The Other Columbus: Your anti-racism grade card is due
Checking in a year after the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor sparked a revitalized Black lives matter movement, along with promises from local leadership to do better
A year has officially passed since the season of worldwide protests following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, which also means a year has passed since Columbus businesses, organizations and civic leaders pledged to combat racism in response.
Well, “pledged” is a strong word. Most of their communications on the matter were memos. Some of them were just signs on the door, or someone left a plywood Black lives matter mural up in front of their window a little longer than they had to out of presumed solidarity. In any case, promise-like suggestions were made to change things.
“Combat” is also a strong word. “Address” is probably a more common affectation of what they meant. Lots of conversations and Zooms. Committees were formed. New positions were crafted out of thin air to oversee all of the addressing that some organizations intended to do. Curriculums were dusted off. Old essays were excavated from their ancient websites and re-shared. My God, all of the book lists.
So, a year later, it falls upon me to inform you that nothing has changed.
I know you want to counter by telling me that something has changed somewhere, that some business figured out respect or some level of equity for their employees somewhere, whatever that looks like in their break room. But that’s not what the movement that fired up a year ago was about. We made the target very clear. The Black lives matter movement was the new face on a very old issue — policing — and that focus hasn’t changed. The conversations may have broadened (or diluted, depending on who is doing the talking), but the goal has been to get everyone working on the first step, which is and has always been to stop the state sanctioned killing of Black people. That goal hasn’t changed because the results haven’t changed.
It is telling that so much of the infrastructure around becoming anti-racist has focused on everything but the issue that Black people are actually protesting. Of course we agree that education, self-awareness, and policy changes are a good thing. It is the curriculum that most protesters through time have worked through prior to showing up and blocking your intersections. But so much anti-racism work takes on the traits of busy-work, creating a backdoor through which many people and organizations sidestep the reality that they aren’t willing to make the changes for which Black people are actually asking. Black people want to stop being killed by the state. That’s a day-one goal. I’m here to tell you that we — as a community, city, society and country — have turned day one into Groundhog Day. Saying change takes time doesn’t get you off the hook when you keep resetting the clock.
I know things take time; I’m Black. We have been told by one entity or another since before Reconstruction that change in our interest would take time. I don’t consider Black people to be impatient people. If anything, the lack of change over so much time makes us experts on change. Black people may not always agree on what substantive change is, but we know when it is not present. We didn’t need a pandemic to tell us what degree of willful negligence this country is capable of in the name of a dollar while people are dying. We’ve been suffering under white supremacy in one form or another for more than 400 years.
Consider this your progress report, your performance assessment, your annual evaluation. Don’t get mad at me for judging your work; you signed up for it when you made the pledge to change. I’m not going back and checking the homework on businesses that made it clear they weren’t interested in change, or that actively fought against it. You signed up for this assessment when you said you cared what happened to Black people. I’m here to tell you what your Black employees or members probably don’t feel comfortable saying: Their lives haven’t changed much in the past year when it comes to their main concerns, and your pledge to change hasn’t moved the needle.