When 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was killed, I had only recently turned 15. As a young Black girl, it’s not like his death was the first time I’d realized that racism was alive and well in the 21st century. But it was the first time that events like the 1955 lynching of Emmet Till no longer felt so far in the past. Major news outlets covered the story day and night, social media was flooded with posts, and protests erupted throughout the country. Naively, I believed that America was a place that wouldn’t stand for the unjust killing of a Black person. But a year later, Martin’s killer was acquitted and another young Black person, Renisha McBride, was murdered (but barely discussed). Then we lost Eric Garner and Michael Brown to police brutality in the summer of 2014.
We’ve endured a decade of watching Black people die; and each subsequent death has become less surprising. The Black Lives Matter movement was founded in response to Martin’s case. And while we’ve seen a lot of discussion around racism—both interpersonal and systemic—occur in light of these events, it’s been nothing like the eruption that began in wake of the death of George Floyd. There’s been an overwhelming push for people to become more vocal, take steps to actively become anti-racist, and to challenge and dismantle the entities that allow systemic oppression to persist 155 years after slavery was abolished.
Today is Juneteenth, a holiday that commemorates the emancipation of the last remaining enslaved African Americans in the confederacy. It’s undeniable that so much has changed since that day. And while it’s incredibly thrilling to be in this moment where it feels like the world is finally listening to what Black people have been trying to tell them all along, there’s a part of me that won’t let myself get too excited. It’s easier to protect your heart when your expectations are low.
Julia S. Jordan-Zachery, PhD, chair of the Africana Studies department at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, calls this feeling hesitant hope.
“We want to have hope that this will actually result in change. That people can no longer deny that this is a systemic problem. That this is not about bad apples,” says Dr. Jordan-Zachery. “These deaths—these murders—take something from those of us who are aware and are longing for Black freedom and liberation. We also die every time this happens. But we’re longing to live. We’re all longing to live this notion of freedom. And each time this happens a little bit of that longing gets eroded. Each time this happens it’s harder and harder to build hope.”
“These deaths—these murders—take something from those of us who are aware and are longing for Black freedom and liberation. We also die every time this happens.” —Dr. Julia Jordan-Zachery
The past few weeks have made it hard to discern whether the general public is experiencing a meaningful (albeit delayed) awakening to the racism that plagues this country and its justice system or if they’re posting because someone on Twitter told them it was their responsibility. It’s bizarre to watch educated adults discuss concepts like systemic racism and white privilege like they’re new and radical. Maybe being stuck at home during the pandemic has given people the time and space to really absorb what’s happening around them. Regardless, it’s clear that their voices are being heard and that change is happening.
A veto-proof majority of Minneapolis City Council (where George Floyd was killed) vowed to disband the city’s police force. Ella Jones was elected the first Black mayor of Ferguson, Missouri. Michael Seibel became Reddit’s first Black board member after cofounder Alexis Ohanian stepped down and asked to be replaced by a Black person. New York repealed section 50-a, which allowed police to shield misconduct records. Samira Nasr, a woman of mixed Trinidadian and Lebanese descent, became the first woman of color editor in chief of Harper’s Bazaar. The U.S. Soccer board of directors repealed a policy that banned kneeling during the national anthem.
The list goes on—but three weeks is not nearly long enough to excavate the racism found deep within this country’s core. Racism is not new. And while social media allows people to interact with up-to-the-minute information in a new way, Dr. Jordan-Zachery points out that this isn’t the first time technology has furthered the spread of information surrounding the atrocities committed against Black people in America. Newly available televisions allowed people all over the world to see police officers brutalizing Civil Rights protestors. Photography allowed Jet magazine to publish images of Emmett Till’s beaten and disfigured body after his mother insisted on an open-casket funeral. Print allowed Ida B. Wells to chronicle white mob violence and lynchings in pamphlets and in several columns in local newspapers.
While the news hook has shifted, the story is the same one that began while slaves forcibly built this nation. “How does one take such a moment, engage in a politics of hope for freedom and justice and liberation, while recognizing that you’re doing it in the same systems that have existed for over 400 plus years?” asks Dr. Jordan-Zachery.
“You can only pour from a cup but so many times before it’s empty,” says Dr. Jordan-Zachery. “We’re all scared that our cup is becoming empty because the system that we’re depending on isn’t helping us to restore. So we’re having to replenish on our own. Which is why people engage in rebellions of different forms. It’s a push back against the system, but it’s also a process of trying to replenish when you know that the system is never going to help you replenish, it is simply going to take your life.”
The second, and third, and fourth responses must be policy change. Immediate policy changes have been positive, but time will only tell what negative policy changes might be looming on the horizon. Dr. Jordan-Zachery says it’s important to look to the years of backlash that ensued following the Civil Rights Movement and make sure similar events don’t follow this moment.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin (the Supreme Court just ruled that “sex” includes protections for LGBTQ workers). “The period of backlash that followed the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, that period led to increased segregation,” says Dr. Jordan-Zachery. “It led to the use of the state and its policing tactics as done through, for example, the drug policies of the 1980s coming all the way through the 1990s.”
She’s referring to policies that continued the “war on drugs” that President Nixon began in the 1970s. One of the policies created during this time were no-knock warrants, which are what allowed the cops who fatally shot Breonna Taylor in her sleep to enter her home unannounced. It also led to the boom in the incarceration of Black people. For example, cocaine and crack are different forms of the same drug. But carrying 500 grams of cocaine yielded the same federal prison sentence as carrying just 5 grams of crack, which is more accessible to poor Americans, many of whom are Black, because it’s relatively affordable.
“We’ve really got to look critically at that backlash if we’re going to have something different coming out of this particular movement of what has been a very, very, very long cry for Black Lives Matter—hundreds of years,” says Dr. Jordan-Zachery.
I don’t mean to be a pessimist, and I know that hope is important in times like these. But it’s hard to shed the armor built by centuries of disappointment.
Erlanger Turner, PhD, a licensed psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at Pepperdine University, explains the importance of hope for improvement and change.
“Some scholars have stated that hope and belief [that] the world [could] potentially change helps to foster a sense of peace,” says Dr. Turner. “For those struggling with the idea of navigating hope and skepticism, it is important to not be overly negative. According to research on theories of hope, hope is important to our ability to accomplish a task and to identify steps to accomplish that goal. Having these emotional and cognitive abilities are necessary for us to change our behaviors.”
A lack of hope has made me feel paralyzed. I’ve considered what the point of all of this is if nothing will ever really change. But I can’t lose hope. I can’t try to seek comfort in a reality that’s designed to keep me perpetually uncomfortable. But I also can’t shed that hesitancy. Because it’s the only thing protecting me from the heartbreak that comes with the thought that true equality may never come.
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