This tee-shirt, which nods to the tech, design and art communities, was designed by James T. Green, a friend and producer on our last season of “Wireframe.” When you buy it, all proceeds go to organizations working to fight structural racism. Get it at jamestgreen.com.
I have only this tiny corner of the Internet that I can call my own, and generally no one expects me to weigh in on the issues of the day beyond the narrow scope of design, tech and movies. But for the past few weeks I’ve felt a need and a responsibility to write something about the horrific murder of George Floyd and the outpouring of protest that’s followed.
Watching video of Derek Chauvin with his knee on George Floyd’s neck in Minneapolis sickened me to my core. But it didn’t really surprise me. And neither did the many, many other similar videos of police brutality that preceded it, going all the way back to the beating of Rodney King in 1991, which happened to take place while I was going to school in Los Angeles. Nor was I really surprised by the many, many videos of police officers brazenly using excessive force on protesters in the wake of Floyd’s death.
America is deeply racist. I’ve known this since I was a kid. We all know this, every one of us, even if we don’t all admit it.
And even if we do believe this, the trick of it all is that we’re not always aware of or willing to acknowledge the depths of this racism, even when we’re looking right at it. There is an indistinct but unmistakably expansive gray area in which even those of us who feel that we are deeply supportive of anti-racist policies, laws and individual conduct can still reside, buffered from the injustice that others cannot avoid. This nether zone not only shields us from perceiving the full extent of racism but it also dampens any urgency we may feel to do anything substantive about it.
The fact of the matter is that for many of us, it’s convenient to ignore the racist aspects of our society. It’s imperative, even. Because unless we ignore it we’ll have to do something about it. We’d need to either accept it, which means accepting our own hypocrisy. Or we’d need to actually take action, which means we’d have to challenge or even relinquish many of the privileges that are granted to us by virtue of the color of our skin or our willingness to look the other way.
It’s a deeply wicked bargain, one way or the other. And I’ve made this bargain myself, if I’m honest. As an Asian-American, I’ve been a victim of racism, but to nowhere near the extent that African Americans are routinely victimized. And I’ve also been complicit in racism’s perpetuation by dint of the fact that I’ve done virtually nothing about it. I’ve been complicit in racism in that I’ve done very little to effect change in a system that benefits me but disadvantages and brutalizes others.
One thing I’ve come to accept since 2016 is that fear, hatred and racism are among the most powerful forces on earth. This has really always been true throughout human history, but in American society we tend to focus only on a handful of their most strident expressions. And even then, we really only consider with any depth our finest moments, those historical events when we’ve been able to marshal truly potent responses: the Civil War, the Second World War, the Civil Rights Movement.
But I’ve also come to understand that the real menace of fear, hatred and racism lies not just in these flash points of history, when the contrast between freedom and tyranny are most stark. The real menace is in how infinitely adaptable and resilient these forces are.
Even after they’ve been put down, disbanded or made to heel, they find a way. They discard their censured hallmarks, whether it’s chains, swastikas or segregation laws. And then they change—evolve—into new, more subtle ways of exerting their influence: mass incarceration, “broken windows” and “stop and frisk” policing, methodical dismantling of social and economic safety nets. These methods come into focus slowly, sporadically, in fits and starts from disparate corners, and with little notice or scant examination. They co-opt progressive ideals and insert themselves into virtuous agendas, and they assert themselves in popular culture and common language. Their inflection point, the moment when they’ve succeeded, is the moment when society at large accepts them as policies, as laws, as common sense, as pragmatism—while assuming that these methods apply to “other people.”
This moment in time, George Floyd’s moment, Breonna Taylor’s moment, Ahmaud Arbery’s moment, is ripe with potential, and we must act on it, must transform it from mass protests to structural change. But our challenge is also that we must also renew our vigilance and our ability to understand how fear, hatred and racism will adapt and change yet again. Because they will.
It feels distasteful to me to salvage any kind of a silver lining from the horror of George Floyd’s death, but I am grateful for the way that public support for Black Lives Matter and for systemic change in policing has surged over just a handful of weeks. That’s reason for hope.
I’m also grateful for the clarifying light that these events have thrown on own my understanding, and humbled by the realization of how much I need to do to live up to the principles that I endeavor to pass along to my children. Particularly the idea that we cannot right the world simply by not doing wrong—we must do right, too, and particularly we must do right by those who have been perpetually wronged. Especially when their lives are being unjustly and viciously sacrificed by a brutal system.
I’m grateful for the understanding of how much work I really need to do. How much I need to learn, how much I need to ask, how much I need to listen, how much I need to speak up, how much I need to read, how much I need to expect of myself and of my family and my friends, how much I need to give, how much I need to change anything I can possibly change.
But it really shouldn’t have taken the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and so many more for all of us, for me, to get this clarity. I’ve been looking away for far too long, and now that it finally has my attention, I can never look away again.