The death by asphyxiation of George Floyd, a black man who died while a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes while the man begged for his life, has shocked the nation’s conscience.
Floyd’s video-recorded death on May 25 is the latest of a string of unjustified police killings of black men in cities around the nation in recent years. It has provoked protests demanding an end to racial injustices and police brutality.
It’s understandable that much of the public’s response to this tragic and utterly unnecessary death has been focused on police conduct.
But it’s woefully insufficient and misses a crucial point.
As important as it is, we shouldn’t allow the discussion of the need for police reforms to deflect attention from the broader, entrenched problem of race in this country.
It’s a moral stain on this nation, a legacy of slavery, Jim Crow segregation and the shameful treatment of American Indians and other people of color.
This is a time for soul searching. As a society, as communities and as individuals, we should reflect upon what we can do to improve race relations in this country.
An unfortunate trait of human nature is the tribal tendency for us to associate with those who are like us and to avoid those who are unlike us. As a result, we become suspicious and even fearful of the “other.”
We have to open ourselves to the “other,” to our neighbors who have a different skin color or different ethnicity or different religious tradition.
We have to remember that race has no basis in biology; it’s a social construct — a box we draw around ourselves.
We have to look into our hearts and ask ourselves what we are doing to break down these artificial but very stubborn barriers. What are we doing in our daily lives to engage with those who aren’t like us? How do we ensure that they feel welcomed and included, not shunned and excluded?
We have to acknowledge that white privilege exists and find ways to dismantle it.
We cannot forget that there is strength through diversity.
We cannot deny that our country is becoming more diverse, not less diverse, racially and ethnically. We have to find ways to get along and root out discrimination.
Studies have shown that diversity brings real advantages economically — but studies also have shown that diversity makes social cohesion more difficult. Societies that are monocultures find it easier to come together, but they become stagnant ponds.
The good news is that George Floyd’s death seems to be changing attitudes. A healthy majority of citizens believe that race is a problem. There is a fresh willingness to take on this challenge.
We can’t squander this important opportunity.
This dialogue and interrogation of the truth has to happen on many levels. It starts with being honest with ourselves. It starts by gazing in the mirror.
Walt Kelly drew a popular cartoon strip years ago examining human nature. It featured a philosophical possum named Pogo, who once made a trenchant observation, one worth remembering today: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”