by Dr. Virgil L. Smith –
The protests taking place across our country give us an opportunity to change and live up to the values we espouse in our Constitution and Bill of Rights, the documents that have made us the world leader for democracy.
To fulfill the principles of our Constitution and Bill of Rights, the nation’s citizens have sacrificed, protested, and challenged leaders throughout our history. The Abolitionist movement, the Women’s Suffrage parade in 1913, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire protest in 1911, the March on Washington in 1963 and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and the March on Washington in 1993 for LGBTQ rights, are just some examples of this citizen activism. As a result, slavery ended, women gained the right to vote, labor laws were enacted, the Civil Rights Act passed, and same-sex marriage became legal. The point is, we Americans have faced many, many challenges and have found a way to deal with the challenge and continue to lead the world as its strongest democracy.
Where do we go from here? During a town hall meeting, President Barack Obama told the nation that all major change has come with some unrest. He went on to say, “I want you to know that you matter, that your lives matter and that your dreams matter.”
These are the upbeat and encouraging words we need to hear from our leaders. Obama sees, as we all do, the engagement of our nation’s diverse young people, who are outraged as are many Americans by what they saw in Minneapolis and elsewhere, and are taking to the streets and are demanding police reform. Obama paints a picture of hope despite the despair we are living through during these turbulent times.
The protests are the culmination of years of frustration with the systemic racism that has paralyzed the nation’s African Americans who, as did their ancestors, have lived as second-class citizens. It is abhorrent that the world witnessed George Floyd killed in the videos shown on television and the Internet. That horror has triggered the emotional and justified response that we are witnessing. The anger and protests are clearly no excuse for the looters and criminals who are trying to hijack the legal and peaceful protests. We have to look past these individuals that are simply capitalizing on the nation’s grief.
Despite the unrest that is captivating our consciousness and moral principles, we cannot forget what the current administration has done to Latinx children by separating them from their families. Many have not been reunited with their parents. This is also a shameful act of racism that is being done in front of our eyes. We cannot become complacent or treat this behavior by our government as an acceptable way to treat immigrants.
All parents, regardless of their ethnicity, want the best for their children and their families. African Americans and other minorities want the same thing as the white majority in America, an equal opportunity for justice, employment, educational opportunities and a safe life in America. African Americans want to be able to tell their children to look for a police officer when they need help, as opposed to telling their children to not make any sudden moves and to show their hands at a traffic stop.
It was warming to the heart to see police and protestors connecting with each other with hugs, taking a knee, and in some cases marching together in places like Flint, Boston, New York, Atlanta, and Santa Cruz. That is the heart of America and what makes our diversity the strength of the nation, despite the difficult traumatized history of race relations that have placed African Americans, Asian Americans, American Indians and Latinx in secondary status compared to white Americans in this country.
The protests are happening against the background of a pandemic that has killed more Americans than all of its wars, with the exception of the Civil War and World Wars I & II. Despite the challenges facing us, the United States is a strong nation and is driven by the will of its people, who will demand police reform and political accountability, and will vote out leaders who do not place the country first.
We have to believe in our values and live up to the Constitution and Bill of Rights, which have guided us during the most difficult times over the past 244 years of our existence as a nation.
Dr. Virgil L. Smith formerly served as president and publisher of the Asheville Citizen-Times and Vice President for Human Resources for the Gannett Company. He is the principal for the Smith Edwards Group.