A lot of people, of various colors, have been demonstrating all over the country for the past couple of weeks, ever since a black man named George Floyd was put to death on the street in Minneapolis for allegedly passing a counterfeit $20 bill.
It was 401 years ago this summer that the first Africans were kidnapped in Angola, packed like sardines into a Portuguese ship and sent off across the Atlantic, then re-kidnapped by a British ship, hauled to Virginia, and sold on the dock. More precisely, they were exchanged for food, just like any other kind of cargo.
After 401 years it should be self-evident that those enslaved people never received their unalienable rights, so it is altogether fitting and proper for their descendants to be seeking some justice now.
Those first captives were officially considered indentured servants, but that distinction would soon fade and slavery would become a hereditary status for the estimated 12 million Africans who would endure transportation to North, Central, or South America over the centuries. Many would die during that “middle passage” — some from disease, others by suicide.
So: Two and a half centuries of chattel slavery, during which people were “owned” by a “master” who held the power of life and death over them because they were mere “property”; followed by a century of second-class citizenship under Jim Crow, with share cropping (which was slavery by another name) and lynchings; followed by half a century of improvements after the civil rights progress of the 1960s.
And yet, the lynchings continue (Emmett Till, killed in 1955 for allegedly flirting with a white woman; Ahmaud Arbery, killed in 2020 for jogging while black), as do the police killings (Eric Garner, killed in 2014 for selling loose cigarettes; Philando Castile, shot dead in his car in 2016 after telling the cop, as a precaution, that he had a legal gun; Breonna Taylor, shot eight times in her bed this year during a drug raid; and George Floyd; and so many others).
A couple of things are clear: Racism is nothing new, nor is police brutality; what’s new is that nowadays we see it, because of cell-phone technology. And we need to radically rethink the way policing is done in this country — from how the officers who hold the power of life and death are recruited, vetted, trained, and disciplined; to the rules of engagement they must follow when interacting with the public; to the troubling militarization of police forces across the country.
In 2007 the Virginia House of Delegates unanimously approved a resolution expressing "profound regret" for that state’s role in the slave trade. We could use some “profound regret” today.
Much has been said or tweeted about the present state of unrest and dissent in this country. President Trump famously said that the NFL players who “took a knee” during the National Anthem to protest the unequal treatment of black people should be fired. He also said that George Floyd should be posthumously happy that the economy may be improving (“It’s a great day for him.”)
But I’m thinking of some other words. More than a phrase, they embody an idea, a principle. And, unlike Mr. Trump’s speeches or tweets, they are literally carved in stone, on the Supreme Court building in Washington: “Equal justice under law.”
Maybe we should try that for a change.
Reach Glenn Richter at firstname.lastname@example.org.