When Derek Chauvin’s verdict was announced, many people breathed a sigh of relief. The moment has been described as justice, a rare moment when a police officer was found guilty of racist violence against a black person. But if we think back to the anniversary of George Floyd’s death, it is clear that the US is still in the middle of a racist reckoning – it didn’t calculate. I am fully aware that this judgment has not changed the reality for black men in this country. The fact is that black men are being killed disproportionately by law enforcement agencies with no end in sight.
I think of all the names that have become synonymous with hashtags over the past 10 years: Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Botham Jean, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd. We often think these names will be remembered throughout history, but this broken down system of justice and law enforcement failed a daunting list of black men. The recent murders of 20-year-old Daunte Wright and Andrew Brown Jr. are again strongly reminiscent of a haunting conclusion: Black men have no opportunity to grow old in America. You have so much life to live and grow old. But they will be wiped out before they realize their dreams, reach their full potential, and live their full humanity.
And why do black men not have the freedom to be simple in the land where their ancestors paid the highest price for this right? The average life expectancy of black men is six years less than that of white men, according to the CDC. It is a disproportionate result due to systemic racism, a diverse wealth gap, housing discrimination, unfair lending practices, unstable employment, criminalization and much more. President Joe Biden, who is living his dream of becoming president at 77, is in stark contrast to black men, who are more likely to die before they are 77.
I just want to see black men grow old. I want them not to die from frivolous traffic stops while driving black, shopping at the grocery store, running, or living in any other way that black men have every right to. They deserve to grow old instead of being reduced to hashtags on social media.
Derek Chauvin’s guilty verdict was a realization of how low the bar is for black men to be accountable. The words “accountability” and “justice” are not synonymous or interchangeable. Yet they are often linked. Accountability consists in recognizing a system of injustice. Justice is the abolition of the system that perpetuates injustice. Accountability means that 17-year-old Darnella Frazier would not have been required to film the murder of George Floyd so that Americans could see that police brutality and racism wiped out an entire generation of black men.
Justice requires that we examine the system that mimics a cumulative effect of injustice; No single action (or in this case the judgment) is responsible for the change in consciousness. Instead, justice would mean that black men’s names are not trending on social media. Justice would mean that the institution of policing, whose origins were designed to inflict racial harm and violence on black men without immunity, would not exist. Justice would require that we dismantle and abolish the systems that were designed to make injustice possible.
Justice would mean that George Floyd and other black men would be alive today. True justice would mean giving black men the opportunity to grow old. An opportunity not to have to pass on “The Talk” to their sons, the rite of passage where black men learn how to survive encounters with law enforcement agencies.
The chauvinist ruling was a very small step towards accountability within a system that is meant to be fair to all. We know this system was not built to protect blacks, and we continue to see this manifest in all facets of social life. Even when something like a step towards accountability occurs, it remains difficult to be hopeful. Knowing what we have yet to overcome won’t allow me to celebrate or feel satisfied.
I mourn black men. I mourn black people everywhere because we know the severity of what it means to be black in America and the trauma we carry just for our very existence. It shouldn’t be so difficult for us to live, be, create, and grow old. To me, achieving all of these things is righteousness, and we haven’t got there yet. George Floyd and all the other black men whose names were reduced to hashtags deserved better. You deserve to grow old. This is my wish for all black men: I just want them to grow old.
For my husband, my brothers, friends, students and all the black men I don’t know. Black men deserve to be free, dream, rise, and just be. Black lives deserve to be lived. Black lives count. And only the minimum is important.