We are again in a period of nonstop national news and drama reverberating here in Athens. Another black person is murdered by police; massive demonstrations and protests erupt all over the country and here at home— many of them eliciting violent police pushback, also here at home. And over it all broods the Joker, doing everything he can to exacerbate the tensions between the races and between his core followers and the rest of the country, following the fascist playbook, as if Benito Mussolini were whispering instructions on how to construct a dictatorship.
There is so much tumult, against the lethal background of a viral pandemic, that it’s easy to be overwhelmed and lose sight of what this is all about.
It is about George Floyd and the four police officers who killed him there in Minneapolis on the sidewalk. But it is also about all the black men and women who are routinely killed by police, beaten by police, harassed by police, incarcerated by police all over this country. It is about the rights of black citizens, and it is about police who trample those rights. And it is, ultimately, about African Americans in this country and whether they will ever be able to live as full citizens of the United States with all their rights and privileges protected by the Constitution.
The outlook isn’t brilliant. This latest killing of a black man by police has caused many in our country to confront the racism in our society and the racism in ourselves, while many others continue along with their racism reinforced by recent events.
The massive, ongoing protest demonstrations are galvanizing our nation to demand meaningful action, particularly a shift in funding emphasis from police to social services, to attack poverty instead of people.
Just how difficult it is to find a path forward comes into focus if you look at our own community. We still have one of the highest poverty rates in the country. We are subject to the state of Georgia, where the legislature recently cut taxes and where for years it has routinely refused billions of dollars in national aid to hospitals and health care, so that now, with the state’s economy devastated, we are facing massive spending cuts that will further reduce already scarce funds for education and healthcare, among many other state services. Our university contributes to the working poverty with its wage scales. The legislature forbids our city from paying a living wage, Our governor, our congressmen and our two U.S. Senators are totally owned by Donald Trump and will do anything to enable him and disable Georgia voters, especially black Georgia voters.
Meanwhile, many black people, the majority already in poverty and falling behind in education and healthcare, have no choice but to continue working jobs, if they have them, that put them in greater danger from the Coronavirus. There is no outside help coming to Athens. What can we do on our own here?
It is an elementary first step, but those of us who are not lost forever to racial hatred can be motivated by current events and our own moral compass to understand the plight of our black citizens, with whom we share this town.
Theirs has never been an equal share. They started out as non-citizens and were treated as non-human beings. The end of the Civil War meant they were free to be citizens, to live fully as human beings, but white supremacists overruled their rights, and the laws of Georgia and our city forced African Americans to be second-class citizens, and social mores viewed them as second-class human beings, who attended second-class schools and drank out of second-class water fountains and were forced to take the back seat behind white people and denied hotel accommodations and home ownership and forced to live in danger of white violence.
The Supreme Court struck down school segregation, and Congress passed laws mandating equal accommodations and voting rights protection and equal opportunity. Through better education came better jobs for some, but by and large, African Americans have lived as citizens of a third-world country within our own nation and within our own town.
Knowing that many white people here will never accept it, we need to delicate ourselves more fully as a town finally to address the poverty caused by racism and start devising solutions that help us overcome the heavy burden of the past that weighs down upon a third of our citizens.
As we seek to rebuild our Athens economy, we need a local New Deal or Model Cities Program that includes the people here whose participation has been thwarted. We must take our knee off their neck.
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