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What We’ve Done (and Left Undone)

What We’ve Done (and Left Undone)

Inclusivity Social Justice

James Knight

I am an “enlightened” white man, or so I thought. I’ve lived through the civil rights struggles of the 1960s -- some up close as a journalist. I’ve struggled with my southern heritage and the effects of growing up in a racist community and family.

I’ve made the personal journey from prejudicial to progressive. I own my implicit racial bias because I am confident I can recognize and suppress it. I remember the way things used to be and am proud that my generation made things better. I have been known to relate experiences of rubbing shoulders with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, Andy Young and other civil rights activists. Surely those experiences give me a somewhat different viewpoint than many white people. I try not to be smug, but………

Today’s civil rights issues have deep roots in our history. Since the early 17th century, African heritage people have been part of our country, since before “we the people” were a people. We penned a Declaration of Independence in which “all men” turned out to be only “some men.”

We wrote a Constitution declaring we are entitled to the “blessings of liberty” all the while enslaving thousands of black people. We went about our business of building a new nation. We fought wars about our freedoms, including one about the freedom of black people. We lived our lives thinking we had solved a problem, but it turns out we just pushed the root of the problem deeper.

Then In the mid-20th century we became more aware and made some changes around the edges. We passed laws prohibiting some of the most egregious and obvious forms of discrimination. No more “separate but equal.” No more white and colored restrooms and water fountains.

We learned to sit together in restaurants and on buses. Bull Conner faded away along with the dogs and the fire hoses. Thousands marched across the Edmund Pettus bridge at Selma, and George Wallace died as a repentant paraplegic.

We changed the way we behaved in public. We improved America’s “brand.” We congratulated ourselves and continued living our lives.

Then George Floyd was killed.

For me, it was a wakeup call I didn’t know I needed. Yes, my generation did manage to change behaviors, but Floyd’s death whiplashed my awareness into looking forward instead of backward. Suddenly I was thrust into an awareness of not what we had done but of what we had left undone.

While we decorated the National Christmas Trees, we pruned some scraggly and unsightly branches from the trees of our collective identity. What we failed to realize was that for 400 years the roots of those national trees were burrowing deeper into our national soul.

We were so busy living our lives, improving our image, fighting our wars that we mistook silence for support, looked at sympathy as solution. We had failed to address the insidious fears of differences or the rampant anxieties over loss of status and privilege.

Then George Floyd was killed.

No more denying we have a deep-seated problem with race relations in this country. The real question: Do we have the will and the skill to effectively address it?

History has shown us that the most powerful tool of social change is the non-violent, mass protests, and that is already happening as thousands of Americans take to the streets across the nation, but what about those of us who yearn to be part of the solution but seek alternative methods.

For white Americans, one of the most critical actions comes in the form of self-education. There is lots of information easily available through advocacy groups, local, state and federal agencies, faith-based organizations, special interest magazines, books, and other sources.

The first step is to admit we don’t know what we don’t know and then commit to learning at least the basic facts.

Some basic questions can guide a search:

What are the facts about wealth disparity? What are the factors that contribute to the lower economic status of many minorities?? What suggestions are already out there for solutions?

Are minority populations generally less healthy than the white population? How many low-income individuals and families have adequate health insurance? What primary health concerns can be addressed by increased access?

Why is a higher percentage of the total black male population incarcerated than white men? Is there parity between sentences given to black men and white men? Is there a correlation between low income and education and high incarceration rates?

These are basic questions about four critical issues that we have failed to adequately address. These are some of the most significant things we have left undone even though they have been hiding in plain sight.
Imperative: Advocate, advocate, advocate!

The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and so many others forced us to face what we need to do going forward.

This is not a flash-in-the-pan complaint. It is pivotal. Once again this country is at a turning point much like the 1960s, but today we need to make a U-turn and do what we left undone back then.

We will likely not be able to completely eradicate racism from the human heart, but we can drive it so far underground that it can’t dig out….and never again elect a leader with a shovel.

-- Dr. James Knight is a lay member from First UMC Gainesville.  He is a veteran journalist from the civil rights era, a retired university administrator and currently, a freelance writer.

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