An excerpt from a speech by Marcus Green, founder of South Seattle Emerald. Green spoke on Jan. 15 at Mount Zion Baptist Church in Seattle.
Inauguration Day, 2009 – My grandfather Jimmy Green was not an emotional man, unlike his grandson. Growing up, I never once believed he was capable of even shedding a tear. But that day he couldn't help but be overcome with joy; the type of joy that only comes when you are finally seeing something that for so long you were told that you would could not at all view.
I asked this man who had grown up as a sharecropper in segregated Arkansas, who because of the laws of that time was forbidden from obtaining anything other than an eighth-grade education, who had been called “boy” for so long it took him until his late twenties to realize he was a man; this man who wasn't allowed to fight for this country in a segregated military, but could only cook for the people who did, and who couldn't cast a vote for president until he was 35; I asked my grandfather if he ever thought a man who looks like the one he cast his vote for that November could ever become president.
“No,” he answered. “No, I never dreamed a man like me could possibly be president one day. But Marcus,” he cautioned, “be careful. Because as good of a day as this is, it is only one day. And we need many more.”
That's the last thing he ever told me, because later that night he fell into a coma and he passed away. But those words always stuck with me, even as hard as they were to process at first.
Because like most Americans it was difficult not to be seduced by the notion that our society had finally vanquished its race problem, that we had now ushered in a golden era of colorblindness, that era that means that when you mention race more than a minimal amount in mixed company you are charged with the crime of waging social justice jihad.
It's hard, almost impossible, for us not to be seduced by the pervasive assumption that we are more than 90 percent of the way there to racial utopia. Somehow we are supposed to believe that this nation's history – one that includes genocide, slavery, suppression and exclusion – cannot possibly impact our society, either now or in the future; that blatant acts of racism are now few and far between, relegated to the margins of simple-minded militia members in western Oregon or the idiotic presidential candidates they love and they flock to.
We can point to the room that has been made for people of color and women at the top of our society's totem poles, their high visibility in positions of power. We can point out that explicit forms of racism have been on the wane since the days MLK spoke of his mountaintop.
No more are their police dogs that ravage the bodies of marchers, no more their billy clubs that fracture the brains of protesters or water hoses to impede their progress, no more signs to designate where we can or cannot be seated.
I hear that racism is dead from some of my own black brothers when discussing the case of Sandra Bland, the woman mysteriously found dead in her prison cell after a routine traffic stop or the case of John Foster, killed within seconds of Ohio policemen the arriving at a Wal-Mart for holding a B.B. gun. Many of them, long conditioned to what they call “proper” interaction with law enforcement, tell me that Bland and Foster should have known to mind their Ps and Qs and ultimately that dual was responsible for their own deaths.
I hear tales of racism’s demise so often from my white liberal brothers and sisters who spout that the true culprit is a crisis of culture, a lack of personal responsibility, and a chronic condition of moral malaise.
I hear of its end in the midst of a society whose black infants are three times more likely than white babies to die within the first months of birth, despite no biological deficiency.
I hear racism is a relic in society that mocks the provision of safe spaces to marginalize students, while actively creating an entire world of safety for those it values.
I read racism’s obituary even after a recent reporting trip when a white mother told me that she could never know what it is like to suffer in the way that a black mother does in this country. Because if her 12-year-old son was to be killed, his murder would be a crime.
No, racism is not dead. It is like that Greek Hydra – the beast that regenerates in a new form just as you’ve begun to celebrate its defeat. No, it is not exclusively as overt as it once was, it is more sophisticated. It is more systemic.
For every Tamir Rice dead in a park, our current form of racism creates a million Tyrones half his age who are predestined to a life of poverty by an inferior school system.
For every Betty Jones needlessly killed by Chicago police responding to a dispute she had nothing to do with, it creates a million Yvettes who will die an early death because they are economically bound to an area with no health care.
For every Trayvon Martin there will be a million Andres swallowed whole by a criminal justice system that will never offer a chance of true redemption and that will forever brand them with the scarlet F for felon. And their life, the life that is absent of opportunity, will be nothing more than a slow, prolonged death.
As racism was once housed prominently in the hearts of unrepentant bigots, it stubbornly finds shelter in the institutions of our society and that society’s systems. The gears of these systems continue to be greased with black bodies and function regardless of the good intentions of the men and women pulling the lever.
It does not matter whether those hands of the people in power holding that lever are black, as they are in the city of Baltimore, or if those hands are white, as they are in Ferguson, Missouri. Nor does it matter if they are brown, or beige, or metallic marble. The outcome is always the same: a mass devastation of life.
So are we there yet?
To ask that question in this society is to answer that question. The racism we encounter today can't be solved by old efforts, nor civil rights-era understandings of what we face.
In truth we can't even entertain the question of “are we there yet?” before answering a more important question: Where are we?
Congressman Adam Smith, Governor Jay Inslee, King County Executive Dow Constantine and Seattle Mayor Ed Murray also addressed the audience. Fifth-grade students from the John Stanford International School read poems they wrote for the occasion in English, Spanish and Japanese. Danell Daymon and The Greater Works Chorale closed the program with “We Shall Overcome.”
Web Exclusive: The program had to be condensed for broadcast, listen to the full version below: