"Out damned spot! Out I say!"
-- Lady Macbeth in "Macbeth" by William Shakespeare
When did all this begin and will it ever end? In the last few years there have been numerous protests and marches locally as we played our small part in global hope for change. Among the issues brought to the streets have been climate change, gun regulations, women's rights, opposition to wars, LGBTQ rights, immigration horrors (children in cages), environmentally dangerous pipelines and, of course, racism.
As we try to process the urgency of each issue, we latch onto certain words to communicate to each other the seriousness of the moment. We have so severely worn out "existential threat " in regard to climate change that the phrase has hardly been muttered in the last three months. Maybe that's because the "unprecedented" pandemic shoved aside the climate for a while. However, even though it's the novel aspect to this particular virus that's unprecedented, we act as if pandemics, economic impacts and our behaviors are somehow unprecedented. Hardly a newscast goes by without the word squeezing into the dialogue somewhere. But other than this contagion being on our home turf instead of in some faraway land we'll never visit, pandemics are not unprecedented no matter how frequently we describe them that way.
But, never mind. We now are embroiled in an actual, ongoing and established precedent, arguing whether racism is "systemic" or not. Based on "system," of course, the word can refer to everything from pesticides being taken up through the roots of plants to viruses infiltrating multiple organs. It even relates to political and economic systems. This use of "systemic" regarding racism seems to mean something running internally throughout society and culture much like blood runs through the circulatory system. George Floyd's death came from the destruction of his life systems so "systemic" seems to stand at the beginning of the cause and at the end of the consequence.
Systemic racism is different from lapses of sensitivity and/or ignorance, when not based on blind prejudice or sense of superiority. But how can anyone determine what's really going on in relationships between people of different races or know the background truth behind each person's attitudes and actions? Like this cursed virus, racism is an invisible disease until it manifests itself in countless ways.
How can we get the blood stains out of our culture? Is it hopeless after some 400 years of tipping points and breaking barriers for racism to ever be extinguished or reach a point when one race can stop living in fear of the other? Describing life in a constant undercurrent of fear, Ghassan Hage's June 12 article, titled "We shouldn't generalize about 'racism,'" in The Guardian describes it well:
"Police brutality inserts itself into the consciousness of a black person in the way the threat of rape inserts itself in the consciousness of women. For many, indeed for most, it is an ever-present danger. A change of a radical nature is required to bring this to an end."
Adding insult to racial injury has been the lack or absence of prosecution for brutality and murder. In Shakespeare's play, "Macbeth," Lady Macbeth sees blood on her hands that she can't wash out, and tries to calm her guilt saying, "What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account?" as she descends into madness.
Why is our society so adverse to equality and so close to the madness that is racism? A CNN writer, Leyla Santiago, asked a few of the Little Rock Nine, the brave black teens who enrolled in Central High School in 1957 as part of the nation's public school desegregation, how far we've come in 63 years? (https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/07/us/little-rock-nine-question-progress-after-george-floyd/index.html)
Some felt sorrow for how little has really changed. Santiago writes, "But for Terrence Roberts, another member of the group, the turmoil surrounding George Floyd's death is predictable. He doesn't see today's protests as a new era but as ongoing warfare." Roberts summed up the situation this way: "Human beings have the capacity to choose to change. We could do it if we wanted, we just haven't mustered the will to do it. ... If what you already know hasn't moved you to change, then change what you know."
We need to wash our hands of viral contamination and of racism. It's the only way to stay healthy as individuals and as a nation. Otherwise we will remain forever stained with blood on our hands.
"Out damned spot!"