In Order For All Lives To Matter, Black Lives Must Matter. And the Time Is Now.
For the past several months our nation has experienced an unprecedented global pandemic coupled in recent weeks with widespread civil unrest that have combined to reveal the best and worst of who we are as Americans. These events have laid bare certain disparities between Black and White America and simultaneously presented us with an equally unprecedented opportunity to self-correct. We can achieve this by uniting in our shared humanity and common American values to acknowledge the damage and shared grief and begin, in earnest, the process of reforming institutions that actively or passively encourage, facilitate or perpetrate racial inequity. The degree to which we are able to seize this opportunity will largely define this moment in history.
While all Americans have had to contend with the impact of the COVID-19 crisis in one form or another, Black Americans find themselves distinguished in yet another unflattering way; disproportionately dying from a disease that does not naturally discriminate by race or ethnicity. It has long been said that “[W]hen White America catches a cold, Black America catches pneumonia” as documented by research that has substantiated the complex relationship between systemic racial inequities and health outcomes. Yet again the recipient of the short end of the ostensibly race-neutral stick, Black Americans had more than enough reason to be outraged even before George Floyd.
So it is not surprising that in the wake of the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, Black Americans, along with a broad cross-section of other Americans, took to the streets to protest the arbitrary taking of Black lives at the hands of law enforcement, the institution we are told exists to protect and serve us all, but which proves too often to be the very institution from which we need protection. In the wake of the recent manifestations of racism captured in video for the world to see, Black Americans have reached their limit of watching powerlessly as Black lives are snatched away at will by law enforcement and vigilantes in ways that differ from historical lynching only in methodology. And it seems, Americans of all stripes have finally reached their limits as well.
In many ways, George Floyd was the straw that broke the camel’s back. His murder is the culmination of a long history of injustice – each instance gnawing away the soul of Black America, increasing feelings of anger, powerlessness and despair, and threatening loss of the hope in the ability of this nation to deliver on its promise of equality and justice for all. George Floyd’s video-recorded killing was such an exceptionally brazen and callous display of the wider disregard for Black lives that it deeply affected some of the most skeptical among us. There was something different about the calm and carefree manner in which those police officers, and in particular Derek Chauvin, snuffed out Mr. Floyd’s life on camera that struck a human chord in most Americans that, for many, unveiled eyes and awakened our collective conscience in a newfound way.
America thus finds herself at a critical juncture where it must choose between seizing the opportunity to once and for all acknowledge and eradicate the institutionalized effects of systemic racism or continue to engage in denial and perpetuate the status quo. It is clear to me, as I am sure it is to many others, that the status quo is unsustainable in the long run and, if widespread protests and cries for change are indicators, tenuous at best in the short-term. We ignore these voices at our collective peril.
The very real and profound impact of systemic racism, in both the public and private spheres, is undeniable for those of us who experience it on a daily basis, as well as to those who may not experience it but allow themselves the empathy and sincerity to see it. Despite knowing that the acknowledgment of the endemic nature of racism and its debilitating effects on Black Americans is long overdue, I am in this moment hopeful and encouraged, even if cautiously so.
I feel hopeful and encouraged that the time has finally come for our society to unequivocally commit to take concrete action to realize our espoused ideal of a single America in which we are, in fact, all equal in the eyes of the law. My hope is bolstered by the, size, scope, nature and intensity of the reactions to the recent catalyzing events which span racial, cultural, political, generational, national and international boundaries. These reactions have taken many forms, including protests, outrage, swift legislative action, public policy pronouncements, and public expressions of support and commitment to change from people in positions of power, be they elected officials, police chiefs/commissioners, general counsels or CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Yet, despite my optimism, I am cautious, as we must be, recognizing that meaningful change – the kind that is so desperately needed – is not automatically assured. There are many who benefit from the status quo and who oppose, and are threatened by, such change. And, although they may be in the numerical minority, their commitment to resistance should not be underestimated.
Change will require sustained commitment and action on the part of all of us who hold dear the ideal of equality and justice for all in order to drive back the efforts of those who would seek to divide us. To win this fight, Americans, in particular Whites, can no longer afford to remain silent. We must individually commit to challenge each and every instance of the manifestation of racism and bigotry that we witness on a daily basis, whether at work, at home or at play, regardless of how uncomfortable it may feel initially. Further, this commitment cannot be something to which we remain true only for the next few weeks or months or however long the subject matter of racial justice and equality remains at the center of the current news cycle. It must be a long-term commitment to ensure our collective safety, prosperity, and way of life as Americans.
There are many ways in which to engage in this fight, and each of us must determine for ourselves, as individuals and as institutions, how we will choose to battle. We must commit to identify the most impactful ways to marginalize racism instead of people. To be clear, we will not be successful if we approach this as a Black issue. The truth is, racism is an American issue and this must be an American fight as our fates are intertwined. The scourge of racism should find no refuge in our society.
As a Black man and the Managing Partner of a Black-owned law firm, I feel a special duty to speak directly to this issue and to demonstrate leadership by example. In addition to penning this message in response to recent events, I have participated in peaceful demonstrations (including one in which I was joined by some of my colleagues) and I continue to hold honest internal and external conversations of the sort in which we need to engage as a broader community and as a country. Long before the recent events that sparked global reaction took place, however, BurgherGray was committed to the ideals of equality and diversity. We not only hire a diverse cadre of lawyers and support staff, we provide a work environment in which our team is not just allowed but encouraged to be themselves, and are not made to feel as if they have to check any aspect of their identities at the door in order to fit in. These are just some of the critical ways in which we have personalized the fight. We constantly look for new ways to do more as well as to be more impactful in our efforts. This commitment is part of our DNA and you can count on it continuing long after the news cycle changes. We invite all Americans, individuals and institutions alike, to share in this commitment and to the extent you have already been fighting, challenge yourselves to explore ways in which you can have a larger and sustainable impact.
In sum, all lives cannot matter if Black lives do not matter. While this nation was built concurrently on the principle of equality and the reality of inequality, we cannot realistically hope to preserve our relative peace, prosperity, culture and general way of life based on a foundation that fundamentally relies on the continued subordination and marginalization of Blacks and other Americans of color. The events of recent weeks present us with a tremendous opportunity to effect meaningful and lasting change through an honest national discourse about the current and historical role of race and racism in the U.S. However high the price may seem for that change, I submit that the price for not capitalizing on this opportunity for change will be much higher. I remain hopeful that we will seize the moment and summon our great American capacity to self-correct.
Gopal M. Burgher,