIC TOO
Said poet Claudia Rankine in her powerful 2015 essay, The Condition of Black Life Is One of Mourning: “Anti-black racism is in the culture. It’s in our laws, in our advertisements, in our friendships, in our segregated cities, in our schools, in our Congress, in our scientific experiments, in our language, on the Internet, in our bodies no matter our race, in our communities, and perhaps most devastatingly, in our justice system.”
BLACK LIVES MATTER
For We The People to be truly and fully free, we must acknowledge and address the crippling injuries to the African American community caused by 246 years of government-sanctioned enslavement of Black people; post-emancipation Black Codes that laid the groundwork for present-day over-policing and mass incarceration of Black people; and 135 years of explicitly and implicitly racist laws and policies, from Jim Crow and “separate but equal” schools and public facilities throughout the U.S., to the GI Bill and redlining from the “war on drugs” (which led to the significant, disproportionate number of Black and brown people under correctional control as compared to white people who committed the same offenses at equal or higher rates) to “three strikes to “stop and frisk.”
And most urgently in this moment, we must acknowledge and address the legacy of policing as an instrument of white supremacy. (Modern-day policing has roots in slave patrols that were charged with maintaining control over enslaved Black people. The Ku Klux Klan also has its roots in slave patrols.) We must recognize that in many communities today, policing continues to be an extension of racial dominance over Black people and other people of color.
FUND THE PEOPLE, DEFUND THE POLICE
We must drastically reduce the role, responsibilities and pervasive presence of police in communities of color and in schools. Said Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter: “Our culture of law enforcement puts the police in places they don’t need to be. Police don’t have to be the first responders to all crises, and they shouldn’t be. Social workers, doctors, and others can serve in place of police for issues including mental health crises, domestic violence, addiction, and homelessness.” Accordingly, we must divest from bloated police budgets and deepen investments in community safety services and non-law enforcement interventions. And we must hold law enforcement accountable for biased policing and excessive use of force.
BLACK TRANS LIVES
BLACK DISABLED LIVES
BLACK QUEER LIVES
BLACK INCARCERATED LIVES
BLACK IMMIGRANT LIVES
We must demand our elected lawmakers and law enforcement professionals work with and within impacted communities to develop and implement policies that mitigate unjust disparities. We must demand our leaders act with cultural humility to address the many ways people of color are impacted by racial injustice. We must demand justice for disabled people killed by police, many of whom are Black people or Indigenous people.
We must hold accountable the people we entrust with the power to represent us and police us. And if any of us are ignored, we must protest.
SILENCE IS VIOLENCE
This is a transformational moment. We the People must be transformational too. We must be visible, vocal, united and persistent in the Struggle to dismantle systems that devalue the lives of Black people, Indigenous peoples, Latinx people and other people of color. To do otherwise is to be complicit in the violence of systemic racism.
IT’S A PRIVILEGE TO EDUCATE YOURSELF ABOUT RACISM INSTEAD OF EXPERIENCING IT
Carry your own water. Black people didn’t invent systemic racism. Indigenous peoples didn’t create white supremacy. People of color are not the beneficiaries of white privilege. Listen. Learn. Join. Support. Echo/Amplify. Repeat. Said Malcolm X: “Only those who have already experienced a revolution within themselves can reach out effectively to help others.”
Confront racism and injustice in your own circles. Plain and simple, white silence perpetuates racial violence.
Be anti-racist. Thinking you’re not racist is NOT the same thing as being anti-racist. Be present in the work to deconstruct systems and institutions that protect white privilege and marginalize communities of color. Fiercely advocate on behalf of local efforts to advance racial justice, increase investments in non-law enforcement approaches to community safety, and ensure police accountability and transparency.
NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE
Racial justice in America is not achieved by slogan, symbol or good intentions.
Racial justice is achieved by understanding the scope and scale of the challenge and responding accordingly – with bold vision and thoughtful strategy; with robust public policy solutions; with stakeholders, partners and allies; with boundless resources; with political will, skill and clout; with relentless empathy; and by holding ourselves and our leaders accountable.
Racial justice is achieved through persistent protest. (The Montgomery Bus Boycott, a protest that started with Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat, lasted 381 days. Said Parks: “the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”) Said W.E.B. DuBois: "We must complain. Yes, plain, blunt complaint, ceaseless agitation, unfailing exposure of dishonesty and wrong - this is the ancient, unerring way to liberty and we must follow it."
Said Frederick Douglass: “If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.”
Said Angela Davis: “You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.”
Said the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable...Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”
Racial Justice is achieved through our collective Struggle for Black liberation. And because this necessitates dismantling of systems of racism and oppression, all people are freed by our efforts.
What Can We the People Do?
Understand the true impact of our country’s enslavement of Black people – including but not limited to the theft of Black labor – and longer-term impacts of systemic, anti-Black racism. Said Ta-Nehisi Coates: “An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane. An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future.”
Said renowned poet, activist and Presidential Medal of Freedom honoree, Maya Angelou: “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” Toward this end, support passage of HR 40 to establish “the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans to examine slavery and discrimination in the colonies and the United States from 1619 to the present and recommend appropriate remedies.”
Empathize and align with the work being done with and within communities directly impacted by systemic racism. Support Black-led, community-based organizations in our region. Here’s a partial list.
Advocate. Use your platforms to amplify liberating voices. Support policy initiatives that serve to advance racial justice and dismantle systemic racism. Said the Honorable John Lewis, unbowed civil rights champion and U.S. Congressman: "Freedom is the continuous action we all must take, and each generation must do its part to create an even more fair, more just society."
Vote. Vote your values. Vote all the way down the ballot. Support passage of HR 4, the “John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act” to cement the legacy of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and to safeguard this crucial right for all Americans.
And when necessary, dissent. Said Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall: “We must dissent from the indifference. We must dissent from the apathy. We must dissent from the fear, the hatred and the mistrust. We must dissent from a nation that has buried its head in the sand, waiting in vain for the needs of its poor, its elderly, and its sick to disappear and just blow away. We must dissent from a government that has left its young without jobs, education or hope. We must dissent from the poverty of vision and the absence of moral leadership. We must dissent because America can do better, because America has no choice but to do better.”
This is a moment of reckoning and transformation…and not a moment too soon.
The ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties works to protect people’s fundamental rights and freedoms. We fight for justice on multiple fronts, to expand the circle of human concern to include everyone.
This essay and accompanying artwork are together entitled A Moment of Reckoning.
The essay decodes the visual voice of the art, in chapters that coincide with the featured protest signs. The ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties commissioned award-winning illustrator Tony Washington to collaborate with ACLUF-SDIC communications director and essayist Cheryl Alethia Phelps in creating this powerful visual representation of her thesis that, in this moment of unprecedented confluence of events and evolving perceptions of racial injustice in the United States, the perennial Struggle for Black liberation must be at the center of our collective fight for a more perfect Union – a nation in which “We the People” truly means all of us.