Celebrating Black History Month - An Excerpt from RACISM IN AMERICAN PUBLIC LIFE by Dr. Johnetta Betsch Cole
Racism in American Public Life

In celebration of Black History Month, we are pleased to offer this selection from the introduction of Dr. Johnetta Cole's new book RACISM IN AMERICAN PUBLIC LIFE: A Call to Action. 

As I was completing my final revisions for this book, two monumental events occurred in the United States. The first was the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the most deadly health crisis since the flu pandemic of 1918. The second was the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020, and the subsequent demonstrations that in June alone involved as many as 26 million people nationwide, with more than 40 percent of U.S. counties participating in the protests.

The two pandemics are connected in the sense that the coronavirus outbreak has exposed the systemic racial and economic inequality that continues to afflict our nation. I refer to both the current health crisis and this period of racial turmoil as pandemics because each has spread across our nation and our world. . . .

The novel coronavirus has been called a great equalizer because it has impacted every person in our country in some way. However, the description is not accurate, because traditionally marginalized communities have been impacted far more than other populations. African Americans, Latinxs, Native Americans, the poor, and other marginalized communities have experienced significantly higher infection, hospitalization, and death rates from COVID-19 than White Americans. Indeed, hospitalization rates for African Americans and Native Americans are five times greater than those for White Americans, and rates for Latinxs are four times greater.

These numbers illustrate how unequal access to quality health care, housing, and employment has deleterious effects on marginalized communities. Health officials repeatedly urge people to practice social distancing, to wear masks, and to wash their hands often. These guidelines assume that everyone has access to what is needed to practice good public health. That is not the case. For example, many homes on rural Native American reservations and in Alaskan Native villages do not have adequate sanitation, including access to clean running water. In May 2020 the Navajo Nation had the third highest per capita rate of COVID-19, surpassing New Jersey and New York.

In addition, communities of color and other traditionally marginalized groups are often caught in a vicious cycle that creates increased chances of exposure to the coronavirus. Many people can obey the orders to stay away from public places, to work from home, and to avoid close contact with other people. However, a large number of individuals in marginalized communities cannot afford to do so. Many Black and Latinx people of color cannot shelter at home because they work in “essential” job sectors such as transportation, the restaurant industry, public safety, hospitals, and grocery stores that bring them into contact with large groups of people.

The virus also disproportionately affects the children of traditionally marginalized groups. As schools transitioned to remote, online learning in order to practice social distancing, these children faced barriers that those in more affluent school districts were not subjected to. Disparities in broadband adoption, commonly called the digital divide, stem from systemic racism and income inequality. Nearly half of all people in the United States without internet access at home are people of color. Approximately 15 million children in our country (21 percent of all children) live in families with incomes below the federal poverty threshold. And the percentage of Black children in poverty is at least twice as high as among White children.

These children often live in conditions and family situations that are far from ideal for distance learning. How does a child effectively participate in remote learning when there is only one computer in a home? How does a child concentrate on homework when there is no designated quiet place to do so? In another illustration of how the coronavirus has disproportionately affected a particular community, hate incidents directed at Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have sharply increased, driven at least in part by the use of the terms “Chinese virus” and “Kung Flu” by President Donald Trump. Organizers and supporters of the group Stop AAPI Hate documented 832 incidents across California from April through June 2020. Among them were 81 incidents of assault and 64 potential civil rights violations.

The second pandemic, that of racial turmoil, was triggered or at least abetted by a string of violent acts by the police and others against people of color.

The names George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, and Tony McDade are just the latest to be indelibly connected to police violence—joining those of Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, and others. And the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery by two civilians shows how “jogging while Black” and similar innocuous activities can lead to death.

The killing of unarmed Black women does not receive the same degree of attention as the killing of unarmed Black men. This is a reflection, in my view, of the ongoing presence of what Frances Beal called double jeopardy in a pamphlet of that title that she wrote in 1969. Indeed, Black women can be victimized twice—because of their race and because of their gender.

So we must call the names of unarmed murdered Black women just as we call those of unarmed murdered Black men: Breonna Taylor, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Tanisha Anderson, Atatiana Jefferson, Charleena Lyles, and so many others.

The protests that began in May 2020 in response to the deaths of unarmed Black women and men are organized mainly by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter on social media, the movement was founded in 2013 by three young Black women—Alicia Garza, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, and Opal Tometi—after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the February 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an African American teen. After the 2014 deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Gardner, the movement became nationally known for its anti-racist advocacy and protest. Today it’s a global organization that also is active in the United Kingdom and Canada.

In this country, BLM is a decentralized network with more than thirty chapters. The movement is also connected to other organizations that share its mission. While Black Lives Matter protests have been centered in the U.S., similar protests over improper police treatment of people in communities of color have occurred around the world.

What is it about the death of George Floyd that triggered such a strong and sustained reaction to police violence and systemic racism at this particular time in American history? I believe there are two factors. The first is how Floyd was killed by an officer who pressed his knee on his neck for almost nine minutes. The image of this brutal act, while two police officers stood by and watched as Floyd struggled to breathe, called up for me and for countless other African Americans images of shackles around the necks of enslaved Black people.

In his powerful eulogy delivered at Floyd’s funeral, Rev. Al Sharpton drew on this collective memory. Rev. Sharpton passionately stated what many African Americans feel deep down in their souls: “George Floyd’s story has been the story of Black folks. Because ever since 401 years ago, the reason we could never be who we wanted and dreamed to be is you kept your knee on our neck It’s time for us to stand up in George’s name and say, ‘Get your knee off our necks!’”

The murder of George Floyd conjures up another image that is associated with the necks of Black people—that of racial violence in the form of lynching. Although Whites, Latinxs, Native Americans, and Asian Americans have also been lynched in the U.S., the vast majority of the victims of this profoundly brutal form of murder have been Black people—specifically Black men, although Black women and children have also been subjected to this barbaric act.

Lynching historically has been a form of racial terrorism to perpetuate White supremacy and the oppression of Black people. There have been close to 4,500 documented cases of the lynching of Black men, women, and children in the United States.

The second factor that triggered the mass protests that began in May 2020 is the novel coronavirus pandemic itself, which put the majority of Americans under stay-at-home orders for at least several months. Millions of people confined to their homes spent more than the usual amount of time watching TV news broadcasts and reading information on social media platforms. The murder of George Floyd and other acts of police violence were caught on smartphones and brought into living rooms via the media. As the images were played over and over again, commentators recalled the infamous and brutal police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991. After thirty years was there still no end to such violence? The outcry began: “Enough is enough!”

I should note that while I condemn the killing of unarmed women and men by police, I have a personal reason for urging that we not label all police departments and all police officers as racist and violent. One of my sons is a sergeant in a police department. In conversations with him, I have come to understand how difficult, dangerous, and often thankless his job is. Whatever the mixture of factors that produced these intense and sustained protests, our country seems to be in a different place than it was just a few months ago. And I am very cautiously optimistic that this time we might see meaningful change in addressing systemic racism.

As someone who has long struggled against racism, sexism, and other systems of inequality, I welcome the incredible diversity among the protestors. I am especially impressed by the number of young White people marching and calling for an end to systemic racism.

It is encouraging to hear that some police chiefs and officers are supporting change in their organizations. And there is hope that Congress might pass legislation backing needed changes, such as the outlawing of chokeholds and the establishment of a nationwide database of law enforcement officers. . . . 

We have reached a moment of change in our country that I hope can be sustained. However, we have been at similar hopeful moments in the past that did not last. In addition, our momentum is threatened by the “law and order” backlash in response to efforts to address systemic racism in all sectors of American society.

These two movements—the call to address systemic racism, and the call to defend what are said to be “American values”— are gaining even more attention as our country heads into the 2020 presidential elections.

Regardless of one’s party affiliation, it should be clear that President Trump and his loyal Republican supporters firmly oppose the Black Lives Matter movement as they speak and act in terms of a cultural war. For example, in the middle of a substantial increase in the number of COVID-19 cases, the president held an event on July 3 at Mount Rushmore—despite protests by Native Americans that the land is sacred to them, and despite the concerns of public health officials about the gathering of 7,500 supporters who did not practice social distancing and who were not required to wear masks.

At the event, Trump spoke of “a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children.” And, he referred to those protesting the killing of George Floyd and other Black Americans as “angry mobs [who] are trying to tear down statues of our founders, deface our most sacred memorials, and unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities.” He added: “In our schools, our newsrooms, even our corporate boardrooms, there is a new far-left fascism that demands absolute allegiance.”

As the issues that are dividing Americans in our current state of racial turmoil become more and more intense, the three Phi Beta Kappa Mercer lectures that I presented in 2019, and that are the basis of this book, have new importance.

In them, I lifted up the critical importance of the humanities in the kind of effective education that is needed in our schools, colleges, and universities. I also encouraged the teaching of the history of racism in our country as a prerequisite to combating it. And I called for courageous conversations about race and racism to take place in the academy as well as in our communities.

It is my hope that everyone who reads this book will find something that is helpful in their ongoing efforts to understand and challenge racism in American public life. As expressed in this paraphrase capturing what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said during his March 1965 sermon in Selma, Alabama: Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.

Johnnetta Betsch Cole, President of the National Council of Negro Women, is coauthor of Gender Talk: The Struggle for Women’s Equality in African American Communities.

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