Well, maybe. Or maybe not. Should the yet-unfolding aftermath of the Floyd murder continue the typical progression, the public anger and demands for action will be met swiftly with the theatre of action: prosecution (almost certain to fail), new laws, new oversight, new regulations, with the only real change being that police will have to find new ways to execute their black arrestees. At least there’s the theatre of action now, a cold consolation not even afforded the public after mass shootings in America. But ultimately, “surviving a police encounter” has long been on top of the list of “things black people aren’t allowed to do,” with additions in the recent years including: enjoying a barbecue in a public park, napping in the public space of their own dorm, going for a jog, entering their own home, being in their own home, reading a book in a car, or asking someone to obey the law.
Maybe this time there will be real change. But justice for Floyd doesn’t mean only that his executioners receive the sentences they deserve. Real justice will mean that the attitudes, and the insidious systems and structures that have long been forced onto people of colour, systems and structures that through their use, misuse and abuse serve to dispossess and disenfranchise, are finally dismantled.
Ibram X. Kendi put it in a nutshell: “The opposite of “racist” isn’t “not racist.” It is “antiracist.”” It’s a good line. It reminds us that if we’re not actively working against racism, we are complicit in it, we are enabling it through our very inaction, whether by deliberate choice or obliviousness. Kendi calling about half of the population of America racist will provoke discomfort. It should. In a kinder and gentler blog draft from months ago I never published, I contemplated whether the absence of any coloured faculty at the Sistema Sweden event was an act of racism or thoughtless omission. I have an answer now: it was both. At his highly controversial speech at the BAFTAs, Joaquin Phoenix made the convergence of the two clear when calling for more diversity in his industry: “I don’t think anybody wants a handout or preferential treatment – although that’s what we give ourselves every year.”
That’s what we give ourselves every year. Yes, affirmative action has been alive and well since long before Kennedy coined the term in the early ‘60s; its has just affirmed the advancement of a very different group of people. As Sistema Sweden did in selecting its faculty. Phoenix continues: “I think it is the obligation of the people that have created and perpetuate and benefit from a system of oppression to be the ones that dismantle it. So that’s on us.”
And to dismantle it, we first need to identify it. I tried to be charitable in the afore-mentioned unpublished blog, crediting the College Orchestra Directors Association (CODA) only with a lack of awareness in hosting a conference that welcomed presentations on diversity, and but then filled the venue with signage that showed conductors as exclusively white and male. I now understand that lack of awareness is de facto racism, the ongoing attempt (conscious or unconscious) to perpetuate a monochromatic vision of the world, much like Hollywood and other major media continue to do, making visible minorities invisible through simple choices as to who appears on the poster.
The lives prematurely ended through racism are the tip of the proverbial iceberg, the freezing water around it concealing and drowning the mass below. What of the many more lives lived, yet ruined? The education or employment opportunities that evaporated, the promotions withheld, the loans or scholarships denied, the salaries lowballed? If there is full and complete justice for George Floyd, it will not be solely in the prosecution of those who killed him, but in the full and final dismemberment of the pervasive false social construct that his welfare, and the welfare of any coloured person, welfare in the occupational, vocational, financial, educational, emotional and physical senses, was of any less importance than someone else’s.