We must talk about race and racism today because one cannot understand this country without understanding race and racism. We must talk about race and racism today because when we do talk about race and racism, as Ta-Nehisi Coates reminds us in Between the World and Me, we often get lost in the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts and forget that which is most important--that racism lands with great violence, upon the body.
I remember with horrifying detail where and when I first learned about the life and death of Emmett Louis Till. I was not quite 13 years old and I was sitting in a 7th grade classroom. My teacher, without caution, played a documentary that I was emotionally unprepared for. Up until that point, I had a limited understanding of what “racism” really meant in America.
When I thought of racism in the past, I thought about grainy footage of “white only” and “colored” signs posted above two separate and unequal water fountains. And in my own experience, “racism” meant being called some unpleasant names as the only black kid in my middle school.
But when I saw Emmett’s face, so beaten and swollen that he was unrecognizable, something terrifying awakened in me. With the force of an earthquake, a whirlwind, and a storm, I took my first big step toward consciousness. Suddenly, the word “racism” took on a deeper meaning for me. Racism in the past was not just blacks and whites not being able to eat at the same restaurant or go to the same movie theater. And racism today did not just mean being called the N-word. It was deeper than that.
Suddenly, the inequalities between my school in the inner city and the schools in the suburbs made more sense. I had not yet learned the vocabulary of redlining or racially restrictive covenants or white flight or mass incarceration, but at that moment, I knew that if a young black boy could be brutally murdered for the heinous “crime” of whistling at a white woman in the same decade that saw my mother’s birth, this was a hatred that was so deep and ingrained in all facets of our society that it could not be swept away in just one generation.
Mamie Till, ever so brave, decided to have an open casket funeral for her son. As much as it pained her to do so, she opened the casket because she knew that the world had to see what racism did to her son. She knew that in death, Emmett could change the world. And he did. His death was the spark that ignited the Civil Rights Movement, and the world became ever better because of it.
Now, it’s our turn to be brave. The first step towards healing any sickness is recognizing that the sickness exists. As long as we continue to hold on to denial or to the idea that black and brown people are just making this stuff up, the longer we allow racism to exact immense violence upon the bodies of the oppressed and the souls of the oppressors and the indifferent. My hope is that with these conversations, Los Angeles can help lead the healing that this country desperately needs.
- Dennis, Los Angeles City Resident of 24 years