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Daunte Wright and Perpetual Racial Progress

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Next month it will have been one year since George Floyd was killed in another in a long line of “wakeup calls” for the US on racial justice issues. After the killing of Daunte Wright, it is safe to say that we still have not woken up.

If we had, we would have come together as a country around real solutions to systemic racism by now. But maybe that is too much to ask, given the severity of the problems we face. How about just getting the ball rolling, and initiating a planning process for dismantling the policies and systems that harm millions of US residents each year? Certainly, that would be in motion by now, with broad public and political support, right?

If you are wondering whether you missed something, don’t worry, you didn’t. The “wakeup call” last May has largely gone the same way as the many others before it, meaning our country has mostly gone back to business as usual. That is not meant to diminish the importance of the many victories and new participants there have been within the racial justice movement since last summer. The problem isn’t with that movement, which continues to push our country forward. It is with those who stand in the way of the change that is needed.

There continues to be a very well-funded opposition that has returned to fighting vigorously in defense of systemic racism. They are also opening up new lines of attack that will be devastating for Black and Brown communities in particular. As a result, racial justice advocates are once again being urged to go after “low-hanging fruit” and settle for making “incremental progress.”

There may not be a word in the English language more damaging to equity efforts than “progress.” Americans, and particularly white Americans, love to congratulate themselves for “making progress” on racial equity. For well over one hundred years now, we have been patting ourselves on the back for our charitable contributions, diversity initiatives, symbolic gestures, and superficial reforms that we claim to represent “progress.” But to paraphrase James Baldwin, how much more time do we need for this progress of ours? How many more people will we allow to be harmed, and even killed, while we are content to merely make progress instead of actually solving the problem?

There may not be a word in the English language more damaging to equity efforts than “progress.”

When it comes to racial justice, we need to remove the word “progress” from our vocabulary. It is time to advance real solutions to the most harmful aspects of systemic racism. We should start by addressing our severe over-investment in the criminalization of people of color and dramatic under-investment in the systems and strategies that would create healthier, safer, and more equitable communities nationwide. Step one should be to finally dismantle the vastly oversized, suppressive, and violent criminal justice system that is being used within Black and Brown communities as a catch-all solution for an enormous variety of public health and safety issues. This “tough-on-crime” model is at the very root of what killed George Floyd and Daunte Wright.

If we were serious about dismantling systemic racism, this effort would already be underway. We would have taken decisive action to address how this and other systems reliably reproduce racially inequitable outcomes day after day, and year after year. Yet we haven’t. And that is what modern-day systemic racism looks like. We implement public policies that inflict needless harm on large groups of people of color and then fail to address that harm appropriately when it becomes apparent.

When it comes to racial justice, we need to remove the word “progress” from our vocabulary.

In other words, Derek Chauvin may have been convicted of murder, but what may be even worse than what he did to George Floyd is that the rest of us know that the same thing will happen again—just as it did to Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, and now Daunte Wright, and so many others—and yet we still haven’t been willing to summon the collective urgency to stop it.

But rest assured that we continue to make progress.

*Featured photo: Racism is a Pandemic sign. Credit: Ehimetalor Akhere Unubona.

Cover image of Rich Thanks to Racism.
Read more about this book.

Jim Freeman directs the Social Movement Support Lab at the University of Denver, which works with communities of color across the US to dismantle systemic racism and create positive social change. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School and the University of Notre Dame, and was an editor on the Harvard Law Review. He served under President Obama as a Commissioner on the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans.

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