This past week was arguably one of the most consequential periods in recent American history. The lows brought us to the brink of an authoritarian takeover and the highs felt like a new vision of racial healing, finally after centuries of destructive racism. I’m aware that mountains of analyses and accounts have been written about these events already, but I felt a need to document my own dizzying journey through this time. You may find it a rehashing of what you already know, a validation of your own reactions or a misguided and implausible description of what the future holds. In any case, I encourage you to read it to see whether it matches your take on where we are as a country after the turbulent week that was.
It’s really dangerous these days to write something on Thursday, today, that will not be posted until next Monday, but here I go, dipping my toe in a fast-moving stream.
The early part of the week was a time of anger, fear and despair. The demonstrations and protests sparked by George Floyd’s death were being overshadowed by the looting that had turned the spotlight of attention away from the peaceful actions, led mostly by young people of all races. My own neighborhood was the scene of some of the senseless destruction that was occurring all over the city. Even our neighborhood post office was trashed by looters who were after the mountains of packages that are moving through post offices during the lockdown. We haven’t received a mail delivery in many days.
My initial response to the destruction was all about diluting the just cause of protesters and the opportunities it provided Trump to play to all the frightened white people who, without any understanding of the context for the actions of both the peaceful demonstrators and the looters and vandals, will be longing for a return to the quiet obliviousness of their regular lives. Even for me, it took some time to recognize that the looters weren’t the proper target of my anger. As reprehensible and self-destructive as their actions might be, they were acting on their belief that the social contract that keeps most of us behaving civilly has never worked in their behalf and is therefore null and void for them. A pastor from Chicago’s West Side, one of the most heavily looted neighborhoods, said it all. “They (the looters) don’t see authority as legitimate. They’ve been screwed and they’re quite clear on that. They’re at the bottom of the empire.”
The lowest point of the week came on watching the long line of armored vehicles parading into Washington and unloading troops in full battle gear. I’m not alone in fearing since November 2016 that Trump would eventually find or manufacture a Reichstag Fire, his pretext for driving us into fascism. After seeing pictures of those troops lined up on the steps of The Lincoln Monument, I wrote to a friend that we were witnessing Trump’s wet dream, the Fourth of July parade he pined for morphing into his opportunity to play commander-in-chief in a real war – albeit against his own people.
It’s hard to say when the darkness began to lift. Our president played his part in the ham-handed way he chose to enact the most recent iteration of his tough guy image. Many of us watched in horror as police and the military brutally cleared peaceful protesters from the President’s path to a photo op to church across from the White House where he held aloft, albeit upside down, a Bible Ivanka produced from her bag. That mini March on Washington became the grounds for condemnations from many directions, both for the brutality directed at the peaceful crowd and for the rank hypocrisy of the Bible wielding in the hands of a most ungodly man. An incensed CNN commentator said, “Come on. I’m from New York too. Trump never set foot in a church there.”
But I’d prefer to look at the turning to the light from a different angle. We lived in Houston for 13 years before coming to Chicago. With some small but notable exceptions, it was a conservative city in the tight grip of the oil industry. Yesterday, the city, previously George Floyd’s home, staged one of the largest peaceful demonstrations in the country. Our Houston friends who participated were inspired by the evidence of a huge sea change that was being matched in city after city around the country. Armies of young people, white and black, were not allowing either the looting or the president’s military posturing to silence them. They are continuing to show up night after night; their persistence makes me hopeful that this time they’re not going to slink away and allow the status quo to seep back in. This feels like the kind of movement from the bottom up that needs to be in place before real change can happen. It was there for the civil rights movement and for Vietnam, but it’s only been present episodically for most other causes.
Something significant has changed. In the early 2000s I helped start a program at the University of Chicago to prepare teachers to work in Chicago Public Schools. My colleagues and I were clear about the need for a central element in the design that addressed issues of race, class and culture and the roles they played in the lives of both students and teachers. Despite the fact that most teacher candidates were white while an ever-increasing percentage of students were not, very few teacher preparation programs across the country thought to equip their students with even a basic understanding of how these factors affected teaching and learning.
Most of the students in our program in the early years were white. They told us that one of the things they found attractive about our program was its stated commitment to social justice. But few of us –staff and students alike – understood the full implications of that commitment and the painful ways in which we would have to examine our own complicity in a system from which we received a bounty of unearned privilege at the expense of others. The country was just at the beginning of a long consciousness-raising journey that began at a time when institutional racism, white supremacy, unearned privilege, rampant microaggressions and the full implications of the daily assault on Black lives were not yet locked into our common parlance.
That is not the case for most of the young people who are out protesting and demonstrating. The ugly reality of American racism is in the air they have inhaled from early on. Watching them march in city after city we are seeing waves of white people who really get it now, who really understand that our country will never be whole until we find a way to heal from the racism and white supremacy which were present at our country’s birth. Many factors have contributed to this consciousness-raising: the seemingly endless chain of murders of Black men and women by police, the creation of Black Lives Matter, the publication of the 1619 Project which so convincingly draws direct connections between slavery and our current ills. And, of course, we need to credit our President for inviting racism out of the shadows into semi-sanctioned public space.
And it’s not just young people. The demonstrations have extended into the suburbs, formerly citadels of white privilege and no-fly zones from what were thought to be “urban” problems. My sports addictions have been an embarrassment to me, particularly when they’ve proven to be hot spots of racism, from fans mistreatment of hockey and soccer players of color and from the shaming of Black football players for demonstrating against the very abuses that have brought the country into the streets these past weeks. Maybe Colin Kaepernick was right, says the NFL commissioner. I never really understood the painful experiences of my players and former teammates, says the NFL general manager. Cracks are appearing in what appeared to impenetrable walls. Yet so much of our population remains untouched and even threatened by this new consciousness, but maybe, just maybe our young marchers will continue on past the stragglers on a path to change, not back into their protected lives of privilege. I’ve been speaking here about the white demonstrators. It goes without saying that Black youth have been the engine that made what we’ve been witnessing possible. They are a powerful presence no longer willing to accept the limits on behavior and thought imposed on them as their terms of acceptance by a racist society that never lived up to its end of the bargain in any case. It’s the end of the week now and the reasons for hope have only grown. There are lots of obstacles and setbacks ahead, but it looks that arc of Dr. King’s is finally bending in the right direction.