Our Times

These times that we live in — these, right here, right now — are extraordinary, aren’t they?

I’m old enough (quiet, already!) to have lived through a half-dozen wars, a president being assassinated (c’mon, I was a baby), a couple of other ones being shot at, the first moon landing, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the worst act of domestic terrorism ever, a presidential election that was contested all the way to the Supreme Court, 9/11, the last time the Cincinnati Bengals won a playoff game (that was a loooooong time ago), and four Rolling Stones goodbye tours.

I remember when Madonna was shocking. I remember the original Charlies Angels. I remember when both James Taylor and Billy Joel had hair, when every big city had at least two newspapers, when you didn’t have to go through metal detectors at the airport, and when it didn’t take me 20 minutes to get downstairs in the morning.

But these times — these, right here, right now — are simply amazing. We may never again see anything like them.

And, yeah, I know: That’s mostly a good thing.

These days, we are being pounded by a once-in-a-century pandemic that has killed more than 100,000 Americans in a little over three months — more than 430,000 people worldwide — and is far from over. We have an economy teetering on the edge of disaster because the coronavirus and its threat of sickness and death has driven many of us into hiding, except for those who recently have taken semi-brave, semi-stupid toe-dips back into normalcy.

And now, just in the past few weeks, in the middle of all this misery and uncertainty, America is facing a long-overdue reckoning with its treatment of black people.

Atlanta, Spring Street, early evening, June 2, 2020

Protesters — many in masks to stymie the coronavirus — have taken over the streets from Atlanta to Seattle, from New York to L.A., from Minneapolis to Madrid and Paris and cities all over the world, in a swift, full-throated cry demanding what should be, in the 21st century, a given: equal treatment for all. The protests were sparked, once again, by the now sadly familiar story of the often deadly treatment of black Americans by some police.

A cop in Minneapolis kneeled on the neck of a black man for nearly nine minutes — so needlessly, so callously, so remorselessly — resulting in his death. An unarmed black man in Atlanta, awakened after falling asleep in his car in a fast-food drive-thru, scuffled with police and ran away with a cop’s Taser. The man was shot twice in the back — dead — as he fled.

An unarmed woman in Louisville, an ER technician, was killed by police who broke down her front door in the middle of the night. Her boyfriend, who fired on the unknown intruders as they broke in unannounced, was wounded. Both were, by all accounts, not who the cops were looking for.

All these incidents — George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, and Breonna Taylor — have occurred since the start of March. But tragedies like these are not new. Police in this country have a long legacy of violence against black people. From a 2015 piece in The New York Times:

According to the F.B.I.’s Supplementary Homicide Report, 31.8 percent of people shot by the police were African-American, a proportion more than two and a half times the 13.2 percent of African-Americans in the general population. While this data may be imperfect, other sources in individual states or cities, such as in California or New York City, show very similar patterns.

The data is unequivocal. Police killings are a race problem: African-Americans are being killed disproportionately and by a wide margin. 

The Times article points out a lot of possible reasons for that disparity, one of which is that blacks have a very high number of encounters with police. The reasons behind that, of course, run much deeper, and are rooted in inequalities that began when African Americans were stolen from their homeland, and persist still.

The recent street protests have forced us to face that truth, have forced anyone who believes in equal justice under the law and “all men are created equal” into some deep soul searching. These protests, too, are showing signs — maybe? finally? — of making a difference.

Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben — can you believe they both still exist in 2020? — are both being retired, long past their expiration dates. Companies all over America are racing to make their work forces more diverse. Cities are scrambling to deal with statues, street names, and other public markings that commemorate heroes of the Confederacy. A network took Gone With the Wind, the Civil War-era Southern romance that won Best Picture at the 1939 Academy Awards, out of its lineup because of the film’s depiction of blacks.

Politicians, as pols do, are spinning, even more than normal, in their late-to-the-protest attempts to look good. An example: The president — just weeks after his handlers gassed protesters outside the White House so he could walk across the street to stand in front of a church holding up a bible for photographers to dutifully record his faux piety — has just passed an executive order that calls for establishing a national database of offending police officers.

And people — slowly, hopefully? — may be starting to understand the whole idea behind the Black Lives Matter movement.

Five or six or seven years ago, if you would have suggested, on your Facebook account or Twitter or to a friend in, you know, real-life conversation, that, “All lives are important. All lives matter,” no one would have blinked. More than likely, the worst anyone would have done is thought of you as hopelessly, perhaps charmingly, naive.

But saying “All lives matter!” now, in these times, labels you a racist. Why?

It is a willful denial of the truth. It’s a disgusting lie.

From a Vox.com article.

Imagine that you’re sitting down to dinner with your family, and while everyone else gets a serving of the meal, you don’t get any. So you say “I should get my fair share.” And as a direct response to this, your dad corrects you, saying, “everyone should get their fair share.” Now, that’s a wonderful sentiment — indeed, everyone should, and that was kinda your point in the first place: that you should be a part of everyone, and you should get your fair share also. However, dad’s smart-ass comment just dismissed you and didn’t solve the problem that you still haven’t gotten any!

Understanding and accepting that in America today, all lives clearly don’t matter in the same way — black lives simply are not awarded the same sanctity as white ones — is just a first step. And it’s one that we, as a country, have yet to take.

In these history-shaking times, I think it’s important to remember something my 55-ish Southern neighbor says to those who get a little overwhelmed. “Keep up, Bernice,” he says.

We’d all be wise to try to keep up with what’s going on. Because if we do — if we listen, if we hear, if we’re honest with ourselves, if we’re compassionate, if we’re open to badly needed change — once we get through these extraordinary times, this world might actually end up a better place.

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