Perhaps spring 2020 will be a turning point in American history. The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis occurred on the heels of the murder of Breonna Taylor, who was inexplicably shot repeatedly after police served a no-knock warrant at her home in Louisville, Kentucky. This was not long after video emerged of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, who had been out for a jog in Georgia. Maybe this recent spate of murders of Black Americans will lead us to take collective action against systemic racism.
I want to be hopeful that things are different this time, but I have my doubts.
Even as I grieve this current onslaught of gruesome and high-profile murders of Black men and women, my mind keeps coming back to Christian Cooper. Mr. Cooper was bird-watching on the morning of May 25 in Central Park when he came across Amy Cooper (no relation) walking her dog off leash. Mr. Cooper asked her to leash the dog, as is required in that portion of the park. Ms. Cooper’s reaction was to call 911 and falsely accuse Mr. Cooper of threatening her and her dog. In the span of a relatively brief call, she mentioned multiple times that he was an “African American man.”
In light of the murders of Mr. Floyd, Ms. Taylor, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and countless other Black people at the hands of the police, it’s not hard to imagine how that call could have resulted in the death of Mr. Cooper. So it was at least a small step in the right direction when prosecutors charged Ms. Cooper yesterday with filing a false police report.
But I am reflecting on Mr. Cooper for an entirely different set of reasons. At this moment, I keep contemplating what Mr. Cooper endured because I know that variants of this incident play out in the lives of Black Americans every single day. Every day, we are asked to show proof that we live in our buildings. Every day, we are closely watched if we happen to enter a different neighborhood on a walk or a run. Every day, we endure extra surveillance as we shop. Every day, we are considered “less than” in countless settings.
When we are fortunate, these incidents don’t directly lead to violence — or murder. But even when we are fortunate, these incidents contribute indirectly to the death of Black people. Enduring the brunt of racism day after day takes a toll. It is a toll that is exacted upon our minds and bodies. A significant body of research demonstrates that perceived discrimination can negatively affect mental and physical health. Everyday racism undoubtedly contributes to the fact that Black Americans can expect to live, on average 3.5 years less than white Americans.
Despite the ubiquity of everyday racism, it is likely not what comes to mind when most Americans think of racism. Everyday racism is inconsistent with the pervasive narrative of racial progress. The story that is often told about racism in America is that we are continually making forward progress. We abolished slavery. We had the civil rights movement. We had a Black president. It is a narrative in which a few bad actors — often police — perpetuate racism, and the victims are generally young Black men who shouldn’t have been killed but maybe were doing something that was, at the very least, ill-advised.
The reality of the racism that Black people living in America endure is far more complicated than this prevailing narrative suggests. Everyday racism is perpetuated by people you know: your neighbors, your colleagues, your friends, even you. These people often mean well, don’t think of themselves as racist, and perhaps even voted for Obama. Amy Cooper has a master’s degree. She lives in New York City. She had a white-collar job. She likely has gone through diversity training.
The targets of this sort of racism affect Black people broadly — not a select few. Degrees from prestigious schools, upscale neighborhood residences, fame, and financial wealth do not offer immunity from everyday racism.
Everyday racism can be hard to spot. Implicit bias and racism are at the root of many of these everyday incidents. Many Americans have negative feelings and beliefs about Black people, and they are not entirely consciously aware of these feelings. Our ability to control the impact of these attitudes on our behavior is limited — especially if we don’t recognize or aren’t willing to admit that we hold these attitudes in the first place. But as a function of being part of a society in which anti-Black racism is deeply entrenched, most of us hold these implicit biases.
As heartened as I am by the widespread protests and the demands for reforms to our broken system, I am concerned that many will focus on the racism in policing and avoid doing the hard work to confront everyday racism and implicit biases.
For instance, those of us who work in corporate America have likely taken a course on diversity and inclusion or implicit bias. But outside of that course, what have we done to challenge racism and racist systems in our lives and in the organizations to which we belong?
Are we addressing the fact that there are no Black people on the corporate board or in the C-suite? Are we paying attention and speaking up when we see a young Black person get surveilled in a retail store? Are we questioning and approaching our friends and family when they display biased or racist behavior? Are we interrogating our own feelings when we are surprised that our physician is a Black woman?
By all means, let us use this moment to challenge the systemic racism in America. However, to be clear, doing so effectively means recognizing that we are part of that system. For there to be real progress, we have to be willing to make changes in the organizations to which we belong. And even more importantly, we need to examine and be prepared to make changes to our ways of thinking and behaving.