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Williams: America is battling two lethal adversaries, COVID-19 and racism. One is deadlier.

Williams: America is battling two lethal adversaries, COVID-19 and racism. One is deadlier.


The mood in the Museum District was curiously carefree on the sun-kissed afternoon following a night of arson and destruction.

Bubbles blew from a machine on the balcony of an apartment on Arthur Ashe Boulevard, across from the scorched United Daughters of the Confederacy building, where the message “BUILT ON OUR BACKS” was scrawled on the exterior.

There’s a riot going on, in Richmond and throughout the nation, in the aftermath of the 9-minute torture and death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody last Monday. The image of the white police officer pressing his knee into the black man’s neck burned into the brain of a sick and smoldering nation, pent up physically and emotionally.

America is battling two potentially lethal adversaries, COVID-19 and racism. Too many folks think neither is a real problem.

Our black literary prophets saw the potential for this moment, from James Baldwin to Langston Hughes, who asked of the black American dream deferred: “Does it sag like a heavy load? Or does it explode?”

That we’re still unclear about the individuals, groups and motives behind this past week’s detonation doesn’t speak well about the cohesion of the social justice movement.

The message of grassroots activists and peaceful protesters has been hijacked by looters and arsonists. The images are racially diverse, complicated and confusing. Salt Lake City, with a black population of less than 3%, is on curfew following protests. It’s unclear who’s fueling the lawlessness, though suspicion has been cast toward right-wing and left-wing provocateurs.

“If we — and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks ... do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world,” Baldwin wrote in 1963.

“If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophesy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!”

Prophesies are warnings, and America — and Richmond — can’t say it wasn’t warned. Our peaceful efforts to avoid this moment were met with resistance.

When black football players took a knee in protest of the sort of police misconduct that took Floyd’s life, they were assailed by no less than the president of the United States. The leader of that peaceful protest, Colin Kaepernick, has been blackballed from the NFL. I’m sure his protests are looking not so unreasonable today.

For years, when the Virginia General Assembly was controlled by Republicans, our efforts to relocate Confederate monuments — or add context to them where they stand — were rejected.

These protesters didn’t wait for permission, adding their own “context” in the form of often-profane graffiti.

Don’t complain about the riots if you did nothing to acknowledge or address the injustices that sparked them. Policing the tone and methods of oppressed people only compounds their oppression.

America’s unwillingness to address police brutality in a meaningful way reflects its slow walk in acknowledging our discomfit with its glorification of racist iconography. Martin Luther King Jr. would be impatient with the pace of change. After all, he wrote a book titled “Why We Can’t Wait.”

King called a riot “the language of the unheard.” But I must say, the language is hard to translate beyond its frustration. Raw fury is a poor substitute for strategy and leads to contradiction.

If black lives matter in Richmond, why were two of the targets of vandalism a black dentist, Dr. Randy Adams, and a venerable African American business, Waller & Company Jewelers?

If black lives matter, should these mass gatherings be occurring during a pandemic that has been particularly deadly for African Americans?

Andrea Simpson, an associate professor of political science at the University of Richmond, was a teen-age participant in the civil rights movement in Memphis during the late 1960s. She is a critic of Black Lives Matter and argues that social justice movements need visible leadership and structure.

“Your message and how you want things to be redressed must be crystal clear to everyone who hears it, and you repeat the message over and over again,” she said.

Part of staying on message is heading off violent distractions, from within the ranks or without. I’m not sure who’s directing what I’m seeing, and toward what end.

America burned during my 1960s childhood, fueled by police brutality in places like Watts and Detroit. The Kerner Commission charged with investigating the unrest described a nation “moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”

That the description still fits explains a lot. America feels broken.

It cannot be overstated how destabilizing the Trump presidency has been. A nation whose institutions were never as durable as imagined, and whose narrative was never as benevolent as the hype, is exposing the inequities baked into its foundation. The frenetic gun purchasing, dating back to the election of the first black president, seems less like a natural exercise of Second Amendment rights than the amassing of an arsenal for a cataclysmic confrontation.

For young people feeling betrayed by the American Dream, the racial inequality that led to Floyd’s death amplifies the economic grievances they’re experiencing. They want to tear the system down and start over. But I fear the undisciplined and violent among them are playing into the hands of a president whose talent is demolition, not repair; exploiting societal rifts, not healing them.

Tearing down is easy. The real work is in realizing a dream deferred and mending a fractured nation. We must dare everything to end this nightmare and achieve our country.

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