This post was originally published on my old blog in June 2020 and has been republished here for posterity.
I remember when I was about 9 or 10 years old, I saw an episode of a talk show (it might’ve been Oprah, but I don’t remember) where the Little Rock Nine — the first nine black students to integrate into a formerly all-white high school following Brown v. Board of Ed — reunited with their old classmates who racially harassed them.
One of those reunions was that between Elizabeth Eckford, seen here in this photo, and her tormentor Hazel Bryan, the white girl right in the middle of the photo who is screaming at her. Eckford was all alone on that first day of school because the other eight students were being escorted in the back entrance of the building to avoid the angry mob, but because Eckford’s family was poor and did not own a telephone, she didn’t get the message to meet the others early in the morning.
Imagine the fear of this 15-year-old girl who showed up for her first day of school and was met by this scene. She faced a crowd of angry white students shouting, “Two, four, six, eight, we ain’t gonna integrate!” They were throwing stuff at her and threatening to lynch her. And among them in the crowd is Eckford’s new classmate Hazel Bryan, whose angry expression in this Pulitzer-winning photograph has served as the face of racism for everyone who has seen it.
Nearly 40 years later, when reunited on that talk show, Bryan apologized to Eckford and had all kinds of excuses: that it was just the thinking at the time, that she was raised in a racist family, that she was scared of the idea of integration, that she was told she shouldn’t have to go to school with black students. She wasn’t a bad person. She just didn’t know any better. She thought the status quo was acceptable.
I remember listening to her excuses and, as a kid in the ‘90s, I couldn’t accept them. Didn’t she know that racism was wrong? How could she possibly think that what she was doing was acceptable?
My question to white people today is what’s our excuse? When confronted with the issue of systemic racism in such an unavoidable way, why do any of us remain silent? Why don’t we speak out and call for change? Because to remain silent right now, to be complacent, to just let the system remain the way that it is — all of that makes us just another Hazel Bryan. Racist, but you know…it’s just the times.
There will always be excuses. We might say it’s because we don’t like to get political (as if speaking out against racism is a partisan issue). We might say it’s because we don’t want to be disrespectful of police officers (as if it’s impossible to still respect the police but want to see a brutal murderer brought to justice). We might say it’s because we don’t condone rioting (as if the protests that regrettably got out of hand somehow negate the appalling and disgusting reason these protests had to be held in the first place).
What we’re seeing right now in our country is a broad conversation opening up about dismantling the system we currently have in place that denies opportunities to BIPOC at its best and dehumanizes them at its worst. Integration happened in 1957 — that’s only one generation ago. Do any of us really think that all of this inequality and injustice fixed itself over the course of one generation?
Because it didn’t. Consider these facts:
· The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights reports that black students represented 15% of student enrollment in the 2015-2016 school year, but 35% of students who were suspended were black — a disparity that the DOE said was not due to “more frequent or more serious misbehavior by students of color.”
· The New York Civil Liberties Union reports that, in 2018, 88% of police stops involved black or Latinx people and that 70% of those stops were innocent.
· And according to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, 35.7% of ethnic minorities are more likely to live in poverty compared with 17.2% of white people, and unemployment rates are higher for ethnic minorities at 12.9% versus 6.3% for white people.
I could go on and on, but I think we all get the picture: The disadvantages that have existed since Separate But Equal and Jim Crow continue to hold BIPOC back.
Eradicating racism is something we can do only if we work together. That’s why people are pushing for changes to the criminal justice system, and that’s why people are demanding representation and inclusion in the education system, in the entertainment industry, in the business community, and in political office. And anyone who is complacent with the system right now, anyone who is resistant to this change, anyone who is silent, is just another Hazel Bryan, screaming that integration is a complete infringement on her rights as a white American.
Make no mistake, I’m not saying we should support racial justice because we’re worried we will have to apologize on a talk show one day. No, we should be supporting racial justice because it’s the RIGHT THING TO DO. There will always be excuses, and none of those excuses is acceptable. I realized that when I was 9 or 10 years old, and I was innocent and naïve enough to think we were past all of that. Turns out we aren’t — racism is still alive and well, and we need to keep fighting it.
Being on the wrong side of history right now is basically failing a test when you were told what the questions were ahead of time. No excuse today is any better than the excuses Bryan tried to give Eckford for why she tormented her. It’s time to speak up. It’s time to act. It’s time to make change happen.