03 Jun That Persistently American Place: A Response to the Murder of George Floyd
That Persistently American Place
Like many of you, I’ve been shaken by the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. I’ve felt raw anger, sorrow, and exhaustion. Watching the videos of Mr. Arbery’s and Mr. Floyd’s murders made me think of the shed in Drew, Mississippi, where Emmett Till endured a long night of torture and suffering.
That awful place. That persistently American place.
On Saturday evening, as my family gathered in the kitchen for dinner, my 19-year old twin sons – African American men – asked me, “Why? When will the killing of African Americans end? When will the suffering end?”
It was a question that struck me to my core, personally and professionally. I’m a wife and mother, and I’m also the president and CEO of the Mississippi Center for Justice, the state’s preeminent non-profit focused on civil rights advocacy and litigation. And in that moment, as a sense of frustration and hopelessness washed over me, I blurted out my answer: “Never.”
Looking at my sons, I thought that all of my past reassurances to them wouldn’t change the racist minds and intentions of people with power who continue to devalue them and see them and other young men of color as threats or somehow less than human.
Then, I got a grip, as we must always do. I changed my mind and my approach and my tone. I decided not to allow racists to rob my sons – or me – of hope. That’s even more painful than the alternative.
Scientists around the world are scrambling – competing even – to find treatments for the COVID virus. Governments are actively supporting them, and when it arrives, as it surely will, we will celebrate. I believe that will happen. I’m an American and I’ve seen it before. We saw it with the discovery of the polio vaccine and with radical advances in AIDS treatments.
But where are the sociologists scrambling to find a cure for the virus that is racism – the most pernicious and virulent of diseases that is passed from generation to generation and embedded in our systems and laws? Where are the political leaders with the courage to confront the everyday injustices and cruelties visited upon people of color and taking concrete steps to begin addressing them? How can the murderers of Mr. Aubery and Mr. Floyd – and of Breonna Taylor, and so many others -– be allowed to act with impunity, confident that the system which allowed them to possess weapons won’t punish them for misusing them?
The truth is that there is no one coming to rescue us. We are the ones who must scramble. The systems of racial and other types of oppression in this country – particularly in our state of Mississippi – are forged of cultural iron, and it will take iron to reshape them.
At Mississippi Center for Justice, we are iron. I am that iron. I do not care how relentless this fight gets. For far too many years, we have lived through hatred and oppression, recoiling in horror and shock from the senseless assassinations of courageous leaders like Medgar Evers, Dr. King, and the untold number of people killed by racists acting under the authority of law who thought their job was to control and punish, rather than to serve and protect.
Dr. Joyce Ladner, a daughter of Mississippi, teaches us about the new urban leaders who support communities that grow from the inside out, creating opportunities based on the needs within our communities. Fannie Lou Hamer led in this way. At MCJ, we know how to lead and organize well – without the violence, destruction, and chaos that only leads to more destruction, of ourselves and of our communities.
We can and will stand tall. We will persevere. We will reframe our way of reaching a higher ground to not only survive, but to thrive. We will overcome these senseless, racist acts of violence. This will not be the sum of our story in this nation.
When protesters outraged by ingrained political violence take to the streets of Mississippi this weekend, MCJ will offer them legal education, assistance, and support. My sons and I, meanwhile, will be proud to walk alongside them. President Obama once said that we are the change we’re waiting for. This weekend, my family, and my colleagues, will do our part to help bring it about.
Vangela M. Wade is president and CEO of Mississippi Center for Justice, a non-profit focused on civil rights advocacy and litigation to fight Mississippi’s culture of injustice.