For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been watching the protests (and riots) over the killing of George Floyd, a black man. I was saddened to watch the video of this man pleading for his life, handcuffed with four police officers hovering above him. One of those police officers had his knee on George’s neck and left it there for nearly nine minutes, ultimately resulting in George’s death. The video is troubling, but what’s more troubling is the fact that as a black person in America, I’m no longer surprised when I see videos like this. Unfortunately, I feel like I’ve had to learn to get used to it.
I am a black man who was born and raised in America. I have had to learn how to navigate being black and American at the same time in order to succeed in a society that was erroneously structured to include my ethnic identity portmanteau with my national identity. Even though I was born and raised in America I am not just an “American.” Instead I am an African-American or Black-American. I understand the history of why black people (and people of color) were originally identified this way. However, what I don’t understand is why leaders in this country still choose to separate people first by cultural or ethnic identity instead of considering all of us as simply “Americans.”
If we changed the institutional and social dynamic to classify each other first by national identity, we would begin to see a shift toward equality for minorities in this country. By no means am I suggesting that people of color forget or abandon who they/we are. Instead, what I am saying is that in a system like this George Floyd would not have been another African American man that was needlessly killed by a white police officer. Instead, he was an American man killed by an American police officer. Or, Ahmaud Arbery would not have been an African American jogger that was killed by a white man and his son. He would have been an American man that was jogging who was killed by an American man and his son. When these situations are described such that it’s an American killing another American the crime sounds even more heinous and unthinkable. In this guise, the sentiment changes to become “We are all countrymen and women that protect each other. We don’t harm each other.” Unfortunately, we’ve not yet reached this level of brotherhood in America.
I sincerely want to believe that most people in America desire equality and fairness and are emotionally wounded when they witness injustice toward any group or class of people. However, I also understand that desire only takes you so far. There has to be structural and institutional change so that we abandon the old, antiquated way of viewing each other as hyphenated-Americans. This system does not unite us. It divides us.
The existing structure of classification by ethnic identity has marginalized and diminished the social ranking of black and brown people in this country for centuries. While I am fully American, I also have to remember that I’m black. For many years of my life I struggled with who I was and how I should identify myself. I often feel lost and alone in the business world because the further I move up the ladder I see less and less people like myself. At times I’ve struggled with expressing who I am as a black person in an effort to fit in. Sometimes that means ignoring a culturally insensitive joke, being socially excluded from certain meetings or conversations, or being outright discriminated against. A black friend of mine said that he’s learned how to create a psychological barrier against these forms of subtle, racial miscues. I think that to a large extent, ALL black people have had to do this as a necessary and fundamental strategy to be successful in America.
Despite the structural flaws in America’s ethnic classification system, black people have made great progress. We must not forget that. The sacrifices of our predecessors and the work of notable leaders such as Martin Luther King, Booker T. Washington, Malcolm X, and others like them, were critical in reshaping the system to give black and brown people the freedoms that we now have in this country. As black people, we must each use our individual platform to share our perspective and experiences with others and remain empowered by what we’ve achieved so that we keep moving forward. The legal battle to eliminate slavery in America lasted almost 250 years until the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863. The legal battle to totally eliminate segregation and other acts of discrimination didn’t occur until 1968 – over 100 years later. That brings us to where we are today – 52 years later. Today, we’re fighting a different battle. We’re fighting (and slowly winning) to remove the dross from a system that should be a beacon of hope for the rest of the world. America is (supposed to be) the land of the free and the home of the brave. That’s who we are. We are all Americans.