It never failed, in those years I traveled with my students to our partner school in Germany: the three weeks of our annual travel/school/family experience followed a discernible pattern. Upon arrival, my wide-eyed kids faced differences galore in language, food, transportation, daily routine – the list seemed uncomfortably long. Some twenty days later when it came time to pack for home, however, there they were nibbling on strudel and Nutella, walking and biking to school, living and speaking as their German hosts lived and spoke. In short, those first glaring differences had receded as they discovered what all they had in common with another set of parents and siblings and lots of new friends.
This lesson, essential to life on our planet, is really quite simple: every single human being is inwardly supported by a skeleton protecting organs and systems and covered by a thin layer of skin. Inexplicably, however, there are some who insist upon making judgments based on skin color alone – even though all members of the species have similar physical structure. Can we not live peaceably encased in the bodies created for us without shunning those whose outer shades of flesh may differ from ours? If a bunch of school kids can look past dissimilarities to focus on similarities, why is that same action so difficult for many adults to accomplish?
I cannot recall another time in my life with a more applicable learning curve, not just for myself and my fellow Americans but also for my fellow citizens of the world. Living on a planet during a pandemic, watching humans just like us from distant locales in the throes of a virus headed our way, has been frightening but instructive. Regardless of language, religion, skin color – the human race has been brought to its knees by the same invisible microbe. For the first time in several generations, we have been united in a common struggle rather than warring against one another – as regimes and leaders are sometimes wont to do. Pandemics are, after all, tenaciously inclusive.
Still reeling from our mutual infection, we of the earth have most recently found ourselves square in the middle of yet another shared phenomenon: a pan-protest. On video available for all to see in every geographical location, there was that horrible scene – continuing for an interminable 8 minutes and 46 seconds – during which one human literally pressed the life out of another human. One lone dissimilarity highlighted the chilling difference: a white knee on a black neck.
In response, our fellow citizens around the globe joined Americans of every color who have taken their hearts to the streets to signal that enough is enough – especially in a nation whose official documents decree that all men are created equal, with subsequent clarifications that all persons born or naturalized here are American citizens with voting rights constitutionally assured for all regardless of color, race, or sex. During this pan-protest, concerned folks in London and Seoul and Berlin and Sydney and Paris have joined those in Washington and New York and Minneapolis and Chicago and Urbana to demand that we must expect more of ourselves.
I am encouraged by these developments, but then I have been witnessing scenes of racial violence on TV since my senior year of high school. I remember long, hot summers and Rodney King and Cincinnati, when clashes and unrest followed us into the new century – this Achilles heel we seem unable to eliminate. And it all makes me sad.
I am sad that such dissension occurs because of those who forget that all mortals are of equal importance in the universe. Not even a century ago, Hitler and his gang insisted that the Jews were subhuman – on a par with rodents and vermin. The Nazis used their ovens and their camps to rid the world of the undesirables they deemed unworthy of life. It seems to me that the man with the white knee on some level considered the man with the black neck insignificant enough, undesirable enough to disallow him the breath of life.
I am sad that selfish opportunists early on threatened to derail the movement by passionate protesters who want George Floyd’s life and death to mean something beyond mounting evidence that racism continues to exist. I guess it is a part of human nature that unnecessarily stalls forward progress when we can least afford it: this misconception that the protestors and the looters were one in the same.
I am similarly sad that too many people want to paint all police officers with the same brutality brush. I have seen enough policemen and policewomen in my life and in these recent days of protest to know that the majority are fine individuals facing difficult situations and responsibilities. We must find new ways of ridding the law enforcement ranks of those ill-suited for the profession and unequivocally support those willing to serve with valor and honor.
I will, however, remain cautiously optimistic that this pan-protest will be an important step in leading us to workable solutions for the ongoing blight of racism on our country. Floyd Family lawyer Benjamin Crump laid it all out at the memorial in Minneapolis last week: we are helping America to live up to its creed…to be the great beacon of hope and justice for all the world to marvel…most importantly, to help America be America for all Americans…
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.