A couple of years ago, I took students to the EJI Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. When we first entered the museum, a student saw the flag that hung from the headquarters of the NAACP in New York throughout the 1920s and the 1930s. The flag, which flew outside the headquarters, drew attention to racial violence and lynching, and it reads, “A Man Was Lynched Yesterday.” My student, upon seeing the flag, asked me, “What is a lynching?” This question took me aback some, especially since the student is from the South. Even if the student did not learn about state sanctioned racial violence he would have at least heard or known of the word “lynching,” right?
On February 23, 2020, two white men lynched Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, GA. As I heard and read more about Arbery’s murder, I kept thinking about my student, a black male student athlete who asked an important question. I think about the student and the fact that it could’ve been him. On the field, entertaining the countless fans in the stands and across the world, people would praise him for his ability and achievements. On the street, running in the Satilla Shores neighborhood, he may have been in Arbery’s position, shot and lynched all because he was running while black. I can’t get those thoughts, and more, out of my mind.
I think about the continued, festering hate that poisons our soil. A hate whose roots stretch deep into the earth and become nourished from the high powers that empty the clouds, pouring down torrents, feeding the plant. Those roots, fed from above, refuse to look at themselves, to see the decay that the rain creates. They refuse to acknowledge that those who dispense the rain harm them, cause them to rot from the inside.
These are things I think about, not just with Arbery’s lynching but with the senseless murder of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky by police or the all-white mob who tried to force themselves into Dameon and his mother’s house in North Carolina because they were looking for a “suspect” supposedly connected to a missing teenage girl. These acts, along with countless others, are all acts of racial violence under the guise of justice. Sound familiar? Sound like anything you may have learned about? Sound like mob violence and lynchings of innocent people in an earlier time? It should.
Ida B. Wells, speaking to an audience in Chicago in 1900, stated,
Our country’s national crime is lynching. It is not the creature of an hour, the sudden outburst of uncontrolled fury, or the unspeakable brutality of an insane mob. It represents the cool, calculating deliberation of intelligent people who openly avow that there is an “unwritten law” that justifies them in putting human beings to death without complaint under oath, without trial by jury, without opportunity to make defense, and without right of appeal.
The McMichaels did not grant Arbery any trial or deliberation; instead, they murdered him because someone supposedly had been burglarizing the area and they thought it was him. For close to two months, they did not face any threat of prosecution for their actions because the local authorities took them at their word that is was self defense in the moment of a “citizen’s arrest.” Thus, the “unwritten law” that labeled Arbery as a criminal and threat justified them putting him to death as earlier generations did to earlier men, women, children, and unborn children.
I have seen many people that I know on social media use #irunwithahmaud. Some of these individuals are people who never comment on incidents like this. What I think about is how to get individuals, especially whites, like myself, to examine this history and present moment critically, to stop reverting back to the same old same old way of thinking that people revert to when they feel threatened. I think about Lillian Smith in 1942 when she wrote about Southern liberals who pushed for change before the war but became silent during the war when African Americans fought for our nation while asking, “What has America done for me?” She wrote,
Under stress men tend to revert to early patterns of behavior. . . . White southerners are rigorously trained in childhood to believe in their whiteness. They are trained in distinctions, segregations, special privileges, as they are trained in their toilet habits. Among the upper classes this training takes on a highly specialized character with subtleties, nuances baffling to those not reared in a bi-racial caste system. As southern children grow older the more intelligent and economically secure among them (and some of the “rebels”) tend to reject much of this early conditioning when it is subjected to the checks of commonsense and scientific knowledge; and the more crude of their race superstitions retire to childhood’s shadows to lurk there with other wishful fantasies. But no white child reared among Negroes ever forgets in his heart the sweet power of being “superior.” His early belief in white-skin superiority is still there, waiting for the propitious moment of race-strain, to seize its old throne in the middle of reason from which once it was firmly ejected.
Smith points out that these ideas, these feelings of racism grow within us. They may become stunted, at points, trimmed back, but the root, the core of the plant, remains. It must be dug up, extracted, and burned. If not, then it will continue to regenerate, like English ivy.
When I think of these roots, I inevitably return to this image of a young boy at a KKK rally in Georgia in 1992. Every time I see it, something new comes to my mind. Right now, I ask myself, “What does the child see?” The child does not look up at the black policeman. Instead, he gazes into the riot shield, at his own reflection, oblivious of his surroundings. He is so engrossed in his own image, his own whiteness, that he tunes out the environment. Children, discovering the world, focus on themselves, learn about themselves, discover themselves. This selfish absorption does not end without work as one grows up into adulthood.
Along with that question, I think about the education that the child receives. His appearance tells me that the roots of white supremacy are taking hold within him at an early age. Those roots will be harder to remove. To keep the roots from ever taking hold, we must educate our children. Children don’t enter the world hating others because of their ethnicity, skin color, sexual orientation, or gender. Those roots grow and expand as the child grows. If the roots never appear, then the regression will not occur.
We must stop the roots from ever appearing.