Dr. Neal Lester

For my white friends who ask if I am okay, the answer is “No, I am not okay.” 

 To ask that question of me right now amid this COVID-19 pandemic that is disproportionately killing black and brown people in the US, and while experiencing the trauma resulting from the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd is not good. 

Dealing with American racism in all of its insidious forms, police brutality, human loss and suffering cannot be captured in sound bites. This unrest across this state, country and the globe is bigger than George Floyd. I have already written about the parallel plagues of American racism and COVID-19 just a few weeks ago.

I am not okay when what I wrote in August 2017 about Confederate monuments and Charlottesville applies to Minneapolis now, albeit potentially Anytown, USA: “For White Allies in Search of a Solution to American Racism / When Folks of Color Are Exhausted.” 

No, I am not okay and not alone in not being okay: your black colleagues may look like they’re okay — chances are they’re not. 

I am not okay when I know that jogging in the “wrong neighborhood” can lead to a young black man’s death in Georgia, my home state; or that allegedly forging a check can lead to being suffocated at the hands of Minnesota police as other police stand by doing nothing to intervene. 

I am not okay when I recall being told by white police to stop jogging in a “white neighborhood” in Birmingham, Alabama, because my presence made the home dwellers nervous. 

I am not okay when I realize that I could have been a newspaper headline or crime statistic while facilitating our Saturday morning community outreach and a police sergeant became more and more agitated as I tried to explain our purpose.

I am not okay when I am stopped in Sierra Vista for speeding but asked three times by the ticketing officer: “Where are you from?” Being from Phoenix—as my driver’s license shows--and then Georgia, were not “exotic” enough to match my loc hairstyle and skin color in southern Arizona. 

I am also not okay when I see so many Facebook posts and threads now of alleged white allies asking black folks to give them a blueprint of how and where to direct their anger and outrage. One person even asked an already vulnerable and justifiably angry black woman to organize a panel of other women of color to “brainstorm on solutions to American racism.” 

Others complain about the destruction of property during protests, contending that peaceful protest and “civility” is all needed to address this plague of American racism. What was Colin Kaepernick’s peaceful protest against police brutality? How did the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s, Medgar Evers’ and Malcolm X’s steadfast fight for justice end? 

While I do not legitimize violence as a principle, I ask that concerned individuals – black and white – measure the impact of destroying property as compared to killing people. 

Spike Lee gets it right in Do the Right Thing (1989) when Mookie calculatedly throws a chair into the pizzeria window to deflect the crowd protesting the death of Radio Raheem because his boombox music was too loud. 

To be clear, I am in no way minimizing or advocating for the destruction of property, potentially the source of another’s livelihood.

 What I am keenly aware of is, however, the legitimacy of expressing anger, hurt, and pain and responding viscerally to serial injustices. I understand the rage that Lauryn Hill laments in “Black Rage,” which she dedicates to Michael Brown’s death in 2014: “Black rage is founded on two-thirds a person. Rapings and beatings and suffering that worsens/ Black human packages tied up in strings/ Black rage can come from all these kinds of things.” 

 Property can be insured and rebuilt. Dead bodies cannot be resurrected with a life insurance policy.

I am not okay with stories of innocent black men who spend years in prison for crimes later determined they did not commit. This unrest is about 400 years of moments like this since the first Africans were forcibly brought to this country. 

This moment is about the reality of black American identity in this country clamoring to declare our own humanity. 

I am not okay when Michael Donald is hunted like an animal, beaten, shot and hung from a tree by white men in Mobile, Alabama as a symbol of the illusion of white supremacy in the deep south.

 I am not okay when Sandra Bland is pulled from her car and perceived as a threat because she has a lit cigarette and dares to speak back to an officer.

I am not okay with Carolyn Bryant recanting, saying that Emmett Till did nothing to her years after he was killed by her husband and brother-in-law and the world grieved with his mother Mamie. 

How can anyone be okay when people are pushed to the edge from decades of having one’s humanity denied?  How can anyone in the US with their humanity--empathy, respect, integrity, and compassion--intact be okay with racial violence in the US since 1660?  

Lest we also forget the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, the Atlanta Child Murders, the Scottsboro Boys, Amy Cooper’s faux fear of a black male bird watcher, and Susan Smith’s bigger-than-a-“little white lie” that a black man kidnapped her two small children in a carjacking when she herself drowned them, or the recent tsunami of “White People Calling the Police on Black People” for living.

 Indeed, how is anyone okay with the individual and collective stories of  American racial injustice? “A Decade of Watching Black People Die.”

So, no, I am not okay. If you are paying attention to what’s happening in this country and in this state and in cities across this state, and when you know our American and world history regarding our inhumanity to each other based on race—and all other systemic -isms that oppress and dehumanize--how is that you are okay? 

If you are okay, perhaps your commitment to fundamental humanity and to social justice is not as deep as you believe. We are not all in this together, and all lives do not matter … and never have.

Ahwatukee resident Neal A. Lester, PhD, is Foundation Professor of English and founding director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University. 

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