Just when we thought life in 2020 couldn’t get any worse after the COVID-19 pandemic began to wreak havoc, social unrest broke out all over country. Some saw yet another a series of lynchings. Others saw just another round of uprising. And some just didn’t want to be bothered, did not want to take a stand, let alone voice an opinion. It is you, my fellow “stay out of it” colleagues, whom I’d like to address.
Explore This IssueACEP Now: Vol 39 – No 09 – September 2020
At first, I was like so many of you when it came to people crying injustice at the hands of the police. I refused to fall prey to the cop bashing or twisting the narrative from an unarmed person being shot to it being justice for a “bad hombre.” Personally, I think I was in denial because, in my mind, that was “their” problem. But in reality, I am one of them.
These last few years (and months) have revealed the continued racial disharmony that exists in America, most pronounced between Blacks and whites. (Many briefly focused their hate on Asians during the initial outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, but that seems to have faded now.)
When the Black Lives Matter movement emerged after the killing of unarmed Black people, I must confess that I was initially conflicted about it. After all, I had drunk the Kool-Aid; I was “a good Negro.” I moved to the suburbs and did all the necessary things to be accepted by white America. Most important, I never brought attention to my Blackness, nor involved myself in anything that could be considered divisive or offensive, lest I offended anyone’s sensibilities. I supported arguments that seemed, on the surface, to make sense, and even echoed that “all lives matter.” Why were those Black “troublemakers” being so divisive and running counter to becoming a more united people?
So when reports of unarmed Black men and women dying at the hands of police officers started appearing in the media again and again, I largely avoided discussing it. I listened to the narrative that discouraged second-guessing police officers who must make life-or-death decisions in a split second, which is hard for the media to capture.
However, I began to ruminate out loud about my own—and most especially my kids’—safety at the hands of a police officer. I reassured myself that those Black people were different. After all, why were they struggling with an officer to begin with? Why were they running away if they were innocent? Why were they speaking back to the officers so rudely? Innocent people don’t do that. Or do they?
Then George Floyd was killed. And it was there on tape. Almost eight minutes of it. And it became painfully clear. I am one of them.
Despite my being part of a respected profession, when I enter a convenience store, no one seems to recognize my education or multiple advanced degrees. Instead, I become just another Black man. Apparently, that means I require additional scrutiny afforded only to people of color in the United States and many other places. Once you have been profiled and assumed to be a criminal just because of the color of your skin, it is very hard to say things are “fair” or that one should be “grateful” for the opportunities and “privilege” to be in this country. One thing that white privilege has made painfully obvious is a lack of awareness of racial injustices that are everyday realities for people of color. So despite my upbringing, education, and current living circumstances, I am one of them.
One of my proudest accomplishments was becoming an officer in the U.S. Armed Forces. I work alongside courageous men and women from all socioeconomic, racial, and national origins. My desire to serve was born out of an upbringing that prioritized hard work, dedication, and responsibility, as well as a belief in the duty to serve to one’s nation. I accepted the calling and now proudly take care of the men and women of the Armed Forces, who ensure the liberties for each and every one of us in this country. My military service has taken me to many parts of the country where race relations are not always the best. But wearing this uniform has given me access and exposure to people I would normally never be able to speak to personally. I am happy that I have been able to be a real-life person who shatters negative preconceptions of Black people to those willing to listen. But at the end of the day, I am still one of them.
As a soldier and officer in the U.S. Army, I am aware and appreciate the daily sacrifices of the women and men who serve and protect the public in this country. The job is unenviable and often thankless, and I truly salute their service. However, just like there are bad apples in the U.S. military (eg, some of those who served at Abu Ghraib), we, as a people, should demand accountability from our police and military service members. Law enforcement agencies need to institute protective measures for the public through better and accountable reporting mechanisms, ensuring leaders have zero tolerance for the “fraternity of silence” that keeps the actions of bad cops hidden. We need to improve neighborhood outreach through education and immersion. We need to evaluate the processes and procedures that lead to the clear racial disparities around when force is used disproportionately on people of color. I am a Black man who supports accountable policing and Black lives, as I am one of them.
For me, it took accidentally stumbling across comedian Trevor Noah’s poignant discussions on what the Black Lives Matter movement truly meant for me to finally understand that unless Black lives matter, “all lives matter” carries no meaning. Until then, I missed that in the screaming and protesting by angry Black people was not just their anger but my suppressed anger, too. Their screams were my screams. Their sense of betrayal and injustice were the same as mine even in the ivory towers of academic medicine. I could have been George Floyd; in fact, I was George Floyd. Each and every person of color in America is George Floyd; all of us are just an incident away from having our breath permanently taken away for doing nothing except living Black in America.
So, yes, all lives matter—but only when every life is respected or cared for like every other life. For too long, we’ve ignored that the most urgent work in this area, the opportunity for the most improvement, is to first insist that Black lives matter.
Let’s start to fix it. Let’s ensure that Black lives, brown lives, and all other lives really do matter the same. Let’s stop just watching others’ lives being subjugated to unfair treatment, hoping to avoid controversy. Let’s stop pretending that a good education and a house in the suburbs are the cure. They aren’t. That realization finally hit home for Americans of all colors this summer. Continuing to ignore it is not much better than someone kneeling on a Black man’s neck for eight minutes. It is time we realize WE are all one of them.
As Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”