By Beverly George
In this time of COVID-19, Black Lives Matter protesters have been marching for over three weeks. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and now Rayshard Brooks. The hanging deaths of Robert Fuller in Palmdale, California, on June 10 and of Malcolm Harsch in neighboring San Bernardino County on May 31 were first reported as suicides, but are now under further investigation. The list of black victims seems to never end, not even with resounding protests in our streets.
Where do we go from here?
That question led me last week to Oprah Winfrey’s webinar of the same name with a distinguished panel of experts. Her guests elucidated the constant fear of black Americans who are just trying to live their daily lives in our country. Discussion of the their experience was compelling. The panel also covered what they want white people in our country to know and what they want white people to do. Current protests offer all of us a chance to begin a long process of making our democracy stronger so that it can deliver to all Americans the promise of equal justice under the law.
Winfrey’s panel included Charles Blow, from the New York Times; David Oyelowo, the actor who played Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in “Selma”; Nikole Hannah-Jones of The 1619 Project, filmmaker Ava DuVernay, director of the documentary, “13th”; Jennifer Eberhardt Ph. D., professor of psychology at Stanford University and author of Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See; Ibram X. Kendi, Ph. D., author of How To Be an Antiracist; Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms; Stacey Abrams, champion of voting rights and author of Our Time is Now; Rashad Robinson, civil rights leader and president of Color of Change; and Bishop William Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign.
Barber listed five interlocking injustices that affect poor people, particularly black people, in America: systemic racism, systematic poverty, ecological devastation, denial of healthcare, and our nation’s war economy.
“The system is not broken,” said DuVernay. “It was built this way.”
Barber further cited “the false oral narrative of religious nationalism that consecrates all this evil.” What a bold, clear assessment.
All of this takes its toll on the black community, according to Eberhardt. “When we suffer, people are numb. People don’t feel we’re as vulnerable to pain,” she said.
“It’s a collective grief in the history of black Americans,” Hannah-Jones added. “White Americans will tolerate it until something egregious happens.”
I am a first wave Baby Boomer, born in 1946 in Atlanta, Georgia, born with white privilege. While my family worked hard to secure their place in the middle class, we had the advantage of our white skin. We did not have to seek food service from the back door of a café, take a seat at the rear of a bus, look hard and long for a public restroom or water fountain, worry about an encounter with the police or public officials, or fret about the logistics of making a purchase in a store. Today, the Jim Crow laws from my youth have been replaced with voter suppression laws and a two-faced legal justice system in many states.
I embrace my responsibility to push for change for black and brown Americans who have struggled for over 400 years. Paraphrasing a woman protesting somewhere in our nation last week, “You should all celebrate that we do not want revenge. We only want to live equal under the law!” This applies to law enforcement and court rulings, but it extends far beyond that.
Black lives matter. “Equal under the law” should apply to healthcare, education, the environment, equal pay for equal work, voting rights, and more. Our black brothers and sisters need us to stand united with them to this goal. When their lives improve, we will leave white privilege behind, and together, we will all embrace the American privilege of being equal under the law.
Isabel Wilkerson spoke at the College of DuPage in 2018. I had devoured her book, The Warmth of Other Suns, and I looked forward to hearing her discuss it.
Sometimes when you hear an author speak, you take away a beautiful, golden nugget of truth that sticks to the very fabric of your being. I am paraphrasing her now, but here’s the gist of that truth Wilkerson offered. She said that when one group of people continually tries to hold down another group in a ditch, that first group has to crawl down in the ditch themselves to control and suppress the other. I recall thinking in that moment—as I do even now—how absolutely exhausting this all is and has been for 400 years. It diminishes us all to continue this American caste system, born as slavery in 1619.
For the sake of our black and brown brothers and sisters, we must change this now. Together we can pull each other out of that deep, bloody ditch.
Therefore, I urge all ACE members and friends to get to work and advocate now for the following that disproportionately affect black and brown Americans.
Access the Ballot and Vote by Mail
Access the ballot in all states —now and in the future—by mail. Voters should be able to vote safely and comfortably in their homes and mail their ballots to be counted. What happened with the Wisconsin and Georgia primaries gave us a preview of how November 3 will play out. Polling sites will be closed and condensed into fewer without proper notice. Votes will inevitably be denied as poll books are not updated in time. Voting machines will not be rigorously tested nor learned to secure a smooth election process. All of these and more will produce a successful and complex strategy for overall voter suppression. Vote by Mail (VBM) works and delivered reliable election results in Oregon, Colorado, Washington, Utah, and Hawaii.
First, you can register to vote online at https://ova.elections.il.gov . If you’re not registered, but will be 18 years old on November 3, 2020, you can also register online today using that link.
Second, on June 16, 2020, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a bill into law expanding our state’s existing Vote by Mail process. The new law, effective immediately, applies only to the 2020 general election on November 3, 2020, and it is aimed at ensuring “safe and active participation in the 2020 general election during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.” Local election officials must mail or email absentee ballot applications to voters who have participated in recent elections, namely, the 2018 general (mid-term) election, the 2019 consolidated election, or the 2020 general primary held on March 17, 2020. The applications will also be mailed to voters who registered or changed addresses after the March primary.
When you receive your application for an absentee ballot, fill it out and return it by October 1, 2020 to receive your ballot by October 6, 2020. The final step is to complete your ballot and return it. You do not have to wait until November 3 to mail your ballot. Vote by Mail works smoothly, is more convenient for most voters, and delivers reliable election results as we’ve seen in Oregon, Colorado, Washington, Utah, and Hawaii. The number of ballots cast is always higher in a VBM state because it makes the ballot accessible to more voters. Higher voter turnout is a healthy nonpartisan outcome that strengthens a democracy.
Third, take on your own grassroots project. Pick Wisconsin or Georgia and write a letter or email their state house members advocating for Vote By Mail.
Census: Fill It Out and Encourage Others to Do the Same
Census data is due August 14, 2020. If you’ve answered the Census 2020 questions, pat yourself on the back. Then, phone or email your friends and family, here and in other states, and encourage them to do the same. The complete response from each community now will determine the amount of federal funds they’ll receive for public education and other services for the next ten years.
Encourage Reform of the Criminal Justice System
We need to rethink and reconstruct law enforcement. Chokeholds and other brute force measures should be outlawed, primarily because they are too often used disproportionately on black or brown people stopped for a broken taillight or a DUI. Social services should respond to drug overdose and mental health calls, not armed police officers. I think we can find an effective model for reform in other countries like the U.K.
Prisons for Profit must end. To fill these businesses, black and brown people, including minor children, who have been found guilty are sentenced to lengthy, unjust terms. Bryan Stephenson’s Equal Justice Initiative provides the numbers here to show that America is, indeed, number one in the industry of incarceration.
This is a beginning. More changes will be needed later. Let’s get to work.
For more ways to be an ally, visit our Human Rights Committee page.
ACE Leader Beverly George also is a member of Indivisible, the Naperville League of Women Voters, and the Citizens Climate Lobby. She also volunteers with her parish PADS group. A former chemist, George worked in clinical chemistry and hematology research at the Centers for Disease Control for six years and taught chemistry and freshman science at Naperville North High School for 20 years.