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‘We will perish together as fools’

Unless society deals with the seen and unseen affects of racism

Alton Sterling. Philando Castile. Twice in one week. Two black men killed for no good reason.

Still reeling from the sickening footage of the shooting death of Alton Sterling a few days back, I, like the rest of the nation, woke up Thursday morning to more grueling footage of yet another black man senselessly shot to death at the hands of a police officer. As I got my 11-year-old son ready for camp, I deliberated whether to remind him, yet again, of what he needs to do if and when he has an encounter with a law enforcement officer. These conversations are nothing new. My husband and I have been having them with our son – who is both African-American and Latino – since he was 7. My head began to throb. Here we go again, I thought. Another headache brought about by racism.

It is hard to encapsulate the myriad reactions that family, friends and colleagues who are people of color have had to the two shootings this week. The three words that immediately come to mind are rage, anger and pain. Rage at the shootings, which have become all too common for people of color – especially black men. Anger at the never-ending replay of the footage accompanied by sensational comments, including those aimed at dehumanizing and criminalizing the victims. Deep pain for the families and for our communities. Pain also because of the complicit silence and indifference by those who do not care about communities of color – or what happened to these black lives. Pain for a nation that intentionally refuses to confront the deep and continued legacy of race and racism in this country.

In isolation, the unjustified and repeated shootings of people of color at the hands of unaccountable and rogue law enforcement officers is bad enough. Contextually, the fact that these killings are taking place during a time when people of color are being constantly demonized as the presidential election unfolds is relentless and unbearable.

In the words of musician Gil Scott Heron, “just exactly what in hell is enough?”

Mexicans. African-Americans. Muslims. Our lives, our value and our worth continue to be questioned and denigrated. It is no wonder then that white supremacist organizations are having a field day.

And it is no wonder also that many of us – individually and collectively – are feeling physically and morally depleted. My headache, which was with me all day, is real. But it is nothing in comparison with the pain felt by Castile’s and Sterling’s families.

There is a growing body of literature that has looked at the physical and mental impact that racism has on people of color. Among the startling findings by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health are that African-American adults are 20 percent more likely to report serious psychological distress than white adults. African-Americans are also more likely than white adults to have feelings of sadness, hopelessness and worthlessness. There is a reason that 10 percent of African-Americans believe that everything is an effort all of the time.

Black people live in fear and anger and anxiety that others can exert control over their bodies and freedom at any moment.

A colleague of mine, a young black man who at 29 is gearing up to attend law school, said Thursday, “I can sit here today and I may not be here tomorrow. I am in pain and I don’t know how to express it.”

How do we rise against that kind of weight?

It is time. Actually – it is way past time – for all us to take a stance. Against the senseless deaths of people of color. Against racism, xenophobia and anti-Muslim prejudice. In favor of racial justice and a nation that strives to live up to its ideals.

To achieve the kind of transformative change we need, two critical things have to happen.

For starters, white folks need to step up – courageously and with humility. We need to come together and collectively wrestle with our past, struggle with the present and as coequals, create a more equitable future. White people can no longer sit on the sidelines watching these tragedies unfold and say that’s “their” problem. Inaction and silence in the face of the more than 500 killings at the hands of police this year makes them complicit with the other side.

We also need to rethink policing, pushing for the kind of changes that make it no longer acceptable for law enforcement to be a violent and occupying force in communities of color. So that the feeling of safety and respect that many feel in wealthy communities becomes the norm. So that my son will one day be able to talk to his child about those familiar officers who contribute to the health and safety of his community, not those officers who threaten his body and freedom to live.

Because if we don’t push to bring about change, together and now, there will be a moment of reckoning where all of us will suffer, and in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “we will perish together as fools.”

Kica Matos is the Director of Immigrant Rights and Racial Justice at the Center for Community Change. She has spent her career working as an advocate, community organizer and lawyer.