The Perilous Middle

The Perilous Middle

The start of a journey is filled with nerves and the risk of the unknown. Maybe it's fueled by a dream, a belief, a frustration, or a wrong that needs to be set right. At the beginning you don't need a plan. You don't even need a goal. It's ok to just get moving.

Once in a great while we're blessed with an ending. For those who fought for marriage equality, the United States Supreme Court delivering their ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges was a moment never to be forgotten. There are battles still to fight, minds to be changed, and risks for the future. But that moment moved the narrative from dramatic climax into the epilogue.

Over the last century we've seen meaningful, concrete progress, but the broader battle for human rights rages in America today. People are in the streets, power is under threat, and many are trying to figure out where we go from here. While this latest round of fire lifts the voice of George Floyd, it could just as easily be Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, or Michael Brown. We could fill volumes with the names that have been marginalized, brutalized, lynched, and oppressed in our short American history.

We shout that Black Lives Matter. Quickly my fellow white people instinctively respond "but don't all lives matter?" That is the question that seems so unsettling when you look at the data. Because it's clear that George Floyd's life didn't matter on a street in Minneapolis. Tamir Rice's life didn't matter on a playground in Cleveland. And Breonna Taylor's life did not matter inside her own home. At least not to the people who ended them.

June 7, 2020 Denver protest photo by Helen Richardson for the Denver Post

Yes, we want to believe that all lives matter; but in America it's the Black ones we're so willing to throw away. They are the ones where every misunderstanding, every minor transgression, even a mistaken identity can carry a death sentence. And almost every time there is one white person who, in that moment, plays judge, jury, and executioner. Why don't Black Lives Matter?

We started from a deep hole, but have made undeniable progress in the recognition of human rights. Today, America can look back on those old ways with disgust. It's easy to disparage our ancestors who bought and sold human lives, prevented them from owning property, held back the shining light of education, or valued one life as three-fifths of another. They were wrong.

For 246 years the American Dream was built by human beings valued only for how they could lift, pick, carry, and copulate. It will be another hundred years before our country has existed longer without slavery than with it.

Slavery by name ended in 1865. Today the conspiracies are buried a little deeper, but one can make the cogent argument that our education systems, financial systems, housing systems, prison systems, and political systems are still constructed to maintain an oppressive hierarchy. In the last sixty years we have seen great progress and yet there is still so far to go.

In 1965, James Baldwin spoke in a debate a Cambridge with undeniable clarity and insight where he said:

It comes as a great shock to discover that the country which is your birthplace and to which you owe your life and your identity, has not, in its whole system of reality, evolved any place for you. The disaffection, the demoralization, and the gap between one person and another only on the basis of the color of their skin, begins there and accelerates – accelerates throughout a whole lifetime – to the present when you realize you’re thirty and are having a terrible time managing to trust your countrymen.

By the time you are thirty, you have been through a certain kind of mill. And the most serious effect of the mill you’ve been through is, again, not the catalog of disaster, the policemen, the taxi drivers, the waiters, the landlady, the landlord, the banks, the insurance companies, the millions of details, twenty four hours of every day, which spell out to you that you are a worthless human being. It is not that.

It’s by that time that you’ve begun to see it happening, in your daughter or your son, or your niece or your nephew.

Still 55 years after Baldwin spoke, the desert stretches on as we search for the promised land. Our brothers and sisters are executed without justice. Those lucky enough to hold onto their lives are disenfranchised, undercut, under-appreciated, and overlooked every day that they try to survive in the system.

Black people did not create these problems. They did not design these systems. It is not a burden they deserve to bear, yet all too often it is theirs to fix. Some heroes walked the roads of Alabama in the 60s and continue to create "good trouble" today. They work to reignite the American Dream for young Black men. They galvanize communities and push forward big ideas. They make some people uncomfortable while changing the system from the inside.

While we should celebrate those in the spotlight, there are so many more fighting for change every day. Every Black teacher dedicating their life to children, every office administrator trying to change the implicit and explicit rules, every community organizer educating people about their rights, opportunities, and registering them to vote – these are the change makers. This is the work in the middle of our journey.

Outside in America we're taking a few steps forward. If you're moved to protest in the streets, then get on your feet. If you believe in legislation, then make your voice heard. And let us all recognize, celebrate, and support the black people in our lives and communities.

But this moment, too, will pass. There will be some small wins, a bit of celebration, and the protestors will go home. Flashy brands will change their website images back to showing happy stock-photo white people doing indulgent consumer things. Most everyone will go back to their old "normal," quietly accepting and reinforcing inequity.

John Lewis addresses the March on Washington in 1963

And that is when you have to ask yourself "am I in for the day, or am I in for the journey?" Are you just a fan in the stands or can this be your game? Do you truly believe that there is a better life for us all? Will you read the books, amplify ideas, have hard conversations, and vote for change? Will you change your mind, career, family, friends, community, or your country? Or will we return to the status quo?

Today's adult grew up watching the horrors of 9/11, another endless war in the Middle East, the negligent response to Hurricane Katrina, the greed-fueled economic collapse in 2008, the return of racist mobs carrying torches through the streets, the election of an unimaginably incompetent president, and an endless string of mass-shootings. This year, a botched response to a global pandemic leads to the death of over a hundred thousand Americans. And, yet again, people of color are disproportionally the ones suffering the consequences.

The systems, the organizations, the individuals that are supposed to be keeping us safe are, instead, only focused on themselves. This treatment, where you hear one thing and experience another, is nothing new to Black America. It's been this way for centuries.

June 3, 2020 protests at the Colorado State Capitol. Photo by Hart Van Denburg for CPR News

Now is the time for change. Those in power are not going to give it away or spread it out. We're seeing meaningful progress in places like Colorado enacting new, reasonable restrictions on the use of force by police. Some municipalities are considering wholly new models of law enforcement. Amongst this wave we'll find new voices able to gather, motivate, and support others. As we steam towards November elections, the pressure will only increase. We'll see disenfranchisement and misinformation campaigns fight to keep the power right where it's always been.

But that is not where it has to stay. It is possible to rethink, to rebuild, and to reimagine all that we're taught to accept as just "the way it is." We can engage in the relentless search for equity, pushing forward and demonstrating that, yes, Black Lives Matter.

The path to justice is long, dangerous, and uncertain. And this is only the middle.

I’m Jeff Casimir, the founder and Executive Director of the Turing School of Software & Design. I believe in the dream of a better America.

This article was written with review, critique, and ideas from Erin Williams and Lindsey Lucero.

Header image courtesy of Hart Van Denburg for CPR News