I am 56. That makes me a tail-end baby boomer, born in 1964. It was the year after four little girls were murdered in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, the year of the Civil Rights Act, and a year before the Voting Rights Act.
More than half a century later and black folks are still dying at the hands of white supremacists and police and having their voting rights hampered. We have one of the most openly racist and divisive presidents in modern history, voted in by my fellow Americans. So how can those of my generation look our children in the face and tell them that incremental change and moderation work?
The answer is we can’t. Evidence tells us that small change yields some advances, but they are not sustainable, and they do not advance black people overall. The last decade has shown us how insidious America’s form of racism is. Our employment, financial, housing, political, educational, law enforcement and penal systems will not be improved by a few anti-bias workshops and an act or two.
The ease with which political and social actors can instill fear of black advancement into so many white Americans does not engender hope. The clarity with which the white woman in Central Park, and countless other “Karens,” knew she could use the police to do her bidding brought memories of Emmett Till to mind. The countless black people being killed for the audacity of just being — in their own home, playing or driving — tells us that patience and moderation are not strategies for change. They are tactics used to delay the inevitable.
The veil has been lifted. The wave of videos makes it difficult for disbelievers to assert that black people are overstating the inhumane and unequal treatment that continues to be waged against us. The lie of white American exceptionalism has been laid bare by a series of college admission scandals, the exposure of opportunity-hording and the utter incompetence of so many of our national leaders. So the idea that things will improve if black people just work harder and don’t draw attention to the inequities is silly.
Truth has a way of coming to the fore regardless of attempts to conceal it. Our country is now having to reconcile with its actual history — not how we would like to see ourselves, but how we are. White Americans are being introduced to previously undiscussed parts of our history like the Chicago Riots of 1919, the Tulsa Riot of 1921, and Rosewood (1923). The contradiction of praising the participants in the Boston Tea Party as revolutionaries while calling similar, current-day actions “looting” is hard to ignore.
Oak Park has an opportunity to assess our local systems for what they are and not how we would like to see them — or see ourselves, for that matter. It requires that folks be truthful with themselves. How many white students are kept in gifted, honors and AP classes with high levels of personal tutoring? Why are black residents so often forced to show proof of residency, bike, or car ownership when no infraction has been shown? Who do the police serve? Who can run for office, given the structure of our taxing bodies? How much of the greatness of this community is due to the unpaid volunteer work of women?
These are just a few of the questions that reveal the income, racial, and gender inequities in our village. They are not simply due to the ignorance of a few “bad apples.” They are baked into the fabric of our systems. We can’t simply snip around the edges, but rather, imagine new ways of doing things — ways that are more equitable and inclusive.
Those who have benefited from current systems, and therefore fear change, also need to acknowledge that systems may not even be serving them as well as they think. Parents who fear changes to the OPRF High School freshman curriculum may do well to listen to their own children. The high levels of stress, anxiety and mental health challenges are fed, in no small part, by this push to excel at all costs. Those who believe that the police are protecting them need to look at the actual data, not headlines and Facebook posts, to determine if the extensive amounts of money being funneled toward it is the best use of our tax dollars. It is well past time to stop playing into the fear of the invasion of black people, which has been used since 1619 to limit our participation in the fruits of this nation.
Friends, colleagues, and acquaintances have asked how I am feeling. I am beyond tired and beyond angry. I am done with the pretense and patience as we wait for white America to get its act together. As the song says, a change is gonna come. It would serve you well to be ready for it.