I have a terrible memory. If you ask me the name of my 4th grade teacher, how old I was when I first rode a bicycle, or what my GPA was in high school, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. Much of my youth and childhood is a (happy, normal) blur. There’s not much about the day-to-day of my education I remember.
But there is one thing, in particular, I’ve never forgotten.
I’m not sure what class it was in, or even what grade, but the footage itself is seared into my memory. Dark skinned men, women, and children captured in grainy black-and-white footage, being assaulted with high-power water cannons, police dogs, and fists. For wanting the right to vote. To sit at lunch counters. To do the things I take for granted everyday. I was sickened, horrified. Brought to tears.
Learning about our countries violent past changed me. I grew up with privilege. This is part of why the footage and history shocked me so much. Affected me in a way it wouldn’t affect non-white kids, familiar with the ways racism had stained their past. But this new knowledge opened my eyes. It sparked a longing to fight for justice. For a while I dreamed of being a lawyer, or working for a non-profit that fought for international human rights. Even going so far as to apply to overseas positions and majoring in political science, to help achieve this goal. I (wrongly) thought that the true human rights crimes were taking place in developing counties, overseas. I thought that the days of egregious human rights injustices in our country were long past.
There was always a part of me that longed to have been able to be there, before. I had a deep love for Dr. King. My high school yearbook quote was from him, and I displayed a poster of his I Have a Dream speech prominently in my college dorm. Whenever I’d look at it I’d think about how much I wish I could have been there, marching on Washington, doing something tangible to enact justice.
For a long time, I longed to be able to somehow transport myself to those black-and-white times of the past, where people of privilege like myself had the opportunity to stand up to injustice. A time when silence in the face of racial hatred and prejudice lead to death and harm, but speaking up against it could save lives. I wanted to be able to stand up, in real time, to those horribly racist people doing and saying things that were evil.
The irony, of course, is that this time is now. Racism isn’t just relegated to those black-and-white photos of the past. Racism still exists today. The vile, evil, violent kind carried out in broad daylight by thousands of white Americans fifty years ago didn’t just die. It’s still advocated for by some people, and it’s still seen as valiant by others. This is as obvious to many black people as the weather, but many white people don’t realize it because we’re blanketed in privilege. I had to go looking, and more importantly, listening, for it.
I’ve known this truth, that the racism of the past hasn’t gone anywhere, for some time now. But it hasn’t been until this past week that I realized something depressing and terrifying. I realized that the longing I had before, to be able to march against evil men like George Wallace, can be satisfied today.
This week, the leading candidate for the GOP nomination for President advocated for a Nazi inspired registry for Muslims. When asked about the similarity to what happened to the Jews during WWII, this candidate didn’t even attempt to defend himself.
In addition to that, this week, I’ve seen:
- Christians saying that the safety of American citizens is more important than the lives of refugee children
- Americans defending the policies of WWII era America that turned away Jewish refugees who later were killed in concentration camps
- Christian politicians claiming that even five year old refugee children shouldn’t be allowed admittance into our country
- Christians who oppose all forms of government aid and welfare to the homeless and veterans claiming that the government shouldn’t be taking care of refugees, because we have homeless and veterans in need
- Christians defending war and war casualties as something God is OK with and even supports
- A Christian man say that, “You can love your enemy while putting a bullet between his eyes.”
I’ve experienced something I never imagined I would in my lifetime; a type of overt, hateful racism carried out in the age of color, that I used to think existed only in black-and-white. I’ve watched attitudes so many of us (naively) thought were crushed in the 1960’s and 70’s resurface, and then get broadcast on a national stage. I’ve watched my country experience a level of intolerance, fear, and injustice that I thought we were decades past.
I realized this week that in 30 or 40 years, it’s entirely possible my children or friend’s children will be watching video of events going on this week in America, and feel the same sense of revulsion I felt watching films of Civil Rights era violence.
And I realized that I—we—have an opportunity to speak out against this evil, to do something to combat it. The opportunity to stand up to racism never passed. There was never a time when people with skin darker than mine were safe from it, and they are not safe from it now.
It’s a horrible feeling, realizing that the thing I wished for came true. But now that I see what’s always been there, I will be praying for opportunities to do what I’ve always longed to do. To bring about justice. Because there’s a chance that 50 years from now a young person will asks me what I did to fight the terrible policies that led to the death of innocent refugees.
And I want to have an answer.