Confronting Racism and Brutality with Justice and Truth

The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but only if we bend it that way.
A child at a makeshift memorial honoring George Floyd, at the spot where he was taken into custody in Minneapolis, June 1, 2020
Credit: Carlos Barria/Reuters

The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but only if we bend it that way.

*Trigger warning: Graphic description of police violence below.

Update: On June 3, 2020, charges against the former officer who kneeled on George Floyd’s neck were upgraded to second-degree murder. The three other former officers, two of whom helped hold Floyd down for some part of the time, have been charged with aiding and abetting murder.

Recent weeks have brought one horrific reminder after another of the structural and systemic racism that is literally choking the lives out of Black people.

We’ve watched armed white vigilantes hunt down and kill a Black man—Ahmaud Arbery—in cold blood while he jogged in broad daylight through a residential community not far from his home in Brunswick, Georgia.

We’ve seen family members mourn the death of a Black woman—Breonna Taylor—fatally shot by police while she lay asleep in her bed in a Louisville, Kentucky, suburb.

And we’ve watched the life flow out of a Black man—George Floyd—as he was pinned to the street, handcuffed, helpless, and pleading for relief, while a Minneapolis police officer kneeled into the defenseless man’s neck.

Outrage is necessary, but it’s not enough. To say “I’m not racist” is not enough. We have an affirmative duty to speak out for justice, to work to bring it into being, and to confront and actively oppose racism in all its forms.

These latest tragedies come as the coronavirus pandemic has laid bare yet another example of the real and often deadly impact of generations of systemic racism in our country. In state after state, we’ve seen Black people dying from the coronavirus at significantly higher rates than their white counterparts—a stark indictment of the way social and economic disparities rooted in race have put millions of people at increased risk solely because of their skin color.

In the work we do at NRDC through partnerships with Black communities and other communities of color, we see firsthand how these groups suffer disproportionately from industrial pollution, toxic waste, and other forms of frontline environmental hazard and harm. This, too, is the result of deeply entrenched racist patterns and policies, the direct upshot of which is physical suffering and premature death.

We will continue to vindicate the people’s rights under the law, to partner with frontline individuals and groups to demand environmental justice. Even though this alone will not eradicate racism, it is critical to confront racism and brutality with justice and truth. How long do Black people need to suffer because of centuries-old prejudices and fears?

We see firsthand how communities of color suffer disproportionately from industrial pollution, toxic waste, and other forms of frontline environmental hazard and harm. This, too, is the result of deeply entrenched racist patterns and policies.

To be clear: We don’t have to condone violence and destruction to recognize the anger and despair of people whose voices have not been heard, whose grievances have not been addressed, and whose rights continue to be violated with lethal results by people who abuse their power.

“We are done dying,” declared Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP, the nation’s largest and oldest civil rights organization. “The uprising spreading across this country is fueled by systemic racial issues that have been ingrained in the fabric of this nation for decades,” wrote Johnson. “We must protest peacefully, demand persistently, and fight politically.”

The abiding egalitarian promise of our democracy is that we’ll all be held to the same standard and receive the same protections, regardless of race or station. Current events place in bold relief our failure to achieve that promise. The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but only if we bend it that way.

As a white man, I cannot know the fear Arbery felt when armed vigilantes cut him off and killed him while he was out for an afternoon jog. I can’t imagine how it felt for Taylor to be shot to death in her own bed. And I can’t begin to fathom what was racing through Floyd’s mind in the final moments of his life, when he called out for his mother and told the officer who pinned him to the street with a knee to the neck for nearly nine minutes, “I can’t breathe."

Not knowing what that felt like doesn’t mean I don’t experience genuine feelings of rage, shame, and purpose. I also feel a fierce determination to stand beside and behind oppressed people and work tirelessly for justice under law.

That means making clear that Black Lives Matter—in fact as well as in spirit. It means understanding that racism isn’t simply an issue for Black people. It’s a problem for the entire nation, and “it can’t just be on people of color to deal with it,” as former First Lady Michelle Obama wrote over the weekend.

“It’s up to all of us—Black, white, everyone—no matter how well-meaning we think we might be, to do the honest, uncomfortable work of rooting it out,” she wrote.

Or, as the syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts has written: “Racism is a white problem,” not an issue for Black people to resolve. “The system was built by and for white people; it’s up to them to dismantle it.”

Our justice system has a critical role to play.

Three men are under arrest in connection with Arbery’s killing, and a hearing is scheduled for this week to determine whether there’s enough evidence to prosecute the suspects.

Three plainclothes officers who raided Taylor’s residence as part of a broader narcotics operation have been placed on administrative leave, pending an investigation by the office of the Jefferson County attorney general.

The fired officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck has been arrested and charged with manslaughter and third-degree murder. And prosecutors must also look at the possible complicity of the three Minneapolis police officers—who have also been fired—who stood by but did not intervene to stop the killing.              

As Mike Freeman, the prosecutor in the Floyd case, told reporters, in words that apply equally to each of these separate inquiries, it is imperative that these investigations go forward “as expeditiously, as thoroughly and completely, as justice demands.”

Justice will not bring back the lives we’ve lost. Nor will it bring an end to the suffering of their loved ones and friends. Nor will it restore a sense that, in this country, people are equal and free. Justice under the law, though, has the power to hold people to account, deter future homicidal behavior by law enforcers or their self-appointed proxies, and break the pattern of heartbreaking loss and violence against Black communities.

Throughout our history, we’ve been called on, as a nation, to rise to a challenge, seize opportunity, and respond to crisis. Not all of us have answered the call, but we’ve been made better by those who have. Today, we face that choice again. The best choice I see is standing up for justice, and it is clear that right now, justice is needed particularly to address the systemic and deadly harm that our society imposes on Black people in America.

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