Recently, I was privileged to lead a forum on race relations and policing at the River Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Columbus with Mayor Teresa Tomlinson and moderated by retired Chief Superior Court Judge John Allen. It was broadcast live by the ABC and FOX affiliates and several radio stations in Columbus and Atlanta instead of the evening news. Community leaders, subject experts and citizens who are affected by and deeply engaged in these issues were on hand to discuss where the community and our nation are, and how we might go forward.
First, we should not act as if this is a new problem. In 2004, I marched along with Ed DuBose and the Columbus Branch of the NAACP in protest for the unnecessary killing of Kenneth B. Walker, 39, son of Emily Walker, husband of Cheryl Walker, father of Kayla Walker. He was mortally wounded at 8:58 p.m. on Dec. 11, near the Interstate 185 bridge over Edgewood Road.
A decade later in the summer of 2014 and continuing over the past year and a half, our nation has seen a series of controversial cases, many of them captured on videos taken by the police, bystanders, or nearby security cameras.
I believe that our broken apparatus of policing and the dysfunctional criminal justice system in this country is a mere symptom and not the source of pain. The source emanates from the stubborn cancer of white supremacy. Race continues to gnaw at the bones and sinews attacking our core values: We hold these truths to be self evident that all men and woman are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights of this life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In other words, all lives matters.
But all lives don’t matter as a matter of politics. Politics is the process by which we determine who gets what, when, where and if they get anything at all. In this country, historically we have determined resources, given privileges, and bestowed rights based on one’s proximity to straight, male, euro-centric, Judeo-Christian, whiteness.
Don’t mistake me, there are many persons who are white and have many problems, but you will seldom have problems because you are white. Any honest examination of our current affairs would not yield the same conclusion for blacks.
Racism is sanitized through a criminal justice system that is the new auction block of a new slavery called mass incarceration. Racism is subsidized by corporate welfare that drain resources from education and programs of social uplift.
Racism is socialized through mass media that continues to promote irresponsibility and a thug culture by parading negative images that program the viewer to believe that by virtue of being a black man I am inherently dangerous.
Finally, racism is politicized by candidates seeking office using coded language to dog whistle scapegoats for their failed polices.
Mayor Tomlinson is right. We can’t give up on our systems. At the same time, the truth is some people are on the verge of hopelessness.
The Guardian has documented at least 598 people killed by police across the U.S. so far this year. From that total, 148 - nearly 25 percent - were black, although African Americans constitute only around 13 percent of the country’s population. Last year, according to the Washington Post, there were 990 people killed by police across the U.S. That’s too many killings regardless of race.
These realities have sparked protests across the country and soul-searching among police executives. They have also threatened community-police relationships in many areas and have undermined trust.
We all own the future of policing in the 21st century. Leadership needs to come from all three sectors — local government, law enforcement, and the community. I invite you to explore the NAACP’s “Born Suspect,” a report on criminal justice reform. Additionally, I encourage you to read the president’s “Recommendations on 21st Century Policing.”
I have three sons, Thurgood, Frederick and Langston. I’ve had “that talk” with each of my sons about what to do if they’re stopped by police.
But is this acceptable in a 21st century America that was built on freedom of speech and justice for all? The idea that I’m passing on the same speech to my sons that was given to me by my father says that the future will be a continuation of what I experienced, what my father learned before me and his father before him.
Let’s join together to improve race relations and build a better, stronger America. An America for all. Change doesn’t come overnight, nor from one press cycle or legislative session. If we are going to transform the political landscape in Georgia, we must continue working on a bold, persistent, consistent, disciplined and values-based agenda of change.
Johnson of Statesboro is president of the Georgia NAACP.