"I can't believe I'm 66 and still protesting this shit.”
That resonates. I am 66. I recall taking part in civil rights rallies in the early 1970s, during school desegregation in Boston when white supremacists threw rocks at buses carrying Black school children. Forty-seven years later, I am taking part in marches and unity rallies protesting those same racist attitudes. And in 2020, institutional racism is being enabled, even encouraged by a United States President who seems to admire global autocrats more than democratic leaders.
That slogan also expresses frustration but at the same time an urgent reminder that persistence, diligence, and vigilance is needed when tracking society’s injustices and inequality. Black Lives Matter exemplifies that. Formed in 2013 as a response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer, BLM has finally and rightfully achieved global center-stage, a position from which to aim the spotlight on ongoing institutional and societal racism. From stopping persons of color for a traffic check for no apparent reason (other than their skin color) to killing George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others, we have seen many incidents of racism in law enforcement.
Toni Morrison has said: “In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.” She is referring not to the hyphens, for example, in African-American, Asian-American, and Native-American (terms of empowerment) but rather the hyphen in “non-white”, which implies that being other than a white person is, in a sense, “only” a negation of whiteness, not really quite a full citizen.
Historically, this is poignantly illustrated in the cases of Black soldiers who fought to end slavery in the civil war, the Tuskegee Airmen in WWII fighting fascism in Europe, and Black soldiers in Vietnam, fighting to (presumably) stop Cold War Communism in Southeast Asia. In Spike Lee’s most recent movie, “Da Five Bloods,” one of the 5 Black Vietnam War Veterans featured in the film, says “we fought a war to protect rights we didn't even have." He speaks for not only all Black soldiers in all wars but also for all other “hyphenated” Americans asking only for justice in equal rights and fair play.
Those Black soldiers, like all persons of color, were subject to Jim Crow laws when they returned to their lives in the United States. Those laws, a most blatant form of institutionalized racism, were in place from 1876 to 1965. They included laws like segregated public transportation, separate drinking fountains and restaurants, but they also outlawed “miscegenation,” or mixed-race marriage. Consider the irony of that term. The prefix “mis” is understood as a negation; for example, “misapplied” means to apply wrongly or mistakenly. But “mis,” further back etymologically means “to mix” so miscegenation decays from “mixed genes” to “mistakenly (mixed) genes.” Institutional racism embedded in the language of the law.
As to the question: “What does Nonviolence mean now?” Let us examine the term “nonviolence.” I suspect many people think of nonviolence in its hyphenated form: “non-violence.” Like the term “non-white” that elevates “white” to a higher position, “non-violence” subtly elevates violence. In contrast, “nonviolence” reflects a basic foundation and holistic meaning, an attitude and way of being. The term “violence” refers to a “violation of peace.” May we persistently, diligently, and vigilantly proceed towards peace through nonviolence. Perhaps then we can aspire to the place where we all have unequivocal faith in a nation which affirms that, regardless of race, color, or creed, every person deserves the title of “American.” Maybe then, to paraphrase Toni Morrison, we can all “surrender to the air and together ride the wind.”
Allan Andersen is a former English Literature Instructor at the University of Colorado. He is currently a small business owner in Ashland, OH and has been a member of the ACN Steering Committee for the past 6 years.