For African Americans, Sept. 24, 2016 will be etched in memories and history as on a glorious Fall day, President Barack Obama rang a bell from one of America’s oldest Black churches to formally open the Smithsonian’s National African American Museum of History and Culture.
I was privileged to have been invited to a private reception of the museum shortly before it opened. While touring the exhibits, several times I raised my hands to give praise to the powerful testimony of the human spirit captured in every exhibit. But here is the paradox to raised hands. Inside the walls of the museum, my raised hands are symbolic to giving praise. Outside the museum, the symbolism of raised hands is a chilling reminder of unarmed African Americans with their hands up being shot by police.
I will never forget the exhibit showing graphic and very upsetting photographs of a crowd of White men celebrating the lynching of two young Black men early in the last century. It was jarring to see the jubilation of the mob smiling, posing for the camera, pride of their grisly handiwork juxtaposed with the victims hanging between earth and sky, heads awry, necks broken: grotesque examples of man’s inhumanity to man.
Observers and experts often speak of the significant progress this country has made racially and how far we’ve come, but I sometimes wonder the extent to which we’ve progressed socially and how we deal with each other. The similarities of issues that plagued the United States 200 years ago are profoundly striking 200 years later.
The week-long celebration of the museum’s opening occured against the backdrop of our country being wracked by spasms of racial turmoil on several fronts. In the last few weeks, police officers have shot and killed several Black and Latino men and boys, although the deaths of 13-year-old Tyre King, Terence Crutcher and Keith Lamont King has produced protests, rallies and demonstrations from Blacks in the affected communities and elsewhere clamoring for accountability.
Racial tensions have surged in a manner not seen in decades. In almost every part of the country, social media is showing the public case after case of violence by law enforcement against African Americans; a criminal justice system that is often neither just nor fair; a prison industrial complex that has swallowed up more than 1 million Black men and women; and a web of structural inequities that have denied Africans in America and people of color parity in housing, access to good jobs, quality education and decent wages. All this has triggered civil disobedience, unrest and demands – particularly from Millennials and other young people – for significant changes to the status quo and the criminal justice system.
Milwaukee, Minnesota, Baton Rouge and Charlotte are just the latest cities to experience angry protests and strident demands by Blacks and their allies after police killed Black men. In each case, primarily unarmed Black men, women and boys continue to die at the hands of law enforcement in disturbing numbers, even as armed white men threaten and shoot at police but are rarely killed or injured. The fear, outrage and frustration felt by African Americans is routinely dismissed by the larger community which has served to widen the chasm between both groups. Police are rarely held accountable, hardly ever convicted or forced to serve time, and every instance where police or vigilantes walk away after killing Korryn Gaines, Trayvon Martin, Natasha McKenna, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling or Philandro Castile and others, the reminder is that the calculus which determines the value of black and white lives is dangerously skewed away from black people.
What we see playing out isn’t new. For decades, Black people, particularly those living in underserved communities have complained bitterly about the abuses they say police heaped out. Few listened. The difference is that we’re seeing these acts on social media. One post on social media captures this aptly: “Things are not getting worse, they’re getting uncovered …”
The public never saw video or livestream of the moment that Trayvon Garner, Korryn Gaines or Mike Brown died. But in the cases of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, those who chose to watch saw the life leave both men. These raw and sobering images have shaken people to the core. Grown men and women have cried, most left empty and bereft, their faith in police – if they had that – equality and justice now faltering or being questioned. African Americans are paying an emotional price – traumatized, having nightmares, unable to sleep and distrusting police and the authorities.
Black people see the sickening, repeated incidents of extra-judicial killings and toggle between despair and defiance. The demands for accountability and equal justice under the law led to the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013 and the growing coalition of advocacy groups and allies committed by the use of civil disobedience and other forms of non-violent protest. Their aim is to bring about drastic, meaningful and lasting changes in the police-black community paradigm and they seek an end to the abuse and harm visited on people of color by public servants hired to serve and protect us.
In the past, when Africans in America were enslaved, they were hunted by slave catchers, now, we’re hunted in a different way. We’re stopped, questioned, frisked, arrested and sometimes killed for driving while black, walking while black, selling while black and running while Black. It never seems to end. No one of color is immune.
We need a robust 21st Century model for police on engaging communities of color. A model that does not support aggressive over-policing but rather embraces better police training, elimination implicit bias, and fosters respect, trust and an absence of fear.
George H. Lambert Jr. is the president & CEO of the Greater Washington Urban League.