Relative calm in protests throughout the country — particularly Portland and Seattle — should not be regarded as the end of a movement. The need for systemic change remains as the United States undergoes a reckoning with racial justice.
Unrest, triggered by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, over the past 10 weeks spurred a much-needed national discussion about systemic racism. It also has spurred actions that distract from that discussion. Violence and vandalism too often have grabbed attention and police responses, threatening to redirect the narrative from where it must be — police violence against minorities.
Various media outlets have focused on those clashes between protesters and law enforcement, portraying Portland and Seattle as lawless landscapes run by “thugs” — a racist trope in itself. President Trump has boasted about sending federal law enforcement to Portland to protect the federal courthouse targeted by vandals, a situation that escalated tension before Homeland Security agreed last week to withdraw.
The situation has given critics license to argue that the protests long ago stopped being about racial injustice and became an avenue for opportunists to cause trouble. But when the unrest subsides and graffiti is removed and calm is restored, we still must deal with the subtext of systemic racism. Protests or not, there is a need for change.
In Clark County, that need has led to listening sessions between community groups and governmental bodies. Last week, the county council held a virtual meeting with NAACP Vancouver, the League of United Latin American Citizens, YWCA Clark County and the Clark County Volunteer Lawyers Program.
That is where the real work begins, far away from the camera-catching protests and vandalism as our community assesses how overt racism of the past lingers in more covert forms today. As Jasmine Tolbert, vice president of the NAACP Vancouver, said, “What you don’t understand sometimes is that while these things (were) happening back then, (they were) laying the foundation, a foundation that will impact us now. By acknowledging that it is present and that these systems were created by racist people, we are then able to fight and move forward and change these items.”
Moving forward is not an effort to foment white guilt. It simply is an attempt to recognize inequities in law enforcement, schools, employment, health care, housing and other institutions. It simply is an attempt to make the American Dream more accessible for all.
One example can be found in a report last year from the state attorney general’s office, which found that discipline practices in Vancouver Public Schools are more likely to remove students of color from school. Another can be found in the fact that Latinx people account for more than 40 percent of COVID-19 cases in Washington, despite being 13 percent of the population. “Long-standing systemic, health and social inequities have increased the risk of getting COVID-19 for members of racial and ethnic groups,” said Ed Hamilton Rosales, president of the local LULAC.
Protests, demonstrations and clashes with law enforcement have helped shine a light on those inequities. So have discussions between community leaders and elected officials.
But creating a more just society requires more than marching in the street or listening to voices that previously were ignored. It requires an effort that must endure long after the cameras have turned their attention elsewhere.