John Shively, coordinator of the Office of Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation for the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, wrote a personal reflection on the tragic death of George Floyd.
In 1966, James Baldwin wrote his famous essay, “A Report from Occupied Territory.” In it, he recounts the story of a salesman from Harlem, a young father of two, who was accused of committing a crime by asking the police why they were beating up a child on the side of the street. For that simple inquiry, the police beat and arrested the man and took him back to the station, where they beat him again. The man escaped with his life, but he was hospitalized and lost an eye from the battering he received.
While Baldwin’s insightful essay focuses on police brutality in Harlem, his larger aim is to look at America as a whole. He writes:
I have witnessed and endured the brutality of the police many more times than once—but, of course, I cannot prove it. I cannot prove it because the Police Department investigates itself, quite as though it were answerable only to itself. But it cannot be allowed to be answerable only to itself. It must be made to answer to the community which pays it, and which it is legally sworn to protect, and if American Negroes are not a part of the American community, then all of the American professions are a fraud.
Whenever I try to talk with my white peers about racism in our country today, I am often confronted with arguments about ways conditions have generally improved for black Americans. So goes a typical argument: “It’s no longer socially acceptable for people to use racial slurs, people of color can build wealth, and we even had a black president!” The problem is that such indicators do not mean an absence of racism, but that its expressions are more subtle and covert, because such attitudes are socially unacceptable. As a result, these subdued forms go underground and make it harder for us to identify and deal with them. The myth of progress convinces us that things have improved. But this myth is particularly pernicious in the way it lulls us into believing things have changed for the better when they have not. America still has not really wrestled with its original sin of slavery and racism, and particularly the ways structural racism is often built into policing institutions.
Read full text of reflection on the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth web site