For the love of God, white America, which part of this don’t we get?
Do we not see the armed cop’s knee pressing down for senseless,
endless minutes on George Floyd’s neck as he begs for air? Do we not
hear a helpless, handcuffed, unarmed man’s pleas for breath and mercy?
Do we not register how the whole murderous scene reeks of ownership,
control, smug supremacy, and indifference so brutal and inhumane it is
Do we not see Ahmaud Arbery being killed by white men who had no
right to accost him, let alone to shoot him dead because they “thought”
he might have committed a crime? Do we not see their grotesque certainty
that they had that right, because this man was black and they had guns
and suspicions and questions he didn’t answer?
Do we not see how, until the videos held them accountable, the law was absent?
Do we not see, amid a pandemic that is killing black people at
disproportionate rates, how decades and centuries of racism,
discrimination and deliberate impoverishment of an entire people perform
the same function as gun and knife and knee? Do we not see the line
etched through history and drawn in blood from those deaths to Ahmaud
Arbery’s to George Floyd’s?
Do we not see the irony in the protests? White protestors angry over
public health measures storm the holy houses of the people’s democracy
in military garb, waving military weapons, to intimidate cowed
legislators into bowing to their threats—and are treated with kid
gloves. Black protestors in Minneapolis taking to the streets to protest
an unjust death are met with tear gas and militarized police. Be
peaceful, they are told. But when Colin Kaepernick quietly took a knee,
what then? And who would take a knee now, a peaceful symbol forever
remade by violence?
When will we finally be honest with ourselves? This isn’t about how
someone protests, or whether they transgressed, or any excuse we can
possibly dream of to excuse our inhumanity and push away the discomfort.
This is about skin. This is about belonging. This is about who gets to
live truly free in America, and even more tragically, about who simply
gets to live.
When I heard about George Floyd’s death and finally brought myself to
watch the sickening video, I was reminded of a poem by the Irish
theologian Pádraig Ó Tuama, who for many years led Ireland’s oldest
peace and reconciliation organization. A segment of that poem is worth
“When I was a child,
I learnt to count to five
one, two, three, four, five.
but these days, I’ve been counting lives, so I count
one life one life one life one life one life
because each time is the first time that that life has been taken.
Legitimate Target has sixteen letters and one long abominable space between two dehumanizing words.”
One life. Ahmaud Arbery. One life. George Floyd. One life, died by gun noose fire COVID neglect poverty racism. Each the first time that life has been taken.
When did we stop counting in this country? No, better to ask: when
did we ever count? Slaves were numbered as property but never counted as
lives. Not until Bryan Stephenson built the National Memorial for Peace
and Justice just a few short years ago did anyone bother to count and
name the lynched. The ease with which we swap one precious life of a
fellow human being for the cheap currency of legitimate targets
stretches deep into our past and well into our present. We live in a
country still doing its official damnedest not to count black votes, and
in the Census, not to count lives at all.
Which part of this don’t we get? Oh, I think we understand most of it
just fine. We see what we want to see, what we are trained to see. We
too often ignore experience that is not ours. We choose this not seeing,
this not hearing, this not caring, every time we excuse racist
comments, police brutality, voter suppression, the discrimination that
locks neighborhoods and families into poverty for generations. Every
time we make it the victim’s fault, convince ourselves there were
“special circumstances,” we lock in the guarantee that it will happen
again, when we will pretend to be shocked once more, asking how it could
happen in today’s America when what we should be asking is, how could
I’ll tell you the part I think we miss, though, the part we never
seem to get even if we “mean well”: how this affects us, all of us, even
those who imagine themselves to be cocooned safely in their whiteness.
How it corrodes our humanness. How it perpetuates division. How it
limits potential. How deeply it degrades the country we purport to love
and defend and honor. How bound we are, every one of us, to those who
The perpetrators of these crimes make corpses of their victims and
murderers of themselves, but they make monsters of the rest of us.
In 1963, after the racist bombing of a Baptist church in Birmingham
killed four young girls, the Atlanta Constitution columnist Gene
Patterson wrote a blistering column indicting the ethos of the white
South that tolerated and fed such vicious hatred. It could have been
written today. Here is a segment, with one change—I have replaced the
word “South” with “America”:
“We watched the stage set without staying it. We listened to the prologue unbestirred. We saw the curtain opening with disinterest. We have heard the play. We – who go on electing politicians who heat the kettles of hate. We — who raise no hand to silence the mean and little men who have their [racist] jokes. We – who stand aside in imagined rectitude and let the mad dogs that run in every society slide their leashes from our hand, and spring.
We – the heirs of a proud America, who protest its worth and demand it recognition – we are the ones who have ducked the difficult, skirted the uncomfortable, caviled at the challenge, resented the necessary, rationalized the unacceptable, and created the day surely when these children would die. Let us not lay the blame on some brutal fool who didn’t know better.
We know better. We created the day. We bear the judgment. May God have mercy on the poor America that has so been led. May what has happened hasten the day when the good America, which does live and has great being, will rise to this challenge of racial understanding and common humanity, and in the full power of its unasserted courage, assert itself.”
One life. Addie Mae Collins, age 14.
One life. Carol Denise McNair, age 11.
One life. Carole Robertson, age 14.
One life. Cynthia Wesley, age 14.
Patterson’s point was that responsibility for ending the violence
that led to the loss of those four precious lives lay with white
Southerners whose sins of omission and commission seeded the soil in
which such acts took root. All of society, not just people whose black
skin makes them the target, must recoil in disgust and rise up with one
voice to demand, no more.
In the 1970s, a decade after my family moved from our native Australia
to a land with an even more troubled history of racial injustice,
aboriginal activists in Queensland adopted this saying: “If you have
come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come
because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work
It was the same concept articulated a decade earlier by Martin Luther
King Jr. when he spoke of the “network of mutuality” that binds us all
together. We cannot dishonor someone else’s one life without denigrating
our own. We cannot stop the cycle of dehumanizing violence without
giving up the idea that we are doing someone else a favor to stand
alongside them in the call for justice. This is not altruism; the
freedom, dignity, life we are fighting for is our own.
What does that mean for America, and for white America in particular? It isn’t complicated. Stop making excuses for the perpetrators and hold them accountable. Demand better of our leaders and hold them accountable. Change the laws and policies that devalue black lives and black communities. End the practices that lock in disparity and poverty. Stop dismissing racism as just another “issue” and see it for what it is: poison in the well from which we all drink.
Recognize, finally, that this is our collective fight—a fight for the soul of who and what we are.
Grant Oliphant is the president of The Heinz Endowments. The original post can be found on their blog.
The Squirrel Hill Business District in collaboration with Pittsburgh City Council hosted a highly successful National Night Out event. The community came together in full force, making it a memorable evening of unity, fun, and engagement.
Preserving, Improving, and Celebrating the Quality of Life in Squirrel Hill
For over fifty years, the Coalition has been an active and important link in the community. It has served as a sounding board for new ideas, as well as a “watchdog” in the areas of public safety, education, residential quality, the business district, and parks and open space. With its focus on the quality of life in the 14th Ward, SHUC continues to monitor activities and future developments in the community through a range of standing committees.