By Peter Williams
When I think about the recent horrific killings in Atlanta and Minneapolis, it makes me consider this nation's tortured history with people of color and reflect on the many times when it has lacked greatness and even failed as a democracy. The slogan 'Make America Great Again' ignores America's ugly racial history and instead celebrates our moments of not being great as a nation.
As I contemplated America's racial history, I asked if America was great when it systematically stole its land from the Native Americans? Was it great when it enslaved African Americans or interned Japanese Americans? Two more recent not-so-great moments for America were the Muslim ban and the building of the wall on the Mexico-United States border, an effort by the former President to prevent Latinos from entering the U.S. from Mexico. And now, we are witnessing another not-so-great moment in the scapegoating of Asian Americans. The former President's false narrative around COVID-19 has put our fellow Americans of Asian descent in a very tenuous and dangerous position in the U.S., culminating in the senseless racial killing of Asian Americans in Atlanta.
Today, I also find disturbing the stark disparity in how law enforcement treats white suspects versus people of color in that same position. In the 2015 massacre of Black parishioners at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in South Carolina, the police purchased a hamburger for the white suspect while in custody. After the March massacre of Asian Americans in Atlanta, law enforcement stated that it was “a really bad day for [the white suspect] and this is what he did”.
There are many ways to interpret law enforcement actions and statements in both situations. For instance, one could see that law enforcement's efforts in both of these situations are in accord with the disparity of the system's treatment when the decedent is of color and when the suspect is white. And this disparity continues beyond simply the treatment of suspects at the scene. An ACLU report titled Race and The Death Penalty stated that "[w]hile white victims account for approximately one-half of all murder victims, 80% of all capital cases involve white victims. Furthermore, as of October 2002, 12 people have been executed where the defendant was white and the victim black, compared with 178 black defendants executed for murders with white victims." The disproportionality in the administration of the death penalty is one of the many reasons I oppose it.
Another interpretation one can take from law enforcement actions in both cases is the fundamental notion of the worthiness of life of a person of color versus that of a white person -- the idea that white lives are more worthy, more valuable -- the bedrock of white supremacy. The contrast in how police treated protestors in the wake of George Floyd's killing and how police treated Trump supporters reacting to their candidate losing the 2020 election is another clear example of the double standard of administering justice in this nation. The deferential treatment of Trump supporters provides a textbook example of how our justice system treats white people versus those of African descent. Law enforcement's inaction at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 offers this nation another opportunity to reexamine how justice is administered.
We must take from these not-so-great moments in America's history that people of color and white people of good conscience genuinely have a common enemy, white supremacy. We must work together across racial lines and put aside other differences to fight white supremacy in this country. As we have seen from the Capitol insurrection, white supremacy threatens the fabric and sense of democracy in this nation, and as such, it threatens us all.
It is now time for people of good conscience to come together and to build a racially harmonious nation for our children and grandchildren. We must aim to rid the country of vestiges of slavery and its byproduct of white supremacist ideology that permeates throughout this land. We must also educate our citizenry that a multiracial and culturally diverse society is what makes America great. It is up to enlightened Americans to evangelize about the virtues of racial equality and tolerance and embed these fundamental values into the psyche of all citizens of this nation.
To foster a more enlightened citizenry, we must rethink how we teach about race at the elementary and secondary education levels. The reframing of the teaching of race in America can establish new norms on racial tolerance and cohesion. It can also help in the eradication of implicit bias in adulthood. Further, this nation must rethink images portrayed in the media and other mechanisms that shape opinions and racial attitudes. To achieve a racially tolerant America, our leadership must undertake the arduous task of changing misguided narratives and enacting measures to educate adults and upcoming generations.
It is well beyond time that our leaders take bold new measures to eliminate racism. Any proposals to address racism in America will face opposition but having this conversation is an investment in this nation's future. The ideas I propose below are an effort to discuss measures to eliminate racism and make America tolerant.
First, Congress must enact laws that afford the same penalties for domestic terrorism as those for other terrorists. Giving the federal government the legal tools may not stop the white terrorist organizations but will equate their effects on this nation with foreign terrorists. We must enact these laws in a manner that does not give prosecutors and judges any discretion to prevent inequity in their administration of laws on anti-terrorism.
Second, to make America great for all, we must have truth and reconciliation with our past and foster contemporary reparations for people of color. For example, we must seriously look at what Evanston, Illinois has enacted regarding reparations as a model. Reparation efforts take a holistic look at the racial divides and use realistic prescriptions to address them. Conducting a holistic examination of inequities and making sound proposals for solutions is the first step in making America whole.
Third, Congress must mandate that the federal government improve its data collection on hate crimes. A 2017 article in ProPublica, titled More Than 100 Federal Agencies Fail to Report Hate Crimes to the FBI's National Database, stated, "[i]n violation of a longstanding legal mandate, scores of federal law enforcement agencies are failing to submit statistics to the FBI's national hate crimes database." In the article a unit chief at the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division further stated that "[w]e truly don't understand what's happening with crime in the U.S. without a federal component."
Fourth, the media plays a significant role in the creation of racial stereotypes and opinions on race. An article in Scholars Strategy Network titled How Racial Stereotypes in Popular Media Affect People - and What Hollywood Can Do to Become More Inclusive stated, "in 2015, the average U.S. resident consumed traditional and digital media for about 15.5 hours each day." It is essential that our leadership rid our media of the negative, inaccurate portrayals of people of color. The media's role in fostering racist beliefs is evidenced in the DW.com article What Hollywood Movies Do to Perpetuate Racial Stereotypes, which stated, "Cinematic stereotypes reflect and shape common prejudices." The article went on to say, "Perceptions can be influenced by portrayals of Asians as nerdy, black men as dangerous, and Latinas as fiery." A rating system should be devised to gauge how racially exploitative a particular film or television show is similar to the ratings that movies receive regarding a production's age appropriateness.
Fifth, this is our time to make a difference in the beliefs of future generations on racial tolerance in America. I propose creating a national curriculum on racial tolerance delivered through social media from preschool through high school. A federally designed curriculum will ensure that students on the South Side of Chicago and Boise, Idaho, receive the same content. COVID-19 has shown this nation the viability of using social media as an educational delivery device. This curriculum would go a long way toward creating a more progressive learning curve on this matter.
You must know -- I am not naïve. I understand that all my proposals have political consequences, but we live in dire times. We must shape the next generation's minds and change the narrative on race, equality, and true democracy in this country. We must do so to rescue the very soul of this great nation.
It is time that our federal government earnestly seeks to devise a long-term strategy to rid this nation of racial discrimination. We must develop a cradle-to-grave strategy for establishing a racially tolerant and antiracist society through education and legislative and regulatory change. When we look back on this time in history -- this era of opportunity -- we want to be able to say that we seized the moment and stepped up.
About the Author:
Peter Williams is a 2021 Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative Fellow. Peter has a distinguished career in nonprofit capacity building and policy and program development in affordable housing, civil rights, and civil justice. He served as the executive vice president for programs at the NAACP, the president and CEO of the Mid-Bronx Desperadoes Community Housing Corporation, vice president of continuing education and community programs for Medgar Evers College, City University of New York, and director of housing and community development for The National Urban League. Peter also served as a legislative assistant for U.S. Congressman Edolphus Towns and as deputy advocate in New York City’s Office of the Public Advocate. He continues to share his policy and program development expertise through consulting work and teaching at Medgar Evers College.