Mitch Landrieu: The price we have paid for not confronting racism

(Max Becherer | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate) A protester holds up an American flag as about a dozen people gather on the corner of Esplanade Ave. and N. Claiborne Ave., Friday, May 29, 2020, in New Orleans, La., to protest the death of George Floyd, a handcuffed black man who died in police custody after he pleaded for air as a white police officer kneeled on his neck in Minneapolis.

I was struck by these words.

“To pursue our present course will involve the continuing polarization of the American community and, ultimately, the destruction of basic democratic values.”

I read on. The alternative “will require a commitment to national action — compassionate, massive and sustained, backed by the resources of the most powerful and the richest nation on this earth. From every American it will require new attitudes, new understanding, and, above all, new will.”

No, this was not a news report in the wake of unrest in cities across America this week. It was not a statement about the devastating impact of the coronavirus.

Some 52 years ago, the bipartisan National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders — better known as the Kerner Commission, appointed by President Lyndon Johnson — released a report after researching and analyzing the causes that had led to over 150 race-related riots in 1967.

While certainly not perfect, and a product of its time, one of the main conclusions of the report was that the United States was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” And this growing segregation and inequality was fueling unrest.

The Kerner Commission challenged the nation to admit that racism had been institutionalized and had become a driving force and cornerstone for inequality. The commission laid out specific actions needed to start addressing our nation’s institutionalized racism — the beginnings of a road map for change.

Unfortunately for all of us, the report’s recommendations were mostly shelved, deemed too expensive and controversial. Johnson, who commissioned the report and is rightly hailed as a hero for championing civil rights and the poor, barely acknowledged it largely out of fear of how it would be received by the white middle class.

The truth is, we do not have a deficit of ideas in this country. We have a deficit of courage.

And what a price we have paid.

So here we stand. The United States has surpassed 100,000 deaths from Covid-19, a disease that has disproportionately killed people of color because of systemic racism. Christian Cooper, a black man, had the police called on him because he was birding in New York’s Central Park. George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Atatiana Jefferson, Alton Sterling, Trayvon Martin and so many others over the years have been killed senselessly, often by the police.

All of these are dramatically heartbreaking events, all compounded by the ho-hum racism that is baked into our institutions and into those who hold positions of power and privilege.

President Trump, instead of invoking words to calm and heal, harks back to the racial unrest of 1967 by tweeting: “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

But what we need to hear is that the entire weight of the government will begin to address the institutional racism that created these conditions.

The distance between us is so wide and the pain so deep. And so I weep for my country. Race is America’s most traumatic issue, one that we have not faced nor nearly worked through. Centuries-old wounds are still raw because they never healed correctly in the first place.

Far too many black Americans remain trapped in a vicious cycle of anger, fear and hopelessness. And they will remain so until more white Americans come to grips with the country’s past and seek to repair what has been broken.

Our nation will remain stuck until we redesign the systems that have kept us divided for generations: a housing system designed to keep us apart; a criminal justice system designed to keep black people in check; a financial system designed to keep money in white hands; an economy that benefits the top 1 percent at the expense of workers we only now deem “essential”; an education system that separates rich children from poor; a health care system that leaves too many without basic care; a political system designed to make voting a privilege and not a right.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. insisted, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.” The absence of justice creates alienation. This is the root of unease, unrest and violence.

Be clear: This is not an excuse for the recent violence. It is not to condone the burning of buildings or the looting of businesses. Violence never helps and always hurts.

But here’s the thing, America: We, particularly we white people, have to gain a greater appreciation for the centuries of oppression that have created the unrest we see today.

And we will continue to see this level of unrest until we confront the roots of our division. We cannot continue to go over, under or around the issue of race. We have to go through it.

So while we grieve, while we express our anger, while we listen to and honor black people who have told us time and again that the knee of America is pressed so hard against their necks that they cannot breathe, we must find the courage to face our past, commit ourselves to action that will right our wrongs and work together toward reconciliation.

This requires new will. We must stand arm in arm to change who we are, so that we can become what we have always promised to be: equal, free and one.

(Jacquelyn Martin | AP file photo) In this June 16, 2017, photo, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu speaks in Washington on race in America and his decision to take down Confederate monuments in his city.

Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans from 2010 to 2018, is the author of “In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History” and the founder of E Pluribus Unum (unumfund.org).