From the May-June 2021 issue of News & Letters
by Robert Taliaferro
Now that the jury has delivered Derek Chauvin’s verdict, we are faced with the question of how we got here in the first place. We have to ask: why is it that 156 years after the end of slavery and 245 years into our national existence we are still discussing and witnessing the institutional and social lynching of Black folks—young and old, male and female—in this country?
‘NO ONE IS SAFE’
Lynchings don’t require a rope and tree to bear the “strange fruit” which once graced Southern trees, nor do they need cross-burning or night-riding Klansmen, for us to understand the practice. All socialized lynchings require is the desire to treat a person of color in an extraordinarily negative fashion for no other reason than because they are Black or brown.
Black and brown people are subject to social lynchings every day, and no one is safe. A Black person can be as dignified as a renowned Black educator in Boston, or have the integrity and honor of an Army Lieutenant in Virginia, and none of that means much because the color of one’s skin often dictates how they are viewed.
They are subject to social lynchings when a 14-year-old Black child in New York is accused of stealing a phone and physically assaulted by the accuser or when they are murdered by a white man simply because they were running in a white neighborhood or when they are harassed in a restaurant in Philadelphia.
A BIASED CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM
The practice doesn’t stop with the threat of being killed or falsely accused; people of color, especially Black men, are systemically subject to institutionalized lynchings by the way they are treated by the U.S. criminal justice system—starting with law enforcement in the community, followed by inadequate representation in the courtroom, and ending up with inequitable treatment during incarceration, with both the initial length of sentences and the hoops they are required to jump through to finally get released back into the community.
Chauvin had a diverse show trial jury judging him, something that rarely happens with defendants of color who are generally judged by all-white juries, presided over by white judges and prosecuted by white prosecutors while being represented by overworked, mostly white, public defenders who are often more interested in talking their clients into taking a plea, regardless of their degree of guilt or actual innocence.
The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many others are not just their killers’ fault. Oh, the person who pulled the trigger or used the knee to extinguish a life is sure as hell primarily responsible, but the problem this country has faced when it comes to race goes well beyond those individuals: it is a cultural problem, a national problem transcending a few transient individuals.
U.S. HAS 245 YEARS OF RACIST HISTORY
It is a problem that has been festering for over four centuries. It is a problem of politicized justice where judges and lawyers are pawns of politicians, and where those same politicians are defined by their own personal agendas rather than the will of those they serve. It is a problem of media fear-mongering that promises fair and balanced reporting as long as it appeases the corporate shareholders and enables the politicians.
It isn’t all about Black lives mattering, or women’s lives mattering, or Asian lives mattering, or the LGBTQ community’s lives mattering, or any other color in the rainbow’s lives mattering. Those concepts should be understood as inalienable rights that require no further definitions or explanation.
We, as a culture, have to cumulatively take responsibility for the fate of every single person we witness being culturally and socially lynched. Until we can do that consistently, no life will really matter.
For Black, or other, lives to truly matter, we need to live beyond just the tragic moments in time. We have to be more than just a movement defined by events or talking points on the nightly news. We have to be better than the sum of our parts or we will always fail. If that happens, the death of George Floyd will be only another statistic which will eventually end up on this country’s historical cutting room floor as if it didn’t happen at all.