Our individual perspective on race and justice is a product of our background, our upbringing, our experiences, our identity, our own moral code. I see America through the eyes of a Lebanese-American, married to a woman of color, raised in a war zone. I have spent the past two decades as a progressive activist and the past 15 in the thicket of American politics as a consultant and campaign adviser.
With each passing year on this planet, I find myself more disturbed by human violence and injustice, more distressed by the horrific things humans do to one another. I thought time would bring numbness, but the reverse is true.
I look at my daughter and wonder about the world I brought her into. Yes, there is beauty and love, but there is also agony, brutality, sexual violence, abuse, extreme inequality, rampant injustice, preventable starvation and disease, blind greed, intractable bigotry.
Of the evils we create (and confront) as human beings, racism is one of the ugliest. It shows its hideous face in myriad ways.
The past few years have been particularly heinous in America. Today, it’s a white man marching into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston and gunning down nine worshipers. Before that it was 12 year-old Tamir Rice gunned down by cops for holding a toy gun. Before that it was Eric Garner choked to death on a busy New York street for selling cigarettes. And on and on…
Black Americans have been slaughtered on the streets for riding BART trains, holding toys, seeking help after a car accident, selling cigarettes, riding bikes, wearing hoodies, buying skittles, running away from danger, and playing music. They have been killed sitting in their homes.
No activity is safe, no location secure. Death can come from anywhere, for any reason. Shot in the back. Publicly strangled to death. And justice is never guaranteed.
One of the most troubling of all these incidents is described in chilling detail by Ta-Nehisi Coates:
I took some time this weekend to re-read Jennifer Gonnerman’s piece on the odyssey of Kalief Browder. I wanted to understand how, precisely, it happened that a boy was snatched off the streets of New York, repeatedly beaten, and subjected to the torture of solitary confinement, and yet no one was held accountable.
His parents were told to pay a certain sum, or he would not be released. When they did not pay, he was beaten and then banished to lonely cell. Browder’s captors then offered him a different way out—pay for your freedom in the political currency of a guilty plea. He refused. More beatings. More solitary. The sum was lowered. Browder still refused. He was subjected to the same routine. Browder defeated his captors. They tired, released him, and likely turned to perpetrate the same scheme on some other hapless soul.
Browder’s victory came at the cost of martyrdom, and in his name we should be strong enough to speak directly about what he endured. Kalief Browder was kidnapped in our name. Kalief Browder was held for ransom in our name. Kalief Browder was tortured in our name. Kalief Browder was killed in our name.
We all share responsibility for the moral failings of our nation and we all must play a part in rectifying those failings. The question is how we do it. We cannot root out all prejudice – it is ingrained in human nature. Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail is famous for this quote: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” But in his letter, he also writes: “I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes.”
To get to the underlying causes, we must start by speaking the truth and calling things by their proper name. When an entire segment of the population lives in fear of random unjustified violence with little legal recourse, then they are being terrorized. Let’s call the injustice and violence against black Americans what it is: Terrorism.