Protesters in Detroit march May 30, 2020. (CNS photo/Emily Elconin, Reuters)

It was one of the few times we were permitted to watch television during dinner. My mother set up “TV tables” in front of the black-and-white television set in our small living room. She served us trays of “swanky franks” (hot dogs wrapped in bacon and topped with cheese), somewhat overcooked. While smoke wafted from the open door of the oven broiler, she stared at the television, apparently unable to move and with tears in her eyes. On that hot July evening in 1967, we ate our dinner in silence as we watched the city of her childhood burn.

Seven years old at the time, I will never forget the images of tanks rolling through the streets of Detroit, of block after block of burning buildings. Sirens whined, tear-gas canisters exploded, and people shrieked off camera. It was a chaos I had never experienced in my segregated hometown. Until the 1992 race riots in Los Angeles, the Detroit riot was the deadliest in American history; forty-three people were killed and almost 1,200 injured. President Johnson had sent in the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions of the U.S. Army, but to my young eyes they were all just guys in uniforms. To this day, Detroit has never fully recovered. Whole city blocks vanished, and many buildings were simply abandoned to decades of decay—hulking wrecks that still await a proper demolition.

The only comparable images I’d seen were from the distant jungles of Vietnam, but this was from only a few miles away—from the city where my grandmother still lived. I’m not sure if it was the physical violence that scared me most or seeing my parents suddenly so bewildered and frightened. After the riots our family continued to venture into Detroit on special occasions—for baseball games and the St. Patrick’s Day parade—but the fear never went away. Whenever he was afraid that one of us had strayed into the city, my father would pound the kitchen chopping board and, addressing no one actually present in the room, repeat the mantra, “God damn it all, I told them to stay the hell out of Detroit!”

In late May and early June American cities were again in flames, and for the same reason Detroit was in flames over fifty years ago: white police brutally targeting black men. On May 25, George Floyd, who was accused of passing a counterfeit bill to buy cigarettes at a convenience store, was killed by Minneapolis police. Some overly cautious reporters still prefer the locution “died while in police custody,” but if you watch the multi-source video documentation put together by the New York Times, it’s clear that he was murdered. Derek Chauvin, the cop who knelt on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes, watched the suspect go limp and become unresponsive. He ignored the entreaties of bystanders, who pointed out Floyd’s obvious distress and begged Chauvin to back off.

Like many white Americans, I have for years consoled myself with a narrative of gradual progress. Yes, surely there is still much to do, but the Voting Rights Act and other civil-rights legislation provided a roadmap for at least a modicum of racial justice. We were on the right path. Affirmative action in hiring and education were working, albeit slowly. Quoting Martin Luther King Jr. (who himself had borrowed the phrase from a nineteenth-century clergyman), President Obama frequently assured us that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” It is a faith I have clung to, and a comfort I have allowed myself, for far too long.

Fifteen years ago, when I took a position at Duke University, the assigned reading for the incoming freshman class at the neighboring University of North Carolina was Timothy Tyson’s Blood Done Sign My Name, a historical memoir that tells the story of the 1970 murder of a twenty-three-year-old black veteran by three white men. Though the victim died by gunfire, it was essentially a lynching. The perpetrators were acquitted by an all-white jury. Blood Done Sign My Name was a consciousness-raising book that won many awards and garnered a great deal of attention.

Violence against black people has become so prevalent that it is impossible to maintain even a residual faith in the narrative of gradual racial justice.

What surprised most white readers, including me, was the date of the murder, 1970. Wait a minute: Weren’t we supposed to be well past the crimes of the Jim Crow South by then? This didn’t fit the chronology of racial healing I had been telling myself, the one I had been taught in high school. And then there was the proximity of the crime: just thirty-five miles north of my paradisiacal neo-gothic campus. It is not that the struggle for civil rights was unknown to me, or utterly neglected in our curriculum. Far from it. It was just that it had been consistently embedded in an encouraging narrative of progress, so that the application of the term “apartheid” to the American South came as a revelation to me.

In the United States, violence against black people has become so prevalent, and has so dominated the national discourse, that it is impossible to maintain even a residual faith in the narrative of gradual racial justice that I was raised with. Floyd’s desperate last words, exclaiming that he could no longer breathe, echoed almost precisely the cry of Eric Garner, who in 2014 was killed by a white New York City police officer in almost exactly the same manner: a chokehold. Just three months ago, a young black man named Ahmaud Arbery, who was jogging through a white neighborhood near Brunswick, Georgia, was chased and then shot dead by two white men, one a former police officer. Not long after that, Breonna Taylor, an admired EMT worker, was shot and killed in her own apartment in Louisville during an undercover police raid. And the list goes on. A new National Public Radio feature, titled “A Decade of Watching Black People Die,” reports that this narrative of racist murder has become so commonplace that it has achieved the unenviable status of a so-called “evergreen” in the news business, meaning that it is “always relevant, and always in season.” Of course, none of this is news to black Americans. Unlike me, they have not had the luxury of wrapping themselves in a cocoon of progressive fables.

But video technology has made it easier to tell this horrible story credibly and forcefully. It is now much easier to see that police reports are often written to protect the arresting cops, as in the case of George Floyd. It has also become clear to many that a longstanding judicial doctrine called “qualified immunity,” which for decades has made it difficult to prosecute police officers, may be obsolete. But for any of this to change, we need an engaged Justice Department that actually cares about justice and a president who is, well, not a racist.

As Shaila Dewan and Mike Baker report in the New York Times, we are witnessing in this country an asymmetrical use of police force, whereby older white rightwing protesters (like the ones who occupied the Michigan State Capitol with guns strapped across their chests just a few weeks ago) are treated much more respectfully and gently than younger people, including people of color, protesting the murder of Floyd and police brutality more generally. It turns out the police do not take kindly to people protesting against the police. The president himself made full use of police power to disperse a peaceable crowd so that he could stage a photo-op of himself holding up a Bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church. He has also threatened to deploy the military against U.S. citizens.

As I write these words, protests continue, here and around the world. I am hopeful that they will lead to radical political and civic changes, so that my children will not have to witness a replay of this same scene in another fifty years. When they reflect on the stark images from these protests of 2020—both the violent and peaceful ones—I hope they will do better than my generation did, that they will move beyond bafflement, fear, and unacknowledged self-pity. It is not enough to tremble and weep. For fear not only fuels racism; it also causes white liberals like myself to accept facile myths about the “trajectory of a moral universe” bending toward a justice that, at present, is not even on the horizon.

William Collins Donahue is Cavanaugh Professor of the Humanities at the University of Notre Dame, where he serves as Director of the Initiative for Global Europe in the Keough School of Global Affairs.

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.