Harm, Trauma and Transformation: Confronting the National Sin of Racism

A week ago, George Floyd was killed in broad daylight in Minneapolis as Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck and back for nearly nine minutes, while the other officers stood at the scene looking on. The casualness of Derek Chauvin’s look on his face as he was snuffing the life out of Floyd, as Floyd could audibly be heard gasping and saying that he couldn’t breathe, is one of the most sickening things I’ve ever seen. This image of a life robbed literally shocks the conscience.

The ensuing days have resulted in broad scale outrage, protests and violence in Minneapolis and throughout the country. Are we at a tipping point regarding racial justice in this country and finally ready for a transformation of culture where every life truly matters? As Ella Baker said so poignantly years ago, “until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons, is considered as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother’s son, we, who believe in freedom, cannot rest.”

If the brutal death of George Floyd is not the tipping point, what on earth would it take to shock our collective conscience to move this nation from systematic injustice to a more inclusive and humane society? We are like the addict on the precipice of rock bottom – only as a nation can we finally determine if enough black men have died – if now is the time to do the hard and painful work of confronting a culture of abject injustice onto a new culture of solidarity and peace.

A friend of mine and parishioner at Lourdes said over the weekend that he had experienced the race riots of the late 1960’s and cannot believe that we are still at this place of social unrest and tumult. We are still here because this nation has not yet had the moral courage to look deep within its soul to confront the persistent and systematic reality and harm of racism, despite that avalanche of data that proves up the case. We simply want to look away, hope it away, delude ourselves into thinking that things have changed. Much like the natural environment that we also plunder and abuse at will, reality, including its attendant sin and harm has a way of punching us in the face. Black men in this country wake up each day not worrying about a taking a punch, but wondering if today their lives will be taken from them.

My long and too slow journey to realize, mostly as a bystander, the awful reality of racism began in law school, twenty-five years ago. Prior to law school, I led an insular life – growing up a white middle class Catholic kid in Northeastern Wisconsin. My experience of college at St. Thomas was more of the same – good education, but not much diversity. Things changed, and my perspective on racial justice, when I began law school in the fall of 1994. Our section at William Mitchell included a lively and fun group of law students and a big group of us became fast friends who did not always choose study over conviviality. My group of friends at Mitchell included a number of African American law students who were among the liveliest and most fun.

Two events stand out to me from this time which began to transform what had previously been a largely ignorant view of race and racial justice. I was in the commons one day eating lunch when the O.J. Simpson verdict came in. One group of students sat in silence, stunned at the verdict. Another group of students got up and cheered loudly. I think, discerning reader, that you can connect the dots – the latter group was of African American students who, given their experience of being black in America, felt a type of vindication in the Simpson verdict.

The other event involved me at a party late one evening in Minneapolis. It was the summer of 1995. As I was enjoying mid-summer merriment, I had failed to notice that all my potential rides had left for St. Paul. I called up a good friend of mine and fellow law student in St. Paul and asked if she would come to Minneapolis and pick me up. She said yes. She was African American and her dad owned a car dealership in Mendota Heights. She set out for Minneapolis driving her dad’s Jaguar, wearing a baseball cap. While we are taught in law school that such a combination of race, expensive car and baseball hat do not amount to probable cause, in some place, like Minneapolis, it is a recipe for injustice. My friend did not know Minneapolis and as she was driving she saw a squad car behind her. She pulled over so that she could ask the officers where the location was where she was supposed to pick me up. As she got out of the car, rather than answer her sincere question, they detained her. When she asked why, they said she was speeding and they needed to check her license and registration.

When I spoke with her later that evening, she was quite shaken and in tears. A woman of smarts and moxie, she represented herself in court and had the citation thrown out. I trust that the judge had seen similar incidents on numerous occasions. I am not surprised that Minneapolis was the flash point in the ongoing horror story of racial injustice. Minnesota, despite its reputation for being an enclave of niceness and pleasantness, perpetuates some of the most significant racial disparities in the country. I once asked a white man at a tree trimming party, who is informed in this area, what underlies these disparities. He responded plainly, racism. What adds to the pernicious effects of racism in Minnesota is the delusion that we are better than we are – which results in the misperception of the underlying causes and/or an unwillingness to confront the harm. We are Minnesota Nice – nothing to see here – please leave us….to our niceness.

Minneapolis is a particularly acute center for racial disparities regarding social and economic life, e.g. – largest gap between white and black home ownership in the country – and disparities related to criminal stops, arrests, incarceration and police misconduct. Notwithstanding the many good cops on the Minneapolis police department – and I know a number of them – there has been an element of racism within the ranks that has been countenance for far too long – to deadly ends. A former United States attorney general recently commented on the news that when she saw the video of Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck, while the other officers stood and watched, it presented to her as an abject failure of police culture – that a police officer would casually snuff out the life Floyd with impunity in broad daylight.

The police culture in Minneapolis is a microcosm of a larger criminal justice culture, which is a microcosm of the larger culture of racial justice in the United States. The only way to move from our present culture of injustice, harm and tumult is to do the hard work of hearing the stories – centuries long – of racism, racial injustice and the attendant harm and trauma. The cheers of my African American fellow law students a quarter century ago are the other side of the same coin of the tumultuous events that have erupted in response to the killing of George Floyd. Rather than a brief respite from injustice and a momentary vindication from a rare verdict for a black man, African Americans today are overflowing with grief, trauma and rage at life lived under the boot of white injustice. Restorative justice and restorative practices are tailor-made to name and confront the harm and to help move our tattered republic to healing and peace.

More to come on how restorative justice can be effectively used to bring needed perspective, healing and peace to our wounded nation.