In a couple of weeks, Americans — mostly black Americans — will celebrate the 155th Juneteenth holiday. On June 19, 1865, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation and two months after the Civil War formally ended, 250,000 African-American slaves living in Texas were finally informed of their liberation. News of the Emancipation Proclamation was knowingly withheld by slave owners in Texas who chose not to yield their slave-owning authority until Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas with 2000 troops to ensure the message was received.
I write this reflection on history from afar, living in a country thousands of miles away from the US, as I try to make sense of a range of emotions pertaining to the recent events. As a black man, I’m profoundly saddened by another unnecessary loss of life of someone who looked like me at the hands of a person in uniform who recklessly and callously wielded his power. As an American, I’m upset to see another sign that the land of opportunity to which we’ve made a central tenet to the American Ideal is in fact a mirage; shiny packaging that hides stains of systemic injustices that have marred American history for hundreds of years. Despite being centuries and generations removed from cotton field plantations, if you look a certain way and live in certain areas, the powers that be are quick to remind you that those chains still remain.
But ostensibly, the global backlash to police brutality that led to the death of George Floyd suggests an awakening in the public consciousness. Protests around the world are taking place with hundreds of thousands of people of all races garnering support behind #blacklivesmatter. Many have posted an empty black square on their instagram feeds for #blackouttuesday, and major brands like Netflix, Amazon, Google, and countless others have expressed support and solidarity with the Black community at the organizational level. Is this the turning point from an era of disenfranchisement, subjugation and aggression fueled by institutional racism that dates back to at least the days of Emmett Till? Perhaps. But perhaps not.
The problem with the age we live in is that our interconnectedness breeds virtue signaling, our limitless access to information breeds echo chambers, and the proliferation of tech and media breeds short news cycles and even shorter attention spans. How do we combat an enemy that has literally been festering inside of our institutions for hundreds of years, when we’re unwilling to commit beyond the first few steps in a journey of a thousand miles? We march, we tweet, we post — but do we invest, do we lobby, do we vote?
It’s worth noting that the public outcry for social justice is occurring amidst the throws of a global pandemic, skyrocketing unemployment rates, and an adjustment into a “new normal” of social distancing and remote-based working. If there was ever a time to rattle the foundations of institutional norms, it’s now: society is primed for a questioning of the status quo, and there is a window of opportunity for leaders to propose multi-faceted solutions to the multi-faceted problem of racial inequality.
One area I find especially important is that of economic empowerment. From the Watts riots of ’65 to the Rodney King riots of ’92, there are historical examples similar to today where protests have escalated into looting and property damage, leaving small businesses in minority communities to sort through the wreckage. While it is true that a “riot is the language of the unheard”, we must think about what to do with the rubble that comes after the riot. We should support the small business owners affected by looting and vandalism, and we should ensure that more capital is injected into predominantly-minority communities so that these silenced voices are finally heard. The data show that cases of police brutality occur far more often in low-income communities, so one way to counteract social injustice is by enabling socioeconomic mobility.
For the organizations, enterprises, and venture capital firms that have pledged to create scholarships and other forms of funding for under-represented minorities due to the recent events, firstly, your support is greatly appreciated. Yet I would encourage any organizations that are striving to power the winds of change to keep their aim on the core problem at hand at this very moment. Rather than a general scholarship or funding for minorities, invest specifically in technologies being built for criminal justice and police reform, or in students, founders, and investors who live and work in Opportunity Zones and who are more likely to be directly engaged in the community. It’s important that we use the attention of the moment to magnify our impact, and that we’re combating systemic injustices by designing new systems of prosperity and equality.
Where we go from here will either place us on the path towards a deepening divide or a growing unity. If the messages of the day are empty lip service and fickle activism, we can be sure that there will be another George Floyd, and that the pain and resentment felt by the Black community will reach yet another crescendo. But if we can commit our minds — and our wallets — to working together, working patiently, and working diligently, tomorrow can and will be a brighter day.