Words cannot dull the pain of George Floyd’s family. Like many black families before them, they find themselves in the spotlight for reasons that every parent, sibling and spouse dreads. While his death has catalyzed a symbolic call to action, he was not a symbol to his loved ones — he was a father, brother and son. I can only pray that they find the “peace that passes understanding.”
In the wake of Floyd’s death, Americans and people around the world are experiencing shock, grief, outrage — a set of emotions that too often are repeated. If the past is a guide, these feelings will fade and we will return to our lives.
But something tells me — not this time. Floyd’s horrific death should be enough to finally move us to positive action.
Perhaps this is like the moment in 1955 when Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus. Or perhaps this is like that fateful Sunday in September 1963, quite personal to me, when a bomb in a Birmingham church killed four girls from my neighborhood and shook our nation to its core. Some six decades later, perhaps all of us — regardless of skin color — are, to quote Mississippi sharecropper and civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, “sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
Our country has often moved forward and been made better through peaceful protests. But our cities must stop burning. Innocent people, including many minority and immigrant business owners, are watching their livelihoods go up in smoke. There is no excuse for looting and criminality, and offenders must be stopped. But a call for calm is not enough, either. This time, we must remain vigilant and maintain our determination to make a difference.
Beyond justice for Floyd, systemic change is necessary to make our institutions more just. Yet all the structural reforms in the world are insufficient to remove the shadow hanging over every incident of this kind. To be black is to be forced to overcome implicit and explicit reactions to the color of your skin. It might be dismissiveness or underestimation or presumption of how you think. In some circumstances, it might be fear. We encounter these responses even among decent people who sincerely do not want to react that way. The good news is that these emotions can be overcome — and often are — with the respect that builds when people know one another as human beings — as friends, neighbors, co-workers and teammates.
Still, we simply must acknowledge that society is not color-blind and probably never will be. Progress comes when people treat one another with respect, as if we were color-blind. Unless and until we are honest that race is still an anchor around our country’s neck, that shadow will never be lifted. Our country has a birth defect: Africans and Europeans came to this country together — but one group was in chains. In time, the very Constitution that counted slaves as three-fifths of a man became a powerful tool in affording the descendants of slaves their basic rights. That work has been long and difficult, but it has made a difference. We are better than we were.
I grew up in segregated Jim Crow Alabama, where no one batted an eye if the police killed a black man. There wouldn’t have been even a footnote in the local press. So it is a source of pride for me that so many have taken to the streets — peacefully — to say that they care: that they, too, are sick and tired of being sick and tired. Yet protests will take our country only so far. The road to healing must begin with respectful but honest and deep conversations, not judgments, about who we were, who we are and who we want to become. Let us talk with, not at, each other — in our homes, schools, workplaces and places of worship. And if we are to make progress, let us vow to check the language of recrimination at the door. As united Americans, we can then turn our fears into faith, hope, compassion and action. And then we can accept and carry out our shared responsibility to build “a more perfect union.”
Yet, any call to action will be empty if it does not move us to individual responsibility. We all have a role to play in moving our country forward, in ensuring that our democracy delivers not just for those who have but also for those who seek and for those in need.
So I ask my fellow Americans: What will each of you do? My personal passion is educational opportunity, because it is a partial shield against prejudice. It is not a perfect shield, I know, but it gives people a fighting chance. In my conversations, I want to discuss why the learning gap for black kids is so stubborn and what can be done about it. What is your question about the impact of race on the lives of Americans? And what will you do to find answers?
Condoleezza Rice was secretary of state from 2005 to 2009. She is a professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business and a senior fellow on public policy at the Hoover Institution, where she will become director on Sept. 1, 2020.