In my more than seven decades on this Earth, I’ve never feared more for the future of my country than now.
I am sick at heart as I see the rage and despair on the faces of my black brothers and sisters who have taken to the streets to protest yet another gut-wrenching murder of an unarmed black man by white police officers. And as I hear our racist president urge that the demonstrations be violently shut down, I wonder how much lower he can go.
When I wrote my book, Uncle George and Me, about my slave-owning ancestors and the people they enslaved, I hoped it would help inspire a national conversation about slavery and its bitter legacy. But maybe it takes something like our current national trauma to force that conversation. If that happens, perhaps that is one silver lining in these dark days.
And it’s not the only one. I have also been heartened to see the many white faces among those protesting the murder of George Floyd and all the other victims of racist violence. I take that as a sign that white America is waking up to the fact that the centuries-long oppression of African-Americans is not something from the distant past. It’s still very much a fact of life today.
The protesters are also overwhelmingly young – another promising sign. We baby boomers have failed miserably at solving the country’s racial problems, so it’s gratifying to see our children and grandchildren taking up the torch.
And one more thing: We seem to have reached a tipping point where we are ready at last to tear down the monuments to the Confederate leaders who plunged the nation into war in a doomed effort to preserve the crime against humanity in which my ancestors played a part.
But we can’t stop there. Yes, pulling down the monuments will be a welcome breath of fresh air. But as important as it is, it is a symbolic act. And these times call for more than symbolism.
In my book, I cited a depressing litany of statistics illustrating the stark racial disparities that still plague the nation: In 2013, the median white household’s net worth was 13 times that of black households. In black America, poverty rates are 145 percent higher, infant mortality is 130 percent higher, and unemployment is double that of whites. Young black males are 21 times more likely than whites to be shot dead by police. One-third of black males born today can expect to go to prison sometime in their lifetimes. Blacks and whites use illegal drugs at roughly the same rates, but blacks are incarcerated at six times the rate of whites for drug offenses.
Many of those disparities have become painfully apparent during the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit black America much harder than white America.
So, what to do? Job one is to vote our racist president out of office in November. But that’s just for starters. We need to demilitarize our police forces and crack down on racial profiling. We must reform the criminal justice system and end the school-to-prison pipeline. We need to equalize school funding so black kids have a decent shot at a quality education. We must address persistent patterns of residential segregation. We need to remove the remaining barriers to voting designed to keep African-Americans from exercising their democratic rights. And it’s time for a serious national discussion about reparations – some form of material compensation to make up for 200 years of slavery.
It will be a heavy lift. But now, while we have the nation’s attention, is the time to act. Let’s get busy.