Refuse to look away


You are used to seeing our staff editorials in this space. In light of the events in Minneapolis and around the country over the last week, we felt it was appropriate to use this page for an essay by Emilie M. Townes, an Oak Bluffs seasonal resident who is Dean of the Divinity School at Vanderbilt University. 

Once again, a black man was killed while in police custody. The images of his life slipping away because of the knee planted on his neck by the white police officer, as Floyd was in handcuffs and face-down on the pavement, has been broadcast in video and still-photo horror. It is undeniable — he was killed with no weapon in hand, no threatening gestures to incite lethal response, only the suspicion of forgery. George Floyd’s words hang in the air like mournful specters: “I can’t breathe.”

We have heard this before. 

Our country’s laws protect fear and prejudice, and make it acceptable to use lethal force not only by the police, but by citizens who can use suspicion as a reason to end a life. It is obscene that we now no longer have to worry only about the dangers of driving while black; now we must contend with living while black when we are sitting in our homes, using public parks, birdwatching, renting vacation homes, taking trips to the gas station or corner market, and more, because of the ongoing legacy of legalized racism and discrimination. So many of us find spaces in our days when we wonder if we will be put at risk simply because we exist.

We have heard this before.

But we have the tools to engage our roiling times. The question for all of us is, Do we have the will and willingness to use what we know and to learn those things we don’t know to help build a more just and open America? I do hope so, because too many lives are depending on it. We don’t have to have all the answers, and we don’t have to behave flawlessly. I am encouraging us to simply try. Try to bear witness. Try to educate ourselves about the realities of others rather than assume we know everything — we are dangerous when we are arrogantly ignorant about others. Try to stand with those who are working for change and justice. Try to refuse to look away when we hear racism in jokes or casual conversation. In short, we must try to be brave enough to be true citizens in this big republic of ours that strains to be a democracy.

George Floyd’s life, like far too many who have been killed, matters. As a community, we must continue to be better people than we were yesterday as we build a more robust tomorrow for the generations that are coming. As important as breathing: It’s what we’ve got to do.

Emilie Townes served as president of the American Academy of Religion, and as the president of the Society for the Study of Black Religion. She is an American Baptist minister, and a fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.