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We’re dealing with America’s other virus, a long running and painful epidemic

Tom Collins

Following the awful death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on Memorial Day, our national attention turned from the long spring of coping with the COVID-19 virus to dealing with something of a longer term virus in our nation, racism.

It sometimes takes a spark or an event to change history and motivate people to say they can’t take one more instance of something that has repeated itself. Floyd’s murder in police custody, caught so vividly on cell phone video, was such an incident.

We’ve now seen days of rage catalyzing into a righteous anger that seems to be influencing change.

There is no patience for those who want violence and anarchy nor the looting and fires in some communities. But the core thrust that calls for justice and equality is an esteemed effort.

“Black Lives Matter” can be seen from space and heard on streets around the world.

Overcoming racism is no easy task since racism has been with us since the first explorers set foot on what became North American soil. While both native people and indentured whites also worked as slaves, the dominant group was Africans captured and sent into bondage. Many of our founders were also slave owners.

Equality at our nation’s birth meant free white men only. Women, Native peoples and others were not included either. We’ve covered some distance from our nation’s original state of inequality but there still is a long, long way to go.

We often forget the African slaves were the only group who didn’t come here willingly. The slaves were forced to come to our shores and we oppressed from the moment they put in chains and stacked in ships at African ports. Some would say the oppression and suppression has never stopped.

Fear, control mechanisms, inferior housing and schooling, rigged economics like sharecropping, the lack of the vote, violence and exclusion from the majority culture all have been used to subjugate African-Americans as well as other minorities.  

We have to take a step back and admit racism has been part of our nation since the beginning. It was and still is part of our national fabric, whether we like it or not.

We’re not alone in the world in having racism in our cultural heritage and mix but we stand out since our nation also has traditionally been a beacon of democracy. It becomes something of a mixed message to other parts of the world.

News of police brutality seems more in line with some struggling nation we’re trying to assistant with developing a free society. It is a visible flaw that reveals a national weakness.

The first step is admitting the flaw. Many of us have the luxury or distraction of living in neighborhoods, attending churches or schools or working in situations that become bubbles from many of these raw moments in life.

We need to be dragged out of these comfort zones to face some of the ugly realities too many of our fellow citizens face – racism, poverty, economic hardship and more.

Three years ago, many NFL players drew anger when they took a knee during the national anthem as they tried to call attention to incidents of police brutality. Many people viewed it was an affront to veterans or called it disrespectful for the American flag and the like. They totally missed the message the players were trying to send.

It was a sad irony that a police officer took a much different kind of knee that sparked the current national and international attention on certain methods used by some police. It was also sadly ironic the knee on Floyd’s neck that killed him came on Memorial Day, our nation’s solemn observance of veterans.

Taking that knee and holding it as the life faded from someone in his charge brought back the horror of what those simple on-field gestures were trying to show us. Many did not understand.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the former Milwaukee Bucks’ and Los Angeles Lakers’ star recently referred to racism, like COVID-19, as an often unseen force. He compared racism to dust. It is all around but only revealed at certain times, especially with intense light shining on it.

Our nation and many corners of the world are seeing that dust in the light of new days. Demonstrators in cities across the nation and in places around the world are calling for fundamental change.

Floyd’s death and the deaths of others recently in the news highlighted again some of the viciousness of the racial caste system that so often pushes minorities into the far corners or our society.

Both actress Nici Nash and Packers’ guard Billy Turner expressed similar viewpoints about our nation’s racism. Nash said many people like African-American culture but they don’t seem to like the people.

Turner asked the painful question about why people do not like his skin color or hair texture.

A brief vignette on CNN recently showed African-American teens talking about their lives. One young man said he worried every day about whether or not he would return home safely from his part-time job. A young woman said she was tired of having to constantly explain herself to white students. They expressed constant tension in their daily living. Always having to explain or prove yourself can become quite wearing from day to day.

Many African-American men and some women talk about the condition known as “driving while black.” It is a constant thought that for any minor technicality they can be pulled over and something can escalate.

How many of us have made real driving mistakes and gone on because nobody noticed?

Many African-American parents talk about having “the talk.” It’s all about surviving potential encounters with police in their lives that might go wrong in some manner.

George Floyd symbolized someone who fell into the wrong police hands and put his life in jeopardy. Losing his life in such a public manner was one too many straws on the backs for many people in our nation. They lashed out in righteous anger they could no longer hold inside.

Dr. Bernice King, daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King, recently reminded a national television audience about her father’s last book “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community.”

He asked penetrating questions and expressed concerns about the status quo of the time and about societal changes needed if we were all to move forward. Many of the questions still apply more than 50 years later

The choices we make as a society going forward are important. Will we continue to open our hearts and find ways to listen and change or will many of us seek a return to our comfortable bubbles again?

The late Marvin Gaye once sang, “Makes me want to holler.” Maybe it’s a good start for many of us the majority only by accident of birth to just try to learn why many people are angry and why this time has merited so much attention in our nation and around the world.

The process of understanding and change is never easy. Perhaps it begins with isolated moments like the little girl discovering police officers have children too.

Maybe there are more examples like the Minneapolis woman who experienced the kindness of strangers who learned of her struggles to get groceries and other needs following long nights of fires in her neighborhood. Let’s hope and pray long-term bridges of friendship were made in the process.

In these times we need to reach out in the darkness to believe someone is there or to light a candle and pierce the darkness of doubt. We need to believe even our small efforts are not done in isolation.  

There is an old saying about “keeping on keeping on.” We all are part of that ongoing march through life.

 Many hope for a COVID-19 virus vaccine. Our nation’s racial virus has no such holy grail. It will take many people making many smaller choices and reaching out of our comfort bubbles along the way.

Genessee County, Mich. Police Chief Rick Swanson is an example. He agreed to march with demonstrators in Flint. Many police and community agreed to talk, walk and pray with demonstrators.   

These are times that call for more than basic law and order. We need to rethink ways of touching hearts and minds if laws and orders are to have any lasting impact on our society.

Our democracy always seems to have room to grow and respond to change. That is a benefit because our nation moves toward more equally and true freedom for everyone. By our nature, the best of us always seem to ultimately choose community over chaos.

Our motto “E pluribus unum” constantly reminds us that out of many we become one. It doesn’t say only some of us can form that one group. It hints that the “pluribus” can constantly grow and be more inclusive.

Racism, like the dust, festers and grows in the darkness. It is a virus that takes a lot of hard work to eliminate. Black lives matter. All people are important to our national fabric.

We will work hard to shine the light on our flaws. We’re up to the challenge of making our national community a better place for everyone.