Now ‘The People’ Have Voted!
Updated: Jun 9
In the aftermath of the 1965 Watts Riot it was this The Los Angeles Free Press headline by the late, great Art Kunkin that captured the essence of a complex situation in only a few words. As a young white girl growing up in a segregated Southern California suburb, I saw on our TV how the community erupted after a contentious arrest by the South Central police. I didn’t understand why, why rioters were looting their stores, torching their buildings, and firing at police officers and firefighters. Then came the thousands of armed National Guardsmen who shot and arrested people to restore order. I was too young to read his article though Kunkin’s analysis of the voices and frustrations of the black community and the ignorance of the white community was writ large. His summary (page 1, page 2) reported the violations of Rights, and the solutions being voiced from within that black community. With deserved attention, he had listened to what was said. Kunkin went further, declaring that the old guard of whites would do nothing more than return to the status quo once the flames were extinguished and the riots quelled.
Several years later, President Johnson ordered a federal investigation into why one hundred fifty-nine race riots blazed across the nation during the long, hot, summer of 1967. The findings of the resulting Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders reified Kunkin’s assertions and recommendations from the Watts riots. The Report of riots found that they resulted from black’s frustration at their lack of economic opportunity, and it made numerous recommendations on how to address that central situation. The Report also said, “The press has too long basked in a white world looking out of it, if at all, with white men’s eyes and white perspective.” Like the analysis Kunkin had offered, the Report was largely ignored.
While I’d had a few “aha” moments in my life in which I realized how little I knew, or cared to know, about the lives of people of color, an event in 2016 was a traumatic awakening. I was a grandmother, it was 50 years since I had seen the Watts riots, and I was now watching a Black History Month documentary about the 1955 murder of Emmett Till. After being falsely accused by a white woman in the Jim Crow south, 14-year-old Till had been kidnapped by several white men who beat him, mutilated him, and shot him in the head. Then they tied a cotton gin fan around his body with barbed wire and threw him in the Tallahatchie River. Graphic photographs flashed across the screen of his brutalized body after it was retrieved three days later. I sprang off the couch and screamed “No!” It was the immediate and universal anguish every mother feels at the sight of such cruelty to a child. My heart was broken wide open to the depth of my previous complacency. From that moment, I began reviewing how, decade by decade, I had unconsciously been consuming racism my whole life. I read and wrote and read and wrote. And that was but the beginning of my journey. I’m committed to continuing this process of learning what had never been a lesson in school or a family conversation… my white privilege, my blind eye to how the wall had been built between me and ‘them’.
By the end of my review of the 50 years between these two events which, ironically included 30 years of helping the ‘less fortunate’, I knew I had to do more than just be aware of what had gone by. And had I not looked at my entire life, and put the puzzle pieces together of how I wasn’t merely unaware, but actually an unintentional accomplice to maintaining the racial divide, I wouldn’t have been able to say this, “I am a racist.” That revelation changed my life. And the synchronicity of a Black Lives Matter Movement and, of all things, a pandemic have moved others to this realization, as well. Even to the point of their gaining the skills I, too, needed to be actively anti-racist.
The 2020 pandemic forced all of us to slow down, to shelter in place, to watch the world through a window rather than move about in it. Suddenly, things that had always been there appeared for our new consideration. Perhaps the horrific killing of George Floyd is doing what hadn’t been done before; making that ‘vote’ count all around the globe. People of all colors, faiths, genders, and ages are protesting racial injustice and proclaiming Black Lives Matter. Police officers are taking a knee, countermanding orders they know to be against peace and humanity, and marching with thousands upon thousands of peaceful protesters. Past and present elected and appointed Officials have joined citizens of all stripes in speaking truth to power, demanding change within the criminal justice system, and seeking an end to systemic inequities. There has even been a ‘General Rebellion’, top ranking military officials reassuring the public that peaceful protests don’t warrant armed response - not here in America. A far-reaching “Justice in Policing Act” has been introduced in the US Congress which includes training programs on implicit racial bias and duty to intervene. A female protester’s sign spoke the truth to me and those who always ensure the survival of humanity, “ALL mothers were summoned when George Floyd called out for his Momma”
Responding to this demand for near term justice and long-term systemic change, the Mayor of Los Angeles announced the creation of the first-ever Civil and Human Rights Department, and a Civil and Human Rights Commission. An Office of Racial Equity is now established to conduct research, outreach, and policy development. In this way The City of Los Angeles will apply an equity lens to everything it does, a commitment to guarantee equal treatment for all its residents in private employment, housing, education, and commerce. Then, in a moment that could only happen in LA, the earth quaked in accordance with this seismic shift in the City’s consideration of the Rights of all races.
Could all this mean a “tipping point” has finally been reached? A term, uniquely appropriate to the moment, it was born in the world of infectious diseases, it’s the point at which a virus goes beyond a local ability to control it and spreads like a wildfire. Is racial equality to become the societal norm?
It may well be if, just as the City of Los Angeles has done, we make our individual commitments. Let’s bolster the anti-racism momentum by learning more from https://blacklivesmatter.com and https://www.showingupforracialjustice.org; making financial donations to support anti-racism initiatives; demanding that elected officials change racist policies; reading books and following others doing racial justice work.
It would be our way of changing that fifty-five years-old Headline to ‘The People Have Voted!’.
Carolyn L. Baker, M.Ed. is the author of An Unintentional Accomplice: A Personal Perspective on White Responsibility who grew up in segregated Southern California and came of age in the counter-cultural 1960s. www.anunintentionalaccomplice.com