The American dream is a really good story. It’s been told in words, songs and films for centuries, captivating the imaginations, ambitions and dreams of people all across the world. That dream (we’re told) belongs to all, regardless of where they come from. Or, as the framers of the American Constitution put it: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal… with certain unalienable rights.”
But in the years, decades and centuries since the declaration of those words, history’s account tells a different story. In the US and other developed nations, “we the people” has too often meant a small, select group. And the dream of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness has likewise only been promised to a particular class. As time passed and democracies developed, though, the expansion and recognition of rights for others – from Civil Rights to women’s equality – signalled a more open, tolerant and fairer world. At least, on paper.
In this 21st century, some argue racism, discrimination and the lingering effects of hostile policies no longer exist. The streets of the world’s largest cities, parliaments, congresses of powerful nations and the offices of well-known companies, they say, lay plain the evidence of equality, equity and equal access for all.
Unequal treatment? Only in exceptional circumstances. Institutional Racism? Non-existent (just ask the UK government’s race commission).
The small club of Black stars, CEOs and a lone President of the United States should have been enough for all of us to realise that this idea of racism – and its negative impact on generations of a people – remains unproven, imaginary and a modern day myth.
So what, if anything, is there to complain about?
Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. Tamir Rice. Walter Scott. Alton Sterling. Philando Castile. Stephon Clark. Breonna Taylor. Daunte Wright.
“George Floyd’s death started a fire, but the kindling had been piling up for years.” With the courage of conviction and a click of a button, people across America – and the world – could no longer, it seemed, hold on to the idea that racism was a thing of the past or merely a stain on history. Under the watchful eye of a smartphone camera, we could all no longer pretend that racist attitudes, laws and systems existed only in the hearts and minds of a basket of deplorables.
Instead, in 8 minutes and 46 seconds, we saw it take the form of police officers and disproportionate measures; governments and unjust laws; employers and racial biases; friends and ignorant views; ourselves and wilful ignorance.
In America, people took to the streets, with the Black community anguished about another pointless killing, and others from all walks of life motivated by human decency. Realising that whilst the script and actors may be different in the states, the same movie occurs in our home countries, many more – from London to Paris – mobilised and marched with one chant: “No justice, no peace.”
In the months that followed, statues came down, presidents spoke and companies made promises. Everything (it seemed) came together in a perfect storm, a realisation that something, anything, needed to change.
In the US, an end to ridiculous police practices was sought. In the UK, a renewed conversation about the targeting of young Black boys during “Stop & Search” and the institutions of governments, culture and businesses took place.
“No justice, no peace”
George Floyd’s death, and the stories of similar incidents preceding it – which resulted in the needless loss of much-loved sons, daughters, brothers, sisters and parents – led to a remarkable change in the atmosphere. Most wanted to be seen and heard doing the right thing. No longer, it seemed, was the action of Black stars taking the knee a “controversial subject”, nor were the open and honest conversations about the true nature of our institutions, governments and society restricted zones.
In a flash, what had once been the concerns of Black parents, children and people became the concerns of millions around the world. Dinner time chats about “Stop & Search”, unfair stereotypes and plain discrimination now occupied a prime time slot on every channel.
In the streets, a sea of people – Black, White, Asian and those from every creed – marched, chanted, sung and even danced in protest of laws and plain unfairness. On social media, reels were made, hashtags were created and black squares were displayed.
Collectively, a new wave of energy took hold. Motivated by a need for a change, young people, including children as young as five, looked for ways they could contribute or help change the status quo. Armed with the promises of centuries ago, and the social climate of today, Black activists and organisations sprung into action, with articles, blogs, videos and films aimed at creating that long-lasting change.
Huge companies, law firms and businesses responded too. Goldman Sachs pledged to contribute to creating equal access with their 1 Million Black Women Initiative, Google launched their Black Founders Fund and sporting rivals joined hands. The hope of ages past and the impatient optimism of young people kickstarted an unstoppable movement. Much of these initiatives, policies and actions will take time to bear fruit, of course. In the near future, we’ll know the true effectiveness of the promises made.
But for governments and political leaders, their actions and words in the months following Floyd’s death remain a source of frustration, anger and disappointment. If the movement for change reminds us of the powerful nature of hope, the political response serves as an indication of the work that still needs to be done.
In the UK, a commission was created, with the response and conclusions hardly surprising. Racism and discriminatory incidents may occur, they said, but to term it a problem with our institutions was a reach too far. This, in a country where Black people (3-4% of the total population) are nine times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police, where hostile environments are declared by senior ministers and where Windrush heroes are denied rights.
The Audacity of Hope
To truly work towards change, an honest audit of history and the social dynamics that continue to affect marginalised groups needs to be undertaken. Companies and organisations need to make true on their promises – and governments, courts and political institutions need to work towards delivering the right of equality for all.
George Floyd’s legacy was to bring into sharp focus what so many people experience every day. It was to kickstart a movement resigned to the great chapters of history books. His daughter claimed that “daddy changed the world” – and she’s right to think so.
To truly create the change and progress we want and need, we all have to continue to make the conscious effort to call out inequality, stamp out hate and cultivate more lasting change. We should continue to expect more from our governments, our institutions and our society. But more importantly, to make progress, each of us – in addition to lobbying those in positions of power – will need to take a long hard look in the mirror to decide what our role will be.
To achieve actual change, you and I will need to channel the audacity of hope into the audacity to speak up, to act and to make the world a better place for all.
This article was a guest feature from our partner platform: The Urban Journal.
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