I was 17 the first time I felt a tectonic shift in the world I thought I knew.
I was an exchange student spending the summer abroad and my country was in flames, literally and figuratively. It was 1967. While some recall it fondly as the year of the so-called “Summer of Love,” 1967 was also the summer of race riots in more than 150 American cities. (“When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”) American troop levels in Vietnam were quickly approaching a half-million, a number only surpassed by the masses of protesters marching in the streets to oppose that war.
I was a homesick teenager living abroad with a host family I could barely communicate with. I was isolated both geographically and culturally. Watching the turmoil at home was a profoundly sad and painful experience. The distance exaggerated a feeling of powerlessness. The chaos and death and destruction (much of it self-inflicted) was shocking and disorienting.
I felt unmoored. My home, my country (and the security and stability it represented) was collapsing like a house of cards.
The only other time I felt a similar earth-altering jolt was on Sept. 11, 2001. The horrific attacks we suffered that day exposed a vulnerability I couldn’t have imagined. And by then, I had three small children who I was desperate to protect from even the knowledge of such suffering and depravity. It forever altered my understanding of the world and my life.
Which brings us to this summer. We are again experiencing a national catharsis that will leave us forever changed. But unlike previous shocks, this upheaval brings hope, not despair. How is that even possible?
In the midst of a deadly plague bringing our nation to its knees, in the wake of a series of police killings of black men and women, there is an undeniable social awakening washing over us like a wave. It is at once unexpected and welcome, redefining how we think of ourselves and each other.
Perhaps the murder of George Floyd was so brazen, and so sadly familiar, that it became impossible to deny any longer the evidence of systemic racism that has been accumulating for 401 years. Maybe the fact that the pandemic brought daily life to a halt allowed us to see more clearly what we’ve been ignoring all along.
Whatever the cause, the change is seismic and undeniable. The sheer numbers of people who have taken to the streets, the diversity of the marchers, the geographical breadth of the demonstrations and the unrelenting, wide and vocal support for the cause is breathtaking. It has been wondrous to see and the message is unambiguous. Americans overwhelmingly demand justice and an end to racism.
Consider this from the New York Times on June 10: “A Monmouth University poll found that 76 percent of Americans consider racism and discrimination a ‘big problem,’ up 26 points from 2015. The poll found that 57 percent of voters thought the anger behind the demonstrations was fully justified, while a further 21 percent called it somewhat justified. Polls show that a majority of Americans believe that the police are more likely to use deadly force against African-Americans, and that there’s a lot of discrimination against black Americans in society. Back in 2013, when Black Lives Matter began, a majority of voters disagreed with all of these statements.”
I’d like to think that an important part of this awakening is due to the growing recognition that the dots are, in fact, connected. Like these:
- Life expectancy in the U.S. is higher for whites than for blacks.
- Blacks are nearly three times more likely than whites to contract COVID-19 and nearly four times more likely to die from it.
- Although blacks make up 31 percent of Maryland’s population, they make up more than 70 percent of the state’s prison population, the highest disparity of any state in the nation.
- Nearly half of Maryland’s black and Latino students attend schools in the three most underfunded school districts in the state.
- The median household income for whites in Maryland is $97,269; for blacks it’s $71,069.
- There were no fewer than 42 racial terror lynchings in Maryland.
And yes, those dots are all connected. The myth of white supremacy has always been an essential part of the American cosmology. It justified slavery, it justified segregation, Jim Crow, mass incarceration and it justified lynching. The Equal Justice Initiative has documented more than 6,000 racial terror lynchings in the United States between Reconstruction and 1950.
That is just staggering, and chilling.
This domestic terror campaign was the most virulent weapon used to enforce white supremacy. And while the lynchings have (mostly) stopped (if you don’t count George Floyd, et al.) the consequences of 400 years of suffocating physical and emotional oppression continues to damage black people in America. The damage is visible in all the ways noted above, and many more. These are not scars, they are open wounds.
This summer, it seems, Americans have decided it’s finally time to heal those wounds.
It’s no small irony that hope for real, racial justice should blossom now, in a time of uncertainty and suffering, when our democracy itself seems to be in mortal danger. Whether or not that hope flowers depends on choices we make now. We have an opportunity. We can change the world. That would be tectonic.
A Towson resident and award-winning producer and writer of non-fiction television, Will Schwarz is founder of the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project.