By Blake Strode, Executive Director of ArchCity Defenders
There is much talk about the crisis in our communities. And there should be; it is real, and it is urgent. We just need to define it correctly.
Some would have you believe that it is a crisis of lawlessness, of protesters and provocateurs, of looters and arsonists. These, we are told, are the people responsible for the unrest and collective unease. We see photographs of vehicles and buildings set ablaze and videos of young people leaping through broken windows with armfuls of merchandise. For some, this defines the crisis in America.
But before those scenes of mayhem, we have seen — with our eyes and in our minds — a different set of indelible images: those of Black bodies robbed of the lives they once lived. George Floyd pleading with his last breaths. Breonna Taylor sleeping in her bed. And so many others, walking, driving, jogging, or snacking on a bag of Skittles. For many in this country, particularly for millions of Black people, these are the things of nightmares. This is the crisis.
And let us not forget the public health crisis that has been the foremost adversary of the past several months. We are, after all, still in the midst of a deadly pandemic. It was not so long ago that this pandemic was crisis enough, nearing two million confirmed cases in the U.S. and more than one hundred thousand lives lost. In cities across the country, that burden, too, has fallen most heavily on Black communities and families. The disparities tell a familiar story.
We talk about these as overlapping, intersecting, even compounding crises, but that is wrong. These are not three different crises happening at once. These are three different manifestations of the same crisis. It is a crisis of poverty, injustice, and racism, and it has been long in the making.
We have chosen in policy and in practice to treat Black communities, particularly poor Black communities, with neglect at best and derision at worst. What can we expect to result from generations of racist policy, targeted disinvestment, and systematized violence? The answer is: concentrated illness, state-sanctioned homicide, and justifiable rage. Tragic as the consequences of that rage may be — and they sometimes are, as we have seen in recent days — it should be no surprise that so many who have taken to the streets question the legitimacy of state actors that have acted so illegitimately. The outcomes that we now see are not inexplicable; they are inevitable.
Our defining crisis is not one that will be easily overcome. It cannot be defeated by scapegoating and gaslighting. It cannot be avoided by walling off or gating in. This is a crisis that threatens to consume us, and it will do precisely that if we let it.
But we can choose another way.
We can begin, today, the work of fully accounting for the racialized trauma, exploitation, and abuse that have been perpetuated against Black people in this country and repairing the harm that has been caused. We can divest from systems of policing and incarceration, which criminalize and cage people. We can invest in new institutions and practices of community wellbeing, health, and safety. We can build and fund new schools, parks, and transportation systems in an equitable manner. We can bring decent housing and healthcare to those disproportionately Black communities that do not have them.
To be clear, this does entail costs for privileged white America. It means defunding police and closing jails. It means foregoing the advantage of a superior public education as a priced-in cost of commodified housing. It means parting with the myth of American meritocracy. It means less for those who have more and more for those who have less. It means giving something up.
But if the present moment teaches us anything, it should be that there are costs to staying the course, too.
So, we have a choice to make. We can deepen our crisis by doubling down on failed systems and racist policies, or we can respond to it by transforming our public institutions and investments to recognize the fundamental humanity and dignity of Black people in a way that America never has before.
We should choose wisely, because it will determine whether this crisis, our crisis, becomes an artifact of history, or a harbinger of an even more deeply troubled future.
Blake Strode is the Executive Director of ArchCity Defenders, a holistic legal advocacy organization, and a native of St. Louis, Mo.