“What is it you wanted me to reconcile myself to? I was born here almost 60 years ago. I’m not going to live another 60 years. You always told me it takes time. It has taken my father’s time, my mother’s time, my uncle’s time, my brother’s and my sister’s time, my niece’s and my nephew’s time. HOW MUCH TIME DO YOU WANT FOR YOUR PROGRESS?”
– James Baldwin
They say, “Progress takes time.”
For black Americans, the racial progress on which we are expected to wait is like an hourglass that is no longer moving. Have we made significant progress since slavery? Of course. Yet decades of social science research demonstrate that black Americans continue to face discrimination in every space they occupy – their jobs, housing, education, health care and the justice system.
So many of us in the black community see the knee pressing down on George Floyd’s neck as more than just a weapon of racialized violence committed by the police: it is a symbol of millions of daily injuries and deaths that the black community has been forced to endure generation after generation after generation.
“But, wait, what about you?” As a black man from a high-poverty, rural area in southeast Arkansas, the sheer fact that I’ve earned a doctorate, can provide for my family and own my own home is often cited as evidence of racial progress. While that may be partially true, we can’t ignore the fact that in America, black people, including myself, succeed in spite of the barriers that remain in front of them, not because of them.
And, even then, advanced degrees and savings accounts cannot hide the color of our skin. It is not progress when a simple change of clothes and late-night run to the grocery store is all it takes to make me wonder “Am I next?”
It is not progress when I hold on to my wife and daughter a little bit longer before I head outside for a run. It is not progress when the gap between the finances of blacks and whites is still as wide in 2020 as it was in 1968 or when black children have a 500% higher death rate from asthma compared with white children.
“…People in power have only undermined racism when they saw that it was in their own self-interest to do so.”
In a 1993 interview, Charlie Rose asked Toni Morrison to give her thoughts about the brutal beating of Rodney King by the hands of police and the riots that occurred when the four police officers were acquitted of all charges almost a year later.
She responded, “people kept saying oh this terrible explosion, oh the riots, oh this is awful and could have been avoided…what struck me most about the people who were burning down shops and stealing was how long they waited, the restraint, not the spontaneity, the restraint, do you realize the moment to be anarchic was when we first saw those tapes?”
Twenty-nine years after the brutal beating of Rodney King, we have all witnessed the killing of another black man, by a police officer, captured on video. The time for justice has always been now, but perhaps we will finally achieve it, not just for George Floyd, but for black Americans whose minds, hearts, wallets, and lives have for so long been strangled (literally and figuratively) by the chokehold of systemic racism.
Transformative change takes time. But give us grace in our impatience as we ask the question that James Baldwin asked 31 years ago, “HOW MUCH TIME DO YOU WANT FOR YOUR PROGRESS?”
Du, Bois W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. New York, N.Y., U.S.A: Penguin Books, 1989.
Interviewer. PBS. Angela Davis, 1998. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/race/interviews/davis. html. Accessed June 4, 2020.
Kendi, Ibram X. Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. Nation Books, 2016. PBS American Masters. PBS.
James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket, Aug. 2013. https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/james-baldwin-film-james-baldwin-the-price-of-the-tick et/2632/. Accessed June 2, 2020.
PBS. “The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow.” YouTube, uploaded by Phoenix Sankofa, 15 July 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j3IxWEK0uJA.
Rose, Charlie. Charlie Rose Website. Toni Morrison, 7, May. 1993. https://charlierose.com/videos/18778l. Accessed June 4, 2020