David J. Webb has been interning with SLLF for over a year, working on numerous projects. Last week, we asked him to write a piece for the website about the death of George Floyd from his perspective as a young black male as well as his thoughts on strategies for addressing the concerns raised by protestors. The result is “Systemic Racism: What It’s Like to Be Me.”
by : David J. Webb, SLLF Intern
On May 25, 2020 George Floyd gasped for his last breath of air while pleading for his life as dozens of onlookers begged for the police officer to stop kneeling on his neck before he killed him. The officer ignored those pleas and stayed kneeling on his neck until he was dead. Despite the many witnesses and before the protests (peaceful and otherwise), the officers involved were almost all but let off the hook. For many, Floyd’s death may come as a shock and seem to be an uncorrelated murder. Unfortunately, to others of us this is not shocking, but rather just another nightmare to add to the collection of friends, brothers, fathers and sons that have died at the hands of a law enforcement officer. I am in no way attempting to diminish the tragedy of these events, but rather shedding light onto how often we personally face this sad reality.
On February 13, 2016 I came uncomfortably close to this fate as I was driving with my girlfriend and her 5-year-old nephew. An officer, who I would soon discover stopped me for the same tag light three days prior, began following me down a dark country road and eventually turned on his lights signaling me to pull over. Knowing the dangers of poor visibility, I knew I had to find a lighted area for my safety. I slowed down to 20 miles an hour so they knew I wasn’t trying to flee and immediately called the police dispatcher to have them notify the officer following me that I wasn’t trying to run away, just to find somewhere safely lit so we could both see each-other better. Within minutes a second police car showed up and was attempting to run me off the side of the road. After the longest three miles of my life I pulled over to the first lighted area I could find. This was instantly followed by both officers jumping out of the car and one drawing his firearm on me. I’ll never forget this moment as long as I live; the moment I didn’t know if I was going to live or would die at the hands of the police. I knew that one careless move could result in me being shot and killed. I knew that to them my presence alone was threatening, and I couldn’t take any chances on giving them reason to fear me or I could turn into yet another statistic. By the grace of God, I got to live that day. Another day, I may not be so lucky.
I was taught from a very young age the things I would need to do as a young black man to survive, things my white counterparts take for granted. Here are just a few examples. I can’t wear clothes that are too large for fear of being perceived as thuggish or wear hoods (even on a chilly day) for fear of being perceived as too threatening. I can’t dress down on dress-down days at work for fear that I will look less educated and that my skin color will detract from the intellect that I bring to the table. When I go into the store, I can’t casually rest my hands in my pockets for fear that I could be perceived as stealing. And I have to be ever mindful and vigilant of visiting a white friend at their house for fear of being suspect number one should anything go missing.
People fear what they don’t know. This became evident to me with my first experience with racism. I was in Kindergarten on the playground at school. A group of boys were making teams for a game they were about to play. I walked over and announced that I wanted to play and asked whose team I should go on. I was immediately scowled at by some of the boys in that group and was collectively told that I couldn’t play. I couldn’t understand why. Being the inquisitive, gregarious child, I was, I asked why. I was told that it was because I was different; it was because I looked different than them. I guess that was supposed to answer my question. It didn’t. Coming from a biracial family, I was used to black people and white people intermingling in a variety of settings. This was the first time I was slapped in the face with a cold, dark, painful dose of racism. I would spend the rest of my formative years learning more lessons like that one and would eventually go on to begin a career that would incite change. This is my passion in life, working to create a world where my kids will one day be treated and perceived the same as their white counterparts.
How does it happen that black people can share the same physical traits as every other race, with the exception of the pigment of our skin, and for the world to perceive and treat us so vastly different? The short answer is a disease called systemic racism and these are just a couple of symptoms. The vaccine? Education.
Once colonizers found America, racism and capitalism quickly paired and bred slavery. Black people were no longer perceived as human beings, but as workhorses that needed to keep quiet, mind their masters and get the work done to essentially build this country. Our history, culture, language and contributions to the world were stripped away. When you degrade an entire group of people like this you remove their self-worth from the world, an implication that lasts for many generations. Even once our ancestors were set free, a century of terrible political and legal decisions would perpetuate racism and deepen the divide for generations to come.
If we educate people on this history, we can begin to understand where we all come from and how people of color suffer from systematic racism today. We must start discrediting the stereotypes of black people through educating people on supreme court cases and laws designed to make it impossible for black people, or anyone of color, to have equal opportunities. This can be done through teaching the ever-lasting implications of Plessy V. Ferguson and the “all deliberate speed” clause in the Brown V. Board of Education, and redlining. Through education we can also destroy these stereotypes by teaching people about the artistic genius of Phyllis Wheatley, the love for education of W.E.B Dubois and Booker T Washington, the civic activism of A. Phillip Randolph, and the entrepreneurial success of a Madam C.J. Walker. When we destroy stereotypes with the truth and have these conversations, we can begin to become empathetic towards one another’s struggles.
This year has seen devastating situations forcing our legislators to navigate through some of the most difficult decisions of their lifetimes. Right now, more than ever, we need leaders to step up and encourage these conversations and truth in our schools. It is also imperative that we increase teachers’ salaries to attract the best teachers, the teachers who are invested in their careers and in teaching not only the right material, but in such a way that catalyzes change. Without proper and complete education, there will be no change. We must break down stereotypes and build up understanding.
No one is born a racist. Racism is taught down through generations. The kids on the playground could very easily grow up to be the policeman that drew a gun on me for having a burnt-out license plate light. While it hurt my feelings deeply at the time and confused me, in retrospect those kids on the playground were really just doing the same thing I was, acting in a way that they were taught from their parents and their parents before them. Respect, empathy, truth and equality all have to be taught in the education system and reinforced in the home. Had those childrens’ parents been better educated and informed, the incident on the playground may have never happened.
Even with education you may not be able to walk in my shoes, but at least you can begin to understand why I walk in them.