Moving Towards Justice Requires All of Us

May 29, 2020

“In these uncertain times.” For the past two-and-a-half months, I’ve struggled with this phrase. While much about this moment is, in fact, uncertain – the course this virus will take, what treatments or vaccines may become available and when, how aspects of daily life are changing – there is a whole lot that is certain.

It’s clear, for example, that the way you experience the pandemic depends a lot on who you are. If you are poor, Black, brown, undocumented, disabled, older, or a worker on the front lines of a hospital or grocery store, you are at greater risk from the health and/or economic impacts of this public health crisis. It is also certain that if you contract the virus and belong to one or more of these categories, your outcome is likely to be much worse than someone who does not.

Here’s what else is certain: The people who bear the brunt of this terrible moment are the same people who suffer under the inequitable and unjust systems that span American life, from criminal justice and public health to education and even our democracy. Pick an indicator: In almost every case, the outcomes nearly always leave people of color and other marginalized groups at a deficit. The coronavirus has made this more obvious, but it’s been certain for a long time.

The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer provides yet another clear, unambiguous, and yes, certain, example of how race so often shapes destiny. As we are all too aware, however, Mr. Floyd is not the first African American male to suffer this fate in America. He is just the latest person whose life has been cut short by someone with real or imagined power of authority.

I was a 10-year-old living in Miami when the police sirens and black plumes of smoke rose over the city in 1980. A grand jury had acquitted four police officers in the murder of Arthur McDuffie, a Black salesman and former Marine who was killed after a high-speed chase. The McDuffie Riots, as they became known, were the first explosions of urban violence in a large US city since the 1960s. They changed Miami in many ways, damaging the city’s economy and reputation.

The riots also resulted in a missed opportunity. Rather than using that moment to build cohesion and trust among Miamians of disparate backgrounds, many retreated into segregated communities as new walls, fences, and other barriers were built to fortify these lines of separation.

These feelings of fear, pain, and anger came rushing back 32 years later, when Trayvon Martin, a teenager from Miami, was shot dead by a self-described vigilante in Central Florida where Trayvon was visiting relatives. We can be certain that wearing a hoodie and carrying a box of Skittles isn’t what got Trayvon killed. Doing those two things as a young Black male did.

Over the past week, cities across America, including Denver, have responded with rage. Many protests have been peaceful while others have devolved into violence and conflict, mainly between agitators and law enforcement. We must not lose focus on what sparked this rage in the first place; rather, we must all ask ourselves what we can do to address it. Because the anger is real. The anger is deep-rooted. The anger is justified. But the anger must be harnessed in ways that actually change the course we are on.

True justice must come to those responsible for taking Mr. Floyd’s life. But full and complete justice will come only when true equality stretches across all of our economic and political systems, especially for those who happen to be Black or brown in America.

That much is certain.