Across America, despite the alarming threat of COVID-19, and several months removed from cameras capturing a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd for more than 8 minutes slowly killing him, the eyes of the world turned to Kenosha, Wisconsin for yet another police shooting of an unarmed Black man. Jacob Blake was shot 7 times in his back while leaning in the car where his children were present inside. Protests in the community broke out as the video began to circulate social media and members of the community demanded justice and sought explanation as to why we are again mourning and grappling with yet another unarmed Black man fighting for his life after being shot by police.
“We’re the ones getting killed, we’re the ones getting shot, we’re the ones who are denied to live in certain communities,” says Doc Rivers, Coach of the Los Angeles Clippers who shared his emotional and tearful remarks with members of the media. “That video, if you watch that video, you don’t need to be Black to be outraged, you need to be American and outraged,” Rivers said. I have watched the aforementioned video in development of this piece, but in full transparency I often avoid clicking play on my cell phone—choosing to protect what very little spirit I have left. It is in this statement that Doc Rivers pulls to the surface the infuriating dichotomy and stark contrasts regarding the American lived experience for white Americans and people of color, especially Black Americans, and the notion that our lives and bodies throughout the over 400 year existence of this nation have been consistently viewed and deemed as “acceptable losses”—devoid of being worthy of basic humanity.
The concept of humanity, or the lack thereof, perfectly encapsulates the Black man or woman’s plight since first stepping foot on American soil, albeit as enslaved people. Even still, in 2020 the pandemic that persists as the most consistently pervasive and entrenched across the globe, specifically in this nation, is racism. With it, the ringing question that resounds as loudly as it ever has…When will Black life matter? I would be remiss to not recognize the grassroots as well as the corporate efforts over the past few months that far exceed anything that I have witnessed in my lifetime by way of advocacy, informal education, or monetary donations to express the sentiment that Black lives do indeed matter. While these efforts are becoming far more the standard in providing hope that these incidents will eventually pass, unfortunately we are quickly reminded that these issues are systemic and the promise of equality for Black life is at best illusionary in this country.
This illusion of equality was on full display in Kenosha, only 2 days after Blake’s shooting. A 17-year old white male named Kyle Rittenhouse, illegally in possession of an AR-15 assault rifle as a minor in the state of Wisconsin, took to the streets openly brandishing the deadly firearm engaging with protestors just hours before midnight on Tuesday, August 25th. Moments later, Rittenhouse was involved in a scuffle outside of a car dealership with protestors which quickly turned violent with the teenager opening fire, allegedly killing two and critically injuring another. Video shows the shooter rise to his feet with the rifle slung across his chest, casually leaving the scene walking past several officers and squad cars who seemingly ignore the weapon and witnesses identifying the teenager as the shooter. Rittenhouse returned to his hometown of Antioch, Illinois, nearly 20 miles from the scene of the shooting, and turned himself into local authorities under his own power the following day.
While the videos of Blake and Rittenhouse do not give a complete picture of the incidents, what is clear is the two men elicited far different responses from the police in Kenosha just days apart. These instances underpin a broader discussion on race, justice, and the inequitable presumption of criminality and being a threat that is imposed on Black people by both law enforcement and civilians. Michael German, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School and a former FBI agent, said, "Obviously, each circumstance will have its own surrounding facts that need to be addressed. But there's no doubt that there's a stark difference in the way law enforcement reacts to a white suspect vs. a Black suspect."
Given the extent of systemic racism in this country, I provide the following recommendations to improve racial equality which persists as an ever-elusive goal:
Work with community-based groups to solve community problems. To understand lived experiences that are not our own is nearly an impossible task. I urge everyone, especially white Americans, to get involved with local groups and organizations such as the NAACP, the National Urban League, the ACLU, or your local United Way whose goals include leveraging action and policy change to achieve equality for Black Americans. When people from diverse backgrounds work together and learn from and about each other, the walls of prejudice and racism can begin to be torn down.
Early conversations on race with youth. At this present moment, public discussions regarding race, inequality and racism have increased in frequency and volume not only nationally, but throughout the world. While it is important for teachers and educators to undertake the personal work needed to leverage their positions to explore into these topics with their students, I urge parents to begin and/or increase the volume of conversations with their own children and loved ones. When families create opportunities to have these important conversations with their children, they are teaching them that talking about race is not taboo—but needful and productive. It is through this dialogue in the home that we can inspire a sense of “critical necessity” to promote future understanding, action, and activism through both small and large progressive efforts.
For the promise of equality for Black Americans to be more than an illusion, more non-Black Americans must possess the knowledge and the moral compass to recognize and condemn systemic racism while taking the necessary action to combat racial injustices of all forms. I implore Americans to continue speaking truth to power, acknowledging that even in 2020 the equality gap for Blacks and whites remain worlds apart, and that consistent, relentless action, financial investment, and policy changes will be required to create a better future for my children and yours. The time will always be NOW.
Dr. Orrin White is the Director of College and Career Success at the United Way of Delaware, working statewide and nationally on the design, application, and evaluation of effective strategies and programming to improve outcomes for especially high need youth populations. Dr. White completed his doctoral studies at West Chester University in May 2020 and currently serves as a member of the WCU MPA Alumni Advisory Board. He also serves on the State Leaders Career Development Network chaired by Dr. V. Scott Solberg, and is an initiate of Pi Alpha Alpha, the International Honor Society for Public Affairs and Administration. He is also credited with successful completion of a United Way Worldwide Global Fellowship and a former 40 under 40 honoree.