The Recurring Trauma of Racism Requires Action to Dismantle Structural Systems that Perpetuate Inequity

Dr. JudyAnn Bigby, Board Member

Police slowly snuff out the breath of a black man and kill him for allegedly passing a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill (George Floyd, May 2020). Police enter the home of a black woman first responder without warning in the middle of the night and shoot her to death after her boyfriend uses a legally held gun to protect their home from the invaders (Breona Taylor, March 2020). A black man, an avid jogger, is hunted down by three white men who claim he is a suspected burglar. One shoots the unarmed jogger three times and kills him. Two of the men have ties to local police and so it’s no surprise the local white prosecutors give the three white men a pass (Ahmaud Arbery, February 2020). These people have died due to racism in America along with Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Laquan McDonald, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, and too many others.

Americans are demonstrating and protesting in the streets in numbers not seen since the civil rights and anti-war demonstrations of the sixties. Why? Americans saw the cool, calculated “I dare you to do something to stop me” attitude projected by Derek Chauvin as he and two other police officers made sure George Floyd couldn’t breathe and killed him in broad daylight. Now as the protests spread across America, people see repeated acts of injustice. The current president ordered law enforcement to use chemical sprays, rubber bullets and police on horseback to push back peaceful demonstrators, including children, from in front of the White House. Journalists have been arrested and tear gassed for covering the unrest. Thousands of people have been physically assaulted, arrested, and detained. The demonstrators are people of all races and ages. “Black Lives Matter” signs are seen alongside “White Silence = Violence” signs. However, it has taken much too long for America to wake up to the recurring trauma of racism.

As newscasters and opinion writers reflect on this moment in America and people try to understand the depths of structural racism in the U.S., I think about the parallels between South Africa and the United States of America. During my first trip to South Africa in 1990, I was caught in the middle of a taxi strike demonstration while on my way to meet with African National Congress leaders about their health plan for the new South Africa. While I paused and took in the scene and listened to the demonstrators, I heard and felt something whizz by one ear. My South African companion explained the police had decided to disperse the peaceful crowd using rubber bullets. I was terrified. We left. While the media relentlessly show videos of police dispersing crowds all over America using chemical sprays, rubber bullets, and physical assault I also remember the effect the media played in bringing the hateful apartheid regime to light after the Sharpeville protest where more than 250 anti-apartheid demonstrators were killed. And as we approach June 16, Youth Day in South Africa will commemorate the 1976 Soweto youth uprising where heavily armed police tear gassed and fired real bullets upon peacefully protesting youth.

The parallels between the U.S. and South Africa don’t end with the police response to protest. The fundamental connection is the long history of racial oppression and the way the policies to perpetuate white dominance are built into not only the criminal justice system but also the health, education, employment, housing, and economic development systems, and the environment. One need to look no further than the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. to see how racism plays out as blacks have death rates from covid-19 that are two to three times the death rates of whites. The corona virus laid bare the racial inequities harming communities of color, exposing the structures, systems, and policies that create social and economic conditions that lead to health disparities.

The police violence in the U.S. is a striking reminder of the entrenchment and enduring legacy of racism. In these challenging and painful times, people want to know what they can do. Overcoming racial inequities requires dismantling the structures that breed the inequalities in the U.S. and in South Africa. Some in the U.S. are calling for a truth and reconciliation commission on racism and policing fashioned after South Africa’s truth and reconciliation commission. America cannot wait for everyone to understand the truth that has been right in front of us for centuries. Dismantling systems that disadvantage people based on race will take leaders who are willing to challenge the status quo and offer new solutions that are based on achieving equity. This means that some will be uncomfortable with the proposed solutions because the advantages whites have gained will necessarily diminish. It will require fighting, disrupting, and dispelling racism, discrimination, anti-blackness, and bias as an everyday practice and using racial justice as a principle to guide personal and political choices.

George Floyd’s six-year old daughter said at his memorial service in Minneapolis “My daddy changed the world.” Let’s all commit to making this come true for his little girl and all the black children who should not be forced to live with the recurring trauma of racism.