Could this really be a watershed moment?
Black North Carolinians express hopes and fears about the struggle against racism in America
“You are going to get your ass killed.”
Those are the words Carl Kenney Sr. used when his son Durham minister and author Carl Kenney Jr., joined students at the University of Missouri to protest alleged racism at the state’s flagship school.
Those are the words the father used when the son joined the fight against racial injustice in Ferguson, Mo., after a police officer killed Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year old, during a scuffle.
The younger Kenney, a Mizzou alum, had come home to Columbia, Mo., to care for his dad who’d fallen ill.
“He was constantly living in fear that his son was going to be killed for speaking out,” said Kenney, who wrote about his father in My Daddy’s Promise: Lessons Learned Through Caregiving.
Kenney’s father died in 2015. He was 78.
Throughout his lifetime, the elder Carl had seen what happened to Black people who spoke out against oppression and racial injustice.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and other civil rights leaders were gunned down for challenging oppressive, government-backed laws that treated Blacks as less than full citizens.
And President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert F. Kennedy, a U.S. Attorney, both supported progressive policies to end such practices. The two men were assassinated.
“They [Blacks of his dad’s generation] were afraid of what white people can do to you if you speak too loudly,” Kenney said. “That’s part of the way I walk in this human space: It’s around trying to figure out what it is to be a man when we have this very conflicted past where our parents were afraid of this stuff.”
America is changing at warp speed since George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police. A nearly nine-minute long video showing former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin with his knee on Floyd’s neck served as an epiphany for many whites.
Kenney said white acquaintances have approached him in recent weeks to discuss Floyd’s death. He said they seem to be searching for absolution for failing to believe complaints about police brutality against Blacks.
“I do think there are some changes with white people around their willingness to accept that this stuff we’ve been crying about is real,” Kenney said. “Young white people have always stood and marched with us, but now older white people are finally saying that these [racial injustices] aren’t made up.”
Since Floyd’s death, statues of Confederate soldiers in strongholds of the Old South have begun to fall.
The names of racists, white supremacists and slave owners are being erased from public buildings, other places of honor and, quite possibly, important corners of America’s memory.
Even Mississippi has relented. Lawmakers there voted last week to remove the Confederate battle symbol from its state flag. The Magnolia State would be the last to do so if the Gov. Tate Reeves signs the bill into law, which he said he would do if it was approved.
But more important, Floyd’s death has sparked a national conversation about the role police play in America, along with new strategies to repair adversarial relationships between law enforcement officers and the communities of color they serve.
“Basically, what African Americans have been asking for is help,” Sen. Valerie Foushee, an Orange County Democrat, told Policy Watch last week. “See what’s going on, see how we’re being mistreated in the streets of America with [Blacks receiving] a death penalty [from police] for crimes that don’t mandate the death penalty or the death penalty even when we’re not committing crimes. We’re being killed by those who have been sworn to serve and protect.”
In America, Black lives have always been in peril.
The right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness so eloquently described in the Declaration of Independence did not apply to them.
And for centuries, neither did the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing equal protection under the law.
Golden Smith, a senior hospital account specialist in the Charlotte area and father of three, said America will never be the same in the wake of Floyd’s death.
“I don’t think we can go back,” said Smith, who played football at N.C. State University in the early 1980s. “We have a tremendous opportunity to start correcting the ills of the past 400 years.”
Now in his mid-50s, Smith, who grew up in Shelby, said he never thought America would reach the point where Blacks and whites could openly and honestly discuss racism and its impact on Black lives.
“We’re dealing with a system of racism,” Smith said. “When it comes to white people, you can hardly blame them. You almost feel sorry for them. It’s nearly impossible for them to come up in a racist system created by the government and not be tainted and not be biased and not be racist.”
Smith has discussed racism with his 31-year-old son. He’s also had “the talk” Black parents must have with their sons about how to behave if stopped by police.
But Smith admits he struggles to find the right words and the right time to talk to his 7-year-old daughter about racism.
“She has all of these beautiful friends,” Smith said. “White friends, Black friends, Asian friends and she’s such a sweet person and she loves her friends and I love that innocence. At what point do you begin to tell her that life isn’t what it always seems?”
Eric Cunningham, superintendent of Halifax County Schools, isn’t surprised that America continues to have conversations about race.
“I think the thing that makes America the greatest country in the world is its ability to reinvent itself,” Cunningham said. “We’re willing to have these tough conversations, sit down at the table, compromise and know something new is going to come out of it. That’s the American way.”
Still, Cunningham said racism exists and the nation needs to continually address the injustices and inequities that have existed since America was founded.
“First, we must see each other as human beings who are entitled to certain inalienable rights,” Cunningham said. “When we can see each other in that light, I think that is the bridge work for success.”
He said change is a real possibility because the protests over Floyd’s death touched a large, diverse cross-section of Americans.
“I’m seeing older people, younger people, Black people, white people, everybody, even politicians.” Cunningham said.
The movement’s diversity is the result of Americans being better educated, Cunningham said. Blacks and whites have also gotten to know one other better through shared experiences, he said.
“That would not have happened if people had not gotten to know each other,” Cunningham said. “Everyone has a personal story about someone who doesn’t look like them that doesn’t fit the stereotype.”
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