For those of us living through COVID-19 and racial upheaval, silence is no longer golden. We have heard the shouts of anguish and rage among protesters many times before in our history but have not listened. The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis is just the latest in a long line of black men and women who have died at the hands (or in Floyd’s case a knee) of police violence.
We know this because history is not silent on this subject. After a 1935 riot in New York City’s Harlem during which three black residents were killed and hundreds arrested, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia appointed a blue-ribbon panel to investigate the causes of the violence. The committee’s report became the template for all future investigations into racial uprisings. The commission attributed the outbreak primarily to the "injustices of discrimination in employment and the aggressions of the police.”
Thirty years later, a new wave of urban disorders swept the nation. In the mid-1960s African Americans (including in Tampa) once again resorted to violence, and its root causes remained the same. According to the fact-finding Kerner commission set up by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967, police brutality triggered the riots. The underlying problem remained that “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal." The culprits in the uprisings were not black protesters but those who had created the conditions of inequality. Simply put, “white institutions created the (ghetto), white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”
This message was ignored. Initiated by police violence, riots again erupted in Miami in 1980, in Los Angeles in 1992, and in Baltimore and Ferguson in the 2010s.
If the history of urban racial upheavals has not produced enough evidence already, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic surely provides additional proof. Black and brown Americans have experienced disproportionately higher rates of infections and deaths due to the virus, twice as high as that of whites. This is not surprising. Minorities have less access to health care than whites; they are arrested and imprisoned at higher rates than whites; and their educational, housing, and employment opportunities are more limited than whites. They are at the front-line of exposure to the disease whether through overcrowded housing or the service jobs that don’t allow them to work from home.
Those of us who are white and care about the history of racial injustice can no longer plead ignorance and remain silent. We can’t look for outside agitators or violent thugs to explain what is happening in the wake of George Floyd’s killing. To paraphrase Shakespeare, “The fault lies in ourselves.” This time, we must show the will to remedy it.
Steven F. Lawson is professor emeritus at Rutgers University and author of “Running for Freedom: Civil Rights and Black Politics in America Since 1941.”