Racism can be a difficult thing to talk about

From the Headmaster's Desk, June 8, 2020

The events in the US over recent weeks have been really, really sad. And I’m not talking about the actions of some politicians or even the Coronavirus: I’m talking about the death of a black man by a police officer who knelt on his neck, despite the man pleading that ‘I cannot breathe’, and bystanders peacefully insisting that the police officer relent.

This event has set off a string of protests in America and, perhaps more than ever, led to an outcry that Black Lives Matter, an organisation which has garnered more support and donations than ever before. A number of insightful pieces of journalism over recent days have highlighted many of the difficult issues surrounding systemic racism in America, noting everything from racial profiling to incarceration rates to the lack of equal opportunities in education and employment.

Racism can be a difficult thing to talk about, but it is important that we do talk about it. It is particularly important that young people talk about it. We all need to learn from the past – and the present – so that we can make the future better.

I grew up outside Detroit, and whilst my own neighbourhood and school were not as diverse as some areas of the city, I regularly worked in downtown Detroit, and was raised to appreciate the richness of African-American culture. Detroit is famous for Motown music, and I have always loved the music of my hometown and other forms of music inspired by African-Americans, including jazz. My close friends know that I have a secret love of rap music – not something Headmasters are supposed to admit, I suppose, but I have found listening to Tupac in the past week to feel rather apt.

My birthday is 15 January, a birthdate I share with the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr. In the course of my childhood, President Reagan signed a law that made my birthday – or rather Dr King’s birthday – a national bank holiday in America.

It’s pretty significant moment in your childhood when your birthday suddenly becomes a national holiday, and partly for this reason I have always had an obsession with Dr King, writing many school reports about him and regularly returning to his speeches and lessons about non-violence.

Years later, I remember watching Obama win the US election in November 2007. I was living in a boarding school at the time, and I did not have my own television. I sat in the boys’ common room in a boarding house in the middle of the night and listened to Obama’s acceptance speech. I remember thinking, as a black man became President of America, that perhaps this was a signal of the end of systematic racism over the centuries in America, which started with slavery and then segregation, and still continued for decades, even if not inscribed in law. Was this the day that Dr King marched for? Yes, in part, as a black president was something that was unimaginable just 50 years ago in America. Some people even went so far as to say that it was the day that legacy of slavery was finally abolished. As we learned during Obama’s presidency, and have been reminded during the past couple of weeks: it is not quite that straightforward.

Racism is still a problem in America. There are gaps in education, employment, opportunities, and problems with the treatment of African-Americans in the criminal justice system. I feel comfortable in diverse settings, and when I’m home in the holidays I don’t mind going to speakeasies in Detroit or jazz bars, where I’m the only white person in the room. My mother sings in a large gospel choir near our home, and she is often the only white person on the stage with the choir. But not everyone is so comfortable with diversity, and racism is a problem. And it is not just a problem in the US. It is a problem across Europe, and there have been many conversations about racism in professional football, even during the course of the past season.

In a way, the events of recent weeks make me sad. It makes me sad for the country where I grew up, where African-American children and adults do not have the same opportunities as other Americans to access that ‘American Dream’. And more than this, they live in fear of being killed in what for most people might be a routine interaction with the police. Now it is important to be careful in what we say about the police, because we know that the vast majority of police across the Western world do an admirable job, and are public servants who deserve our respect and praise. I have a family member who works in law enforcement in America and he has been disturbed by the way all police can be unfairly treated as perpetrators. As he reminded me last week, one bad apple does not ruin the whole lot. Having said all of this, it is clear that the death of George Floyd was unnecessary, and there are too many other similar examples.

I have also been disturbed by the nature of some of the protests. Violence and looting is shameful in this context, and detracts from the purpose of the protest, and the more important messages about injustice. I was most touched by the sheriff of Flint, Michigan, in my home state, who took off his riot gear, literally laying down his helmet and baton, and instead walked with protestors in Michigan. He recognised that people wanted to be heard, and he understood the anger. There have been many other touching scenes, where police in uniform took a knee with protestors, shook hands with them, and listened to their concerns. Many local and national politicians have done the same.

Safe protest is important. It is part of the US Constitution and it is part of Western Democracy. It’s central to the principle of free speech. People must stand up for what they believe in, and argue for change. And when this is not permitted, as we see most strikingly in China and Hong Kong at the moment, it becomes obvious just how important protests can be. They hold the government to account and force us all to face truths, even uncomfortable ones.

There have been protests about racism in America before, but hopefully this time we have reached something of a tipping point. As we saw in recent years with the #metoo movement, when many women spoke out, there was a real sense that wrongs which happened in the past would no longer be ignored. And perpetrators were going to be held to account. And injustice will not be tolerated for any longer.

I hope that what started in Minnesota, the people who have stood up or taken a knee across the USA, and now across Europe, does lead to change. We should all recommit to moving towards a better place. But more than protesting, I hope all these people involved, particularly young people, vote as well. Voting is another powerful part of democracy, and an essential part of ensuring that there is change.

So to the young people listening today, I want to say a few final things. First of all, I’m sorry that my generation still hasn’t resolved these issues, and that racism still exists in society. Clearly, I have more work to do, as do other people in leadership positions, and all of us who can vote and work to ensure that everyone in society has equal opportunities, regardless of their age, colour, physical or mental disability, race, religion, creed, sex, marital status, and sexual orientation.

Despite all the upsetting aspects of the news of recent weeks, working with young people every day is fulfilling in many ways, and it gives me hope for the future. I hope that your generation will do better and avoid racism, sexism and discrimination of any kind.

As Rev Al Sharpton said at George Floyd’s memorial service last week, this time is different. White people have outnumbered black people marching in the streets in America. And the marches are not just in a couple of major cities in the US, but in Berlin and in London, and across Europe and North America. It’s a different season and a different time.
To the young people watching and listening today, I challenge you to learn about the history of racism. Understand the legacy of slavery in Europe and America, and segregation in America. Learn so that you can understand the context in which the asphyxiation of George Floyd is another sad chapter in the story of African-American history. But I do hope that this chapter is a transition point, and I share Rev Sharpton’s hope that this time is different. Your generation will make a change.

And I still hope that in my lifetime I will see Dr King’s dream come true: that we might live in nations where people are not judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.

Take of yourselves, and take care of each other. Have a good week.

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