The more I learn about human history, the more I see that everything happening today has also happened before. We build things and create systems, they cause some kind of problem, enough people notice so they work to solve that new problem. Possibly that solution creates other problems, which enough people eventually notice and then try to solve. Possibly some folks think the problem isn't a problem, so they try to stop it from being solved. Possibly some folks see a problem needs solving, but don't want to be the one to solve it, so do nothing about it.
Humanity has repeated that pattern for many aspects of society, and the example most present for me this week is racism. For the last year I have made a concerted effort to learn as much as I can about what lead up to the current movement for Black lives. I read books and articles, watched films and documentaries, listened to lectures and attended virtual discussion panels.
In the beginning of my exploration into this history, I was surprised to recognize the message of contemporary activists in the writing and speeches of the prior generation. I was even more surprised to see those same sentiments expressed by the generation before them, and the folks that came before that generation.
Even before the Civil War, activists were organizing to overturn racists policy and change racist practices. And the opposition was using the same arguments in response. They may have used different examples or different language than their modern successors, but the sentiment was the same: treating Black people with contempt and abuse was not the problem, Black people were the problem.
The same argument persists today in discussions about one of the most racist institutions in this country: criminal justice. There are piles and piles of data out there showing the inherent bias and racism rampant in policing and prisons everywhere in this country. And yet, many folks focus their attention on the strange scapegoat of “Black on Black” crime instead of taking a real look at the effects of racist policing on communities of color. Cops brutalizing people isn’t the problem, they say, criminals are the problem.
Last summer, people came out by the thousands to say “Black and brown people are suffering and don’t have equal opportunity or access.” When the sun went down, the police came out and roughed some people up, arrested some other people, then retreated back into their stations to conduct business as usual. I watched it night after night, as did many others, on livestreams available for anyone to bear witness.
Now the Oregon House has passed a package of what they call police accountability measures. Unfortunately they don’t address the root causes of racism and police abuse of power, so I will not be able to stop paying attention to what police are doing in my city any time soon. Some of these new requirements already existed in the Portland Police Bureau, and they have clearly been successful in exacting terror on some communities despite those measures being in place.
And so it goes: lather, rinse, repeat.
The thing that keeps me going is even though we are clearly not finished fighting against racism, it does seem like we're making progress. Albeit slow and precarious, sometimes taking two steps back in one area for each step forward we make in another. Part of that pace stems from only addressing the symptoms of a deeper problem without tackling the tough human issues at the heart of the systems we created to dehumanize certain people.
It seems that we are doomed to repeat this process again and again until the solution finally sticks. I am hopeful that our relationship with technology can help us work more quickly through the cycle. Maybe if the people who were around last time could still be around this time the lessons can fully sink-in. Even if the thought and action leaders of the prior anti-racism movements are no longer with us, they can continue to speak directly to the new generation through video and audio recording available on the internet.
That is certainly one leg-up we have today. Tech is connecting us faster and more directly, especially in the wake of adaptation to Covid lockdowns. Maybe we can repeat a cycle within a generation instead of from one generation to the next. Maybe we can finally remember or relearn that we are all humans worthy of dignity and respect. Worthy of life and love. Worthy of autonomy and independence.
In the meanwhile, I will continue to work on humanizing myself and others. I will continue to plumb the depths of what makes us human and offer my observations to the world as opportunities for exploration and connection. I will continue to lather, rinse, and repeat my demands that we human differently than we have in the past. And when enough people are ready to make a major societal shift toward anti-racism, I'll be ready too.
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Jaydra is a human in-process, working to make the world a better place. Sharing thoughts, feelings, and observations about the human experience.