I told a friend Saturday that despite everything in the news, “I’m still optimistic about the future of our country.” Look how far we’ve come. Look how close we are to living in a just and righteous world.
And my friend, Darren, who’s black, asked, “How much longer are we going to have to wait?”
He was tired and he was frustrated and I couldn’t blame him for feeling that way.
Not after the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. All in the last few weeks. “Who cares if we get to the promised land if none of my people are with me,” he asked.
I said these were growing pains, that we’ll get through this. But Darren quoted a line from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that hit me in the gut.
He said, “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” And all week I’d been silent.
That evening I joined the protesters on the grounds of our State Capitol to stand in solidarity with those who demanded justice for the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
I saw homemade signs that were all too familiar (“Black Lives Matter” and “Stop Killing Us”) and I heard the chants of “No Justice, No Peace” as a man on the edge of the crowd played “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” on his saxophone.
Later that night, my neighbor and I walked the streets of Downtown Raleigh. We smelled the tear gas. I saw images I’d only seen in the movies: cops in riot gear and dozens of smashed windows with glass shattered all over the sidewalks. And the same thing was happening in cities across the country.
I was furious. I abhor vandalism. I hated seeing the building of a local newspaper wrecked. I saw it as counterproductive to the overall cause of getting justice for those killings.
But walking around, I understood those other words of Dr. King that, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” And for too long, too many of us hadn’t been listening.
This moment and the deaths of Floyd, Taylor and Arbery are because of something bigger than police brutality and a few bad cops.
This is about America’s original sin of racism and how that’s tied to disparities in health, income, housing, education, and how different groups of people are treated by the criminal justice system.
That’s why people are in the streets. Not just because of the killings. But because a pandemic and an economic crisis are disproportionately impacting communities of color (including in Minnesota, where African-Americans make up 6 percent of the population but a third of their deaths from COVID-19).
We have work to do as a society. The way to end the riots is not to suppress these feelings until they explode again the next year or the year after that.
But instead to address the underlying causes: the racial wealth gap, policies of mass-incarceration that serve as a “New Jim Crow” and the relationship between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve. But this isn’t just about public policy. It’s about the way our society still sees black Americans as different and inferior.
Equality is about putting ourselves in other people’s shoes and seeing each other as equals. It means opening doors of opportunity (on non-profit boards, with grants and scholarships and through elected office). North Carolina has never elected a black governor or U.S. senator and Wilkes County has never had a state senator, state representative, school board member, or town commissioner who was black, and we should honestly ask ourselves why? And fix that.
But if we truly want to correct racial inequalities in our society that work begins at home. We can’t change America’s statistics until we change the relationships in our lives and in our neighborhoods.
Those of us who are white should ask ourselves: When was the last time we had a black friend over for dinner? When was the last time we visited their house? When was the last time we went to a predominately black wedding?
Even better, when was the last time we went to church with someone from another race? The most segregated place in America is the inside of a church on Sunday morning. And we can pretty easily do something about that.
I’m still optimistic for the future. We’re closer than ever before to making good on our founding ideals and building a country with liberty and justice for all.
But that’s going to require some conversations that are long overdue and uncomfortable.
That’s going to require listening. And for people like me that requires speaking out – to say these injustices are wrong and I think we can do better – because black Americans are tired of waiting.
Michael Cooper Jr. is a journalist and attorney living in Raleigh. He was born and raised in North Wilkesboro. He is a 2020 Presidential Leadership Scholar, a fellowship hosted by the George W. Bush Center, the Clinton Center, the George & Barbara Bush Foundation, and the LBJ Foundation.