Opinion: A new day — solving the other epidemic of systemic racism

Black Lives Matter movement supporters protest the death of George Floyd in Cape Town, South Africa. Photo by: Armand Hough / ANA / Latin America News Agency / Reuters

Eight minutes and 46 seconds, that’s how long it took for George Floyd to die with a police officer’s knee on his neck. The horror of that brutal death, in plain view, triggered justifiable anger and grief across the United States and around the world. He was just the latest black victim, for as reported on NPR, the rate at which black Americans are killed by police is more than twice as high as the rate for white Americans; since January 2015, 1,291 black people have been shot and killed by police.

Today, and over the past two weeks we now see a tsunami of outrage, both in the U.S. and overseas, as waves of multiethnic and multigenerational protestors marched for justice and against inequality. They demanded that this culture of police brutality cease in the black community.

We’ve seen protests before of police killings of black youth, but something has changed. George Floyd’s murder has galvanized us to analyze the “collective us,” what type of society we want, and how we can reform the nation’s police departments. However, we must not fall into the trap of thinking that this is a black problem because real change will only lead to a new social compact if we see a true commitment by white citizens to the imperative for transforming America. The diversity of the demonstrators gives me great hope that this could be the pivotal moment in our nation.

American international and foreign affairs organizations should ... seize this moment to demonstrate leadership in pursuing broad-based policies and programs that will promote diversity and social justice in both their U.S. and overseas offices.

— Aaron Williams, senior adviser emeritus, international development and government relations, RTI International

However, as we watched this epic national movement, most Americans were then horrified to see the attacks on peaceful protesters by law enforcement, in the very shadow of the White House. We all condemn violence and looting, but that was not the story of these protests. The real story was that these overwhelmingly peaceful demonstrations represented the hope and aspirations of hundreds of thousands of citizens, in cities and towns across America. They are demanding that we live up to the American dream, and the ideals of democracy, civil rights, liberty, opportunity, and equality that the country was founded on two centuries ago.

Q&A: Degan Ali on the systemic racism impacting humanitarian responses

Adeso Executive Director Degan Ali says the localization agenda is being prevented by "racism that operates in the humanitarian system."

The U.S. was created by “agitators,” the people who protested against the British crown for the indignities and injustices that they were subjected to 250 years ago. The founders were deliberate in protecting the right to protest in the first constitutional amendment. Protesting is in the country’s DNA and has been a principal tool to reconstruct and advance our society in terms of race relations.

I grew up in Chicago during the civil rights era, and in 1966 participated in the protest marches led by Martin Luther King. He characterized the violent mob-resistance to his efforts for open housing, economic equity, and quality education for blacks in Chicago to be more hostile and hate-filled than anything he ever encountered in the Deep South.

As a young child, I vividly remember the humiliation and prejudice my family routinely suffered on our trips in the 1960s through the South, driving from Chicago to my father’s birthplace in Mississippi. Further, like so many African-American parents, I too had to have “the talk” with our then-teenage sons about how to survive an encounter with the police in the U.S. My fervent wish is that fundamental changes in our nation will allow my sons to avoid this “mandatory” conversation with my grandsons in the future.

As an African-American, I am a direct beneficiary of the civil rights movement, and stand on the shoulders of those who sacrificed their blood, sweat, and tears in fighting for the monumental changes that opened up opportunities for black and brown people in the U.S. Despite these advances, structural inequality persists, as the progress made in the 20th century still did not solve the fundamental problems faced by people of color.

I had the privilege to serve as the head of USAID in South Africa, and I saw first-hand the anguish, suffering, and destruction that racism and hatred caused in that nation.

Institutional racism had to be acknowledged and dealt with in the most direct manner. The world was astonished and impressed with the moral and determined leadership exercised by then-President Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, as they led their country in confronting the evil legacy of apartheid. In large part, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established in 1995, was a crucial component in enacting the fundamental changes required for the democratic transformation of South Africa. Mandela did not seek revenge, but instead sought out a path that would create a future that would benefit all South Africans.

Such bold leadership and determination are now called for in the U.S. In the Bible, in Ecclesiastes 3, it is written that there is a time for everything, including a time to be silent and a time to speak. Now, it is crystal clear that the vast majority of Americans are demanding that we take on this national challenge to confront institutional racism. I have always believed in peaceful protest, but now we must go beyond protest to concrete actions that will transform our great country, and challenge us to live up to our historic ideals and constitutional principles.

U.S. international and foreign affairs organizations should rise to this challenge, and seize this moment to demonstrate leadership in pursuing broad-based policies and programs that will promote diversity and social justice in both their U.S. and overseas offices. They play a prominent role — as principal partners with the U.S. government — in the country’s global leadership, and thus should invest in the diverse human capital of the future that will mirror the true face of our country.

We in the international development community have long been aware that a key factor in sustainable development is building strong and resilient local communities. Now, in the U.S. we need to turn our attention to strengthening our local communities in a way that provides justice and respectful engagement by both officials and the police in addressing the systemic racism that has plagued America far too long. In line with this approach, many legal experts, state and local leaders, and members of Congress now are calling for cities and towns to demilitarize the police and focus on community policing.

A path forward exists, as described by former President Barack Obama in a recent town hall meeting where he called for the renewal of a national reform process regarding law enforcement. In 2014 he created a task force on 21st century policing, whose mission was to: “identify best practices and otherwise make recommendations to the President on how policing practices can promote effective crime reduction while building public trust.”

This could be the first major step in addressing the other national epidemic — systemic racism.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Aaron Williams

    Aaron Williams is senior adviser — emeritus, for international development and government relations at RTI International. Previously at RTI, he was executive vice president of the International Development Group. He served as the 18th director of the U.S. Peace Corps from 2009 to 2012 under former President Barack Obama. Before joining RTI, Williams served as a senior official at the U.S. Agency for International Development. Williams is also an adjunct professor of health policy and management at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s school of global public health.