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Column: OK, we’ve finally agreed that Black lives matter. Now what?

Protesters carry a "Black Lives Matter" banner as they march through downtown Seattle in November.
(Matt Mills McKnight / European Pressphoto Agency)

This sudden deluge of “woke-ness” flooding the country is disorienting.

Unarmed Black men have been beaten and killed by police for decades. There were protests, unrest and Black people grieving — mostly alone and generally ignored.

Now suddenly there are huge multiracial crowds standing with us, protesting the death of an ordinary Black man dragged into martyrdom by the weight of a policeman’s knee on his neck.

It’s as if the world has suddenly snapped into focus for people who’d been blinded by privilege to Black people’s daily realities.

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The death of George Floyd has generated outrage in places that never seemed to care before, energizing a social justice movement in ways that feel revolutionary.

I’ve seen “Black Lives Matters” signs in places where I rarely see Black people: There’s a giant banner hanging from the Glendale animal hospital where I take my dogs, handmade posters taped to the windows of an upscale cupcake shop in Granada Hills and a placard lodged in the front lawn of the grandest house in my suburban neighborhood.

The speed and degree of this evolution both delight and puzzle me. I’m heartened but still heartsick, encouraged but unconvinced.

I’m glad that books about antiracism have zoomed to the top of bestseller lists, but I wonder how many will actually be read.

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I’m glad that JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon has taken a knee, but that’s hardly recompense for the years his company spent discriminating against Black clients and employees.

I’m glad that Walmart is unlocking its displays of Black hair products; does that mean they no longer presume that all of us are thieves?

I would love to believe that we are at an inflection point in our nation’s journey toward equality. But goodwill gestures are not enough to excise the demons of America’s long racist history.

I’m the daughter of Black parents who grew up in the South, under oppressive, humiliating and sometimes deadly Jim Crow rules. I’ve lived through too many of what felt like turning points in the last half-century — from “We shall overcome” through “No Justice, No Peace” — to feel fully optimistic.

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Now that the exhilaration of protesting has faded, we are already seeing signs of resistance to efforts to remake the culture of policing.

Officers are resigning, refusing to respond to calls or staging sickouts in cities including Atlanta, Buffalo, N.Y., and Minneapolis, as police unions try to undermine demands for basic accountability.

Federal police reform has been stalled by the failure of Republicans and Democrats in Congress to agree on basic elements of what needs fixing.

And our country is in the grip of a malevolent president, whose looming political campaign will try to demonize progressives and protesters as America’s enemies.

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I’m grateful for new comrades and the passion they bring to this movement, which does have the potential to change our country’s trajectory. But marching in the streets is only the beginning.

To arm ourselves for change, we have to acknowledge the enduring reach of America’s original sin. Our nation has been steeped in racism and white privilege for the last 400 years. That’s a durable affliction, as disturbing and destructive as any pandemic.

I hear the angst in white voices today, wondering, “How do we help?” and “What exactly can we do?”

Here’s an idea: You can arm yourselves and your children to sustain the energy a revolution requires.

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Educate yourself in the ways that institutions — from elected officials to banks and labor unions — have been complicit in propping up pillars of structural racism.

Disabuse your kids of the whitewashed versions of American history they’re apt to learn in school. Only 8% of high school seniors can identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War, according to a 2018 survey by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Our school systems need revolutionizing too.

The Civil War may have ended slavery but it didn’t address the underlying assumption that allowed the buying and selling of people like property: that Black people were less than fully human.

That’s been a hard mindset to dislodge. Discrimination in housing, education and employment was sanctioned and supported for a century after the Civil War ended, and not only in the South.

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Black children in Boston in 1974 couldn’t go to integrated schools without the National Guard to protect them from angry white mobs. Trade unions in the Midwest in the 1960s barred Blacks from joining, locking them out of lucrative jobs.

And here in California, Ronald Reagan was elected governor in 1966 on a platform that promised to protect the right “to discriminate against Negroes” in the sale and rental of property. It took a wave of urban riots to convince federal officials to adopt a national Fair Housing Act in 1968.

The oppressive culture of policing we see today is an outgrowth of who we’ve been and the values we’ve practiced as a nation.

Deaths like George Floyd’s happen when one group feels entitled to make the rules, set the boundaries and monitor the actions of people below them in the racial hierarchy.

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That hierarchy has to be dismantled. And that will require more than scrubbing Aunt Jemima from a box of pancake mix.

@SandyBanksLA


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