“Go, set a watchman; let him announce what he sees.”
The Bible verse Harper Lee’s new book Go Set A Watchman is titled after is Isaiah 21:6 which is a prophesy about the destruction of Babylon, a city which in the Bible is described as being without morals and full of hypocrisy. According to Wayne Flynt, a Baptist minister quoted in the New York Daily News, Harper Lee was comparing her own hometown of Monroeville, Alabama (fictionalized as Maycomb) to Babylon as Monroeville, like many towns in the segregated South not to mention the rest of America, had racism deeply ingrained in their culture while trying to retain the polite fiction that racism did not exist. The “watchman” is supposed to serve as a moral compass. In To Kill A Mockingbird Atticus Finch is the town’s moral compass fighting against racism while defending a black man, Tom Robinson, against charges that he raped a white woman. However in Watchman Atticus now disparages the town’s black residents, uses racial slurs, insults the NAACP and attends “citizen’s council” meetings dedicated to preserving institutionalized racism. He is no longer the moral compass and Scout is disgusted trying to come to terms with her past and her town’s racist heritage.
It should have been clear from the outset that racism has not disappeared from America’s landscape since the Civil Rights Movement, however it should be shockingly clear now from the murders and false arrests of men and women who are black that the problem of institutionalized racism is persistent and lethal.
By singling out Sandra Bland I do not mean to imply that any other’s life is not meaningful. The deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tanisha Anderson (a more comprehensive list can be found here) are all horrific tragedies that would have been avoided if these police officers did not have some sort of fear of people who look different from them that caused them to shoot or use excessive violence. This is the more insidious type of racism that is not immediately apparent as most of these officers probably interacted fine in social settings and in daily life with people of a different race, but when confronted or in a situation in which they had control and power they reacted with unnecessary violence and a lack of consideration for the humanity of the person they were supposed to help. A police officer really is supposed to de-escalate the situation, pulling out a gun or using physical force is only an absolute last resort and there is no indication in any of these cases that excessive force was necessary.
I hope that the death of Sandra Bland is not completely in vain and wakes people up the same way the death of Emmett Till woke people up during the Civil Rights Era which we really are still in as full civil rights for all have still has not been achieved. I find it absolutely horrific that a young woman could be singled out for a minor lane change mistake, tossed in a jail cell with no consideration for her prior mental health issues, kept in there for three days and be driven to suicide simply because some cop was on a power trip and disliked the color of her skin. I cannot even begin to imagine what was going through her mind when she took her life, but I can understand the feeling of one’s life being destroyed by something like a potential job loss due to the arrest and feeling completely isolated in that jail cell for three days over something so trivial. And it’s soul destroying to think that if she had looked different this would have gone differently and she would still be alive.
White people, myself included, need to take a step back and become aware of and listen to stories like this and use genuine empathy to understand a completely different experience. Also to stop being so uncomfortable and defensive and deny that racism exists. Of course it exists and we are not in the idealized world of To Kill a Mockingbird, we live in the reality of Go Set A Watchman in which there is a deep, persistent problem of institutionalized racism which will not be stamped out until it is fully acknowledged and remedied by the people who put it in place.
There are plenty of people who are speaking out who have a white audience, such as Kendrick Lamar in music and Ta-Nehisi Coates in literature, but how many white people are truly listening to their message? I would hope readers of Coates’ new book Between the World and Me are, but how many white kids are listening to Lamar and fully understanding the meaning of his lyrics?
I think Jon Stewart hurling the F word at Wyatt Cenac sums up how the majority of white people feel about being accused of racism. It is deeply hurtful and the absolute worst thing a white person can be called as I honestly don’t think many white people intend to be racist and are not overtly racist, but actually making some sort of change is necessary to fully move beyond the bonds of institutional racism which is different from overt racism. Action can be taken such as electing officials who support oversight of the police, getting rid of laws which disproportionately disenfranchise voters who are not white, speaking out when confronted with a racist situation, dismantling monuments which celebrate racism and taking responsibility for ones words and actions which are racist, intentional or not. Sadly the constitution protects the rights of the blatantly racist such as David Duke who has popped up in the news again after the recent shooting in Louisiana, and all of those other KKK and Neo-Nazi idiots, but thankfully the rest of us have the right to protest against them and show them how stupid they are.
That said, that does not protect against the dangerously racist such as Dylann Roof and the dangerous racism of those who are supposed to “protect and to serve.” Both are different types of racism (blatant racism vs. institutional) but the results are fatal none the less. This is why America needs to wake up, stop towing the line and trying to appease the racists and take steps to protect the lives of its own citizens no matter what their skin color. Admitting what is happening and taking responsibility is the only way we can do that.