Two months ago, as it became apparent that COVID-19 was taking a disproportionate toll on people of color in this country, I complained an entire week passed before anyone on any TV news program said the words, “systemic racism.” I guess all it took was one more black man murdered by police and a nationwide riot to get everyone to talk about systemic racism as if we’d all agreed it was a thing a long time ago and we’d been talking about it since forever. While there has been limited white outrage in the past over the murder of black men at the hands of the police in this country, I’ve never seen a response this broad, intense, and prolonged. Call me naive, but I think white people are finally making some progress and may even be awakened enough to actually do something about systemic racism.
Initially, the intensity of the response to George Floyd’s murder seemed to catch the power elite off guard, but they managed to gather their wits and respond reflexively with force. Messy as it can be, that has always, more or less, worked for them in the past. What they didn’t anticipate was that this time, The People were not having it. The People of Minneapolis put it most succinctly when they went straight to the source and burned down a police station. For those who insist that “violence never solved anything,” let’s remember the day after the police station was torched, Derek Chauvin was arrested on a 3rd degree murder charge (later upgraded to 2nd degree murder). And a week or so later, the three other officers on the scene with him were also arrested.
For weeks civil unrest continued. There was vandalism, there was violence, there was looting, there was teargas, flash bang grenades, and rubber bullets fired at protesters (and reporters) in cities all over the country. And of course there was a lot of moral outrage from certain white people about the behavior of the protesters. “Why can’t they protest peacefully?” “They’re destroying their own neighborhoods.” “They’re not helping their cause.” These are mostly the same people who were mortally offended by Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem on the sideline before the start of NFL games four years ago. These people were so angry about that, they stopped watching the NFL (at least for a little while). Many of them are still angry about it. More angry, in fact, than they are about police murdering black people in the street (or at work, or in their homes, or in a Wendy’s parking lot, etc).
All of this supposedly unproductive violence by protesters has kicked off a rash of acts against racist symbols in civic and private life. Confederate monuments are toppling across the country (and in Europe as well); NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has admitted the league was wrong in not listening to players who peacefully protested; even NASCAR has banned the Confederate flag at its races. Heck, if we manage to vote Orange Toddler out of the White House in November, we might be able to remove the names of traitors and losers from from our military bases. While all of this can easily feel superficial and grossly overdue, those assessments, and how easily they are arrived at, indicate how deeply ill white society is.
But the fact that the sports world is responding to this gives me a lot of hope. Like it or not, sports is hugely important to American life and when the world of sports responds to the larger culture, people take note. For example, when did Americans, by and large, begin to take COVID-19 seriously? When the NBA postponed their season. The NHL did the same shortly thereafter, as did MLB. Suddenly, this shit was real. It wasn’t just something a bunch of medical nerds associated with a chronically dishonest White House droned on and on about on TV, it was mega-rich people walking away from an enormous pile of money, and leaving a giant time vacuum yawning in the lives of millions of Americans.
Power abhors a vacuum, and we, The People, have just demonstrated the immensity of our power. Are we willing to continue to exercise it? Will we get bored? Disheartened? Distracted? Many people have bemoaned how the world appears to be coming apart at the seams, that a global pandemic atop civil unrest is overwhelming, and that a plague of locusts is certainly just around the corner. But COVID-19 is quite likely our ally here. Does it raise the stakes of going out into large gatherings to protest? Probably. Does that make the enormous number of people out in the streets demanding police reform and the dismantling of systemic racism more impressive? Absolutely. And thanks to COVID-19, many people don’t have jobs to go to, or work from home in a way that gives them more flexibility with their time, thus enabling them to hit the streets and be heard. Just as COVID-19 is offering us a chance to address climate catastrophe (perhaps our last chance), it’s also offering us the opportunity to address systemic racism. As someone once famously said, “Just do it.”