Why is our country facing a racial reckoning, a clamor for gender equality, an upsurge of violence and demands for social justice in every facet of our lives? All these and more are happening during a health pandemic, which, thankfully, appears to be subsiding. Perhaps the recent police brutalities against George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and more people of color brought the issue of racial injustice to the forefront. The tolerance level of the oppressed reached a boiling point, and it broke the dam of fear and submission.
Granted, the collective hibernation and reaction could have been affected, even peripherally, by the political and social chaos that plagued the country before, during and after the election. The people were on lockdown at home, and maybe this respite from ordinary life and work provided them with the needed discretionary time to reflect on fundamental existential issues of purpose and passion. Human beings are born free, and no one can cage the yearning for freedom forever.
In the biological world, comparable events happen to species; it’s called punctuated equilibrium. It is an evolutionary theory that claims the evolution of species displays a characteristic pattern of short periods of rapid and intense change, followed by long periods of no change — referred to as stasis or equilibrium. My fear is that rapid, positive changes will occur, just like in the natural world, then we will forget about the issues for another half-century or so. We talked about racial equality in the 1960s and passed the civil rights amendments. Then, we became aware of the need for women’s liberation in the 1970s, a commitment that didn’t resurface until recently. We talk more than we act — we need both dreamers and doers who act.
It’s important to remember that all social justice problems are interconnected, what social scientists call the intersectionality of social problems. For example, at the systemic level, we cannot address racial injustice unless we factor in how race affects the economic, health, educational, social and technological issues, which are all intertwined with racial injustice. This points to the complexity of prejudices and the convergence among these factors. At the individual level, in addition to assessing how racial inequity affects a woman of color, we also need to factor in how her gender, age, educational level, class and other demographic markers further exacerbate her disadvantages. We need to be aware and to truly understand the complexity of the multiple inequities and discriminations that she has to face.
What are possible solutions to these seemingly intractable social justice problems? Social justice is a systemic problem that requires a systemic solution — a deliberate, planned, holistic and sustained solution that requires the continuing commitment of both citizens and leaders. To mitigate the problem, we need both individual and collective commitment and action. We might not be able to solve systemic problems of this proportion, but at least we can marshal our people and financial resources to mitigate the problem and achieve some significant movement in the equity agenda. How do we move the needle forward?
At the moment, we appear to be simply dealing with the manifestations of the racial injustice problem that can be seen and perceived by our untrained eyes and senses. The surface of the iceberg is visible, real and compelling. Seeing George Floyd gasping for air, begging for his life for nine solid minutes, depicts a palpable canvas of how this society values Black lives.
We have to dig deep into the subterranean iceberg of American history to uncover the roots of this systemic racism. How do we melt away centuries of racism, injustice and inhumanity to our fellow human beings? Remember, we have experienced similar rumblings, awakenings and enlightenments before — from slavery to reconstruction to segregation — and when Blacks were granted freedom, the dominant race simply built barriers to maintain their control and dominance. Let me say it again: We have been through this path before, searing moments of reckoning, attempting to change the paradigm and then losing steam to follow through on promises, legislation and enforcement. Then, we relax in the stable niche of the familiar and preferential power paradigm.
Maybe we can start with influencing the conscious mind, before working on the uncompromising heart. Here’s an actionable suggestion: Can we teach African American history in schools (possibly as part of the regular school curriculum) and make certain that history books include this major omission? For example, Gov. John Carney signed legislation on June 17 that requires Delaware public and charter schools to teach Black History as part of the school curriculum starting with the 2022-23 academic year—a promising new beginning. Also, historians and other scholars need to rewrite and review the accuracy of facts included in this historical revision. For example, I took Black history at the graduate school at Washington College, but I never read or learned about the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921. It’s only lately that mainstream Americana learned of this major human tragedy of Black extermination.
Is it possible that we treated (and still consider?) slaves not simply as less than human but also with less concern and emotional attachment than we valued our properties and financial investments? Is this an indication of a deep-seated national character flaw that we hold secretly and unconsciously within our hearts? We might not even be aware of it. It’s reflexive, automatic and almost an instinctive reaction that has been the result of centuries of socialization and acculturation. I wonder if our society’s attitudes toward women are governed by the same instinctive process. Think about it when you’re cutting grass, doing the laundry or going about your everyday tasks.
In my executive coaching practice, I try not to have a contract with any leader who is not open to learning or one who feels she does not need coaching because she is a good leader, has all the right competencies and does not need to change or tweak anything about her leadership skills. We might need the same reflection, awareness and attitudinal change to occur before we begin the healing process and the solution phase of this national crisis. We need to think, reflect and begin to understand the key role of these existential questions.
Is this who we are as a nation? Who are we? Is this predisposition toward superiority and social injustice a part of our national character, our cultural heritage — deeply embedded in our value system? Why are we doing what we’re doing? We all need to reflect, individually and collectively, on these realities before we can forge ahead and be part of the solution.
Dr. Theresa del Tufo is an organizational consultant and author. Her fifth book, “Women Powered,” is now available at bookstores. She has been a resident of Dover for more than 50 years.