My Turn: We must not avert our eyes from inequality

  • A mourners signs a card outside Ebenezer Baptist Church during the funeral for Rep. John Lewis on July 30 in Atlanta. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 8/7/2020 6:20:22 AM
Modified: 8/7/2020 6:20:12 AM

The pandemic has done nothing if it hasn’t compelled us to reckon with our assumptions about the way our country works. Suddenly, while grappling with COVID-19, the ground has shifted beneath us, and our previously comfortable views of so many aspects of our lives and history have been upended.

The ugly gashes of racial inequality and systemic discrimination are especially shocking, and now they are impossible to ignore. Our lofty notion that American social, economic, and political systems are structured for the good of all citizens has been toppled off its pedestal. Instead, we’re scrambling to make sense of so many disparities, and so much inequality, even as our leadership digs deeper to divide us.

Since the death of George Floyd, more of us are engaging in very uncomfortable conversations about race. The history books I read in school did nothing to explain how things got this way, or why white men had so much power, while women, indigenous peoples, and people of color had none. My books made a footnote of the fact that Native Americans were systematically and forcibly removed from the land they had stewarded for millennia.

These history books also largely ignored the fact that the people of an entire continent were enslaved to drive the American economy for the benefit of the white men.

The history books of post-Civil War America I read spoke only glancingly of the continuing success of the white population at marginalizing those previously enslaved, ensuring that Black people not only did not benefit from their slave labor during their first 250 years on this continent but neither would they profit from their hard work in the 150 years since then.

We’ve been hearing from those we haven’t listened to carefully enough before, and we’ve been seeing the multitude of ways our system has been designed to favor white people over people of color, rich over poor, and the connected over the disenfranchised. We don’t like hearing this. We say it’s not our fault, even though that’s not the point. What we cannot do is what our current leadership would have us do. We cannot point fingers or change the subject. We must listen, and resolve to be the change.

This past week, the death of a great American, Georgia Congressman John Lewis, was the occasion for further reflection on the racial divide. He was accorded the honor he richly deserved, lying in state in his birth state and in the U.S. Capitol. Then, at his memorial service at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, he was eulogized by, among others, three former U.S. presidents, with the written reflections of a fourth who could not attend. Glaringly absent was the current occupant of the White House.

John Lewis’s life gave testimony to the struggles of Black people, which continue to this day. With single-minded purpose and determination throughout his life, he sought to gain the civil rights promised to his Black brothers and sisters by Abraham Lincoln near the close of the Civil War. Lewis was the youngest speaker in 1963 at Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington. He risked his life in Selma, Ala., on Bloody Sunday in 1965 as a member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and in the decades after was ever on the lookout for opportunities to get into “good trouble” in the name of racial equality.

John Lewis’s legacy, after a lifetime of working for voting rights, equal opportunity, and the end of racial discrimination, was powerfully on display throughout this past week. It was both balm to our nation’s gaping wounds, and a beacon lighting the way to better enable us to move forward as a people.

The pandemic has made rubble out of our economy, and our current leadership’s solution is to take a bulldozer and dig a trench. We’ve been reminded by John Lewis, however, that an infinitely better solution is for every American to use his or her hard-fought right to vote to build a future where we all have a valued place, and our institutions and economy reflect that.

(Millie LaFontaine of Concord is a retired neurologist.)


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