This article was written for and originally appeared on TogetherSC’s blog.
On May 18, 2020, I was set to host a listening session with a U.S. Congressman to discuss South Carolina’s plan to reopen the economy amid the COVID-19 pandemic. As we started the call, an Internet troll disrupted the call with sexually explicit sounds and words, as well as an audio clip repeating the N-word to viciously attack me. This Zoom bombing left me paralyzed. In that moment, I couldn’t breathe. I had no words.
Then the day after the Memorial Day holiday, eight days after the Zoom bombing, video surfaced of the killing of George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis apprehended for a minor infraction and killed by a police officer in broad daylight. As I write this piece, Minneapolis and cities around our country are still reconciling what happened, why it continues to happen and what can be done about it.
As I write this piece and think about what happened to me, what happened to Ahmad Arbery, what happened to George Floyd, what happened to Walter Scott, what happened to the many, many black men before these, and what it means to be black in America – I am not all right. I am in no way saying that an Internet attack on me is the same thing as the deaths of Mr. Arbery, Mr. Floyd and so many others that have died over the years.
What I am saying is the response by our community and country is eerily similar. At best people offer to help do something. At worst and in most cases, we quickly move on without any real change. Is this one of those times?
When I was Zoom bombed, very few people reached out to see how I was doing. When the George Floyd murder happened, the silence among my white friends and colleagues in those first few days was deafening. When I finally heard from some friends and colleagues, the constant refrain I heard was: “What can I do to help you and your community through this painful time?” Or, ”What can we do?” Clearly, we have to do something.
People, old and young, black, brown, and white across America and here in Charleston have taken to the streets, and their protest gives me hope. Still, the image of seeing Ahmad fall and hearing George cry out to his mother with his last words — makes me afraid.
What ‘equality’ gets wrong
When we think about how to change what we see and what black people experience in our country, we need to start by challenging the concept that “equality” is the goal. On everything from access to quality education, to affordable healthcare, to equitable pay, to criminal justice, when the aggrieved is a person of color, the response is most often rooted in “equality” language and is limited in both scope and context.
Equality fails to acknowledge or even recognize the historic wrongs perpetrated against black people in our country. Equality assumes that we all start in the same place, have access to the same opportunities, and are unencumbered by policies, practices, and systems that get in the way of our own individual initiative and drive. For this to be true for black, brown, and indigenous Americans, we would have to undo the effects of the state-sanctioned institution of slavery and its successor, Jim Crow.
The more than 400 years of oppression has created both psychological and structural barriers that make the idea of “equality” unachievable in our country. I believe we must re-calibrate our thinking toward equity.
Equity acknowledges the historic, structural, social, political, economic and psychological barriers that exist for people of color and is rooted in intentionally doing something about them. Equity means making focused investments in people and communities that have been historically mistreated. When applied to people of color, it means providing increased access and resources and removing the barriers that limit our success.
The promise of equity, when rightly applied, is seeing black people who now move unencumbered, unafraid to achieve with excellence, create with innovation, live with passion, and contribute in additive ways to their communities and our country.
Equity unleashes the brilliance in all of us, it allows the pent-up frustration and anger in black people to be released and harnessed in new and productive ways. It frees white people from the unspoken fear, guilt, or apathy that would lead them to dismiss the killing of unarmed black men and minimize the egregious micro-aggressions perpetrated on accomplished black women.
When we have more diversity and inclusion with equity — blacks and others working, living, playing, and worshiping together — black people become human. When we are seen and appreciated for being human, then the numbing silence and indifference to the killings of unarmed black men will elicit a common response of empathy and action to change the underlying conditions.
A time for white people to act
When the Internet attack happened to me, I wondered if any of my colleagues cared. I wondered if they thought twice about how it made me feel. As I have talked to black colleagues about the recent killings, we all say the same things: “I am tired”. “When will these thing change?” “I have had enough!” “I am afraid for my life and for my family.”
I have spent time the last several weeks trying to console my family and my black colleagues. I have said to them: we did not deserve, nor did we cause the trauma we have experienced historically as a people. Racism in America was not created and carried out by black people, and thus, is not a black problem. Racism is a consequence and by-product of white supremacy and privilege, and thus is a uniquely white American problem, which only white America can fix.
I have often heard from white colleagues and friends “I wish there was something I could do to help.”
From my perspective, the most important thing a white person can do to help is to acknowledge that we are here today because of where we have been as a country. The acceptance that personal, structural, and institutional racism existed and still exists today is paramount to do something about what we are experiencing. When we accept the fact that systems and structures were put in place in order to advantage one group of people (white) and disadvantage another group of people (everyone else), we begin to admit that “equality of opportunity” is hard to achieve.
The second important realization that whites must have is that even if they don’t feel like they were intentionally advantaged or have benefited personally from what is called white privilege, they must acknowledge that they have never been systematically disadvantaged in every aspect of life — from the ability to practice their religion, to earning a living, or even choosing who they want to marry — as a result of their skin color.
White people have inherent advantages, but surely white people still must work hard in their lives for wealth, to earn their education, and so forth. It doesn’t come on a silver platter for anyone. But white people do not have the systemic barriers constantly working against them, as is the case for black people. As we build a more just world, white people must start by appreciating the hard work and resilience of black people, and at every opportunity, afford them the opportunity to pursue success unencumbered.
Whites must also accept that the way these systems continue to survive is because of the centuries-old narratives that have criminalized black people. In fact, if Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd were white men and they were killed in this way, justice would be swiftly delivered, without a need for nation-wide protests.
Could you imagine Tamir Rice as a young white child being killed in such a way? What would your reaction be? Would those cops, black or white, have been acquitted? So, imagine if you and your community were always under police surveillance, if your hearts like mine raced every time you saw a patrol car alongside the highway. How would you feel?
Finally, white people in positions of influence that will accept and acknowledge these truths should speak up. They should call out what they see as wrong, say why it’s wrong and then work with black communities to change the laws that perpetuate these injustices. I ask every person reading this to call his or her elected officials at every level and demand that qualified immunity for law enforcement be taken away. I ask South Carolinians to support Rep. Wendell Gilliard’s Hate Crimes Bill and Rep. Justin Bamberg’s Citizens Arrest Bill.
Doing these things right now wouldn’t create the wholesale change we need right now in our state and country, but it would certainly be a great start. Healing 400 years of oppression will take time, patience and unrelenting commitment from all of us. It is my firm belief that equity can guide us on that road, so that we might all arrive, finally, in the land of liberty.