My friend's question surprised me not at all: “What can I do?”
It's a question white people, those liberals and progressives out there, often ask. With urban streets aflame, whites like my 40-year-old friend seek an answer to this question, but the answer has been inside them had they bothered to look deeper for it.
Instead, they chose to appropriate our music, mimic our style, fawn over our athletes, whose silence about racism makes America appear what it is not: a meritocracy.
“What can I do?”
I cannot shake loose those words. For I, too, know the answer; it is not what my friend and like-minded whites have been doing.
For they were there as states chipped away at voting rights; for they were there as courts imprisoned our brethren at rates unseen in the civilized world; for they were there as gentrification gobbled up neighborhoods that brimmed with black history; for they were there as COVID-19 took an uneven toll on black folk; for they were there as cops brutalized Rodney King, and killed Oscar Grant, Tamir Rice, Alton Sterling, Michael Brown and, now, George Floyd.
Yes, they were there for the Freedom Rides of the '60s; they were there for the Million Man March in the '90s; they were there for the election of Barack Obama in the 2000s.
But between all of those historic happenings, they have been absent. More to the point, they have stood silent. When they could and should have spoken up, they declined.
Now, their silence resounds like bombards bursting in air. On this morning, they can see in color the consequences of silence. For it has given America a president whose vile hatred proves more contagious than the coronavirus. For their silence has wrought an economy that runs on the whims of billionaires who profit handsomely off the backs of blacks and Hispanics. For their silence has created an educational system no longer legally separated but, de facto, as unequal as ever.
For their silence has led to policing practices that defend the privilege of whites at the expense of the legal rights of blacks. For their silence has sanctioned corporate callousness and profiteering. For their silence has turned the “lie” into a political strategy that works.
“What can I do?”
The answer is, as I told my friend, simple: Do something.
To remain silent gives balance to a world that is off kilter. To remain silent stokes xenophobia and racism like an inferno from hell, even as progressives like him decry such bigotry.
In this war to bridge the racial and economic divide, silence is the enemy of the black man, who faces death – at least the fear of it – whenever he steps into the public's eye.
Nobody who lives in this republic should fear the republic. But black men do, and U.S. history illustrates why. I'm not talking about history from 1820; I'm talking about the history of 2020.
“What can I do?” my friend asks.
Let me tell him and you: Use your voice like a megaphone and speak up; take the power of your prose and write something profound with it; step from behind anonymity and help white comrades see that their America looks like the land of the rich and the home of the timid.
So let them start there.
Justice B. Hill is a veteran journalist, retired college professor and former sports editor at The Journal Gazette.