My family came to this country on September 12, 1967. I was only ten years old when we arrived and I had nearly forgotten about the social unrest that took place in Miami and around the country in 1967 and 1968. Thinking back, I remember the conversations around the kitchen table. My parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles talked about how they had escaped communist Cuba to a country on fire fueled by Communists that wanted to destroy the country. For my family, it was easier to blame the communists than to accept we were now living in a country where your blackness determined where you could live, where you could go to school, who you could marry and associate with. It’s not that racism did not exist in Cuba. It did. It was that they feared Communism more. They had been warned in Cuba they would have to step off the sidewalk to let white people pass but I don’t think they believed or ever actually experienced this. After all, our skin is white and we did not identify with the black masses protesting in the streets. I remember separate water fountains at our school and wondering why. I remember a sign on an apartment building on our street that read, “No children, No dogs, No Cubans” but we had been able to rent a house so it didn't apply to us. I was a child and didn’t fully understand what was going on, what the adults were talking about or what I was seeing on TV.
My life unfolded without much thought about race. I went to private school and associated with people that were much like me. I learned English and assimilated the culture. I went to college and built a successful career. I’ve lived in nice homes in good neighborhoods. My children graduated from college and have flourishing careers. I’ve lived a good life. We are the American dream. But, this week’s killing of George Floyd and the protests that have followed have made me confront that this vision of America is not everyone’s reality.
To avoid looking at the ugly truth of racism straight in the eye, we are once again looking for something or someone to blame for the social unrest, the riots, the looting, and the fires. In 1967, we blamed Communism, the rioters were communists trying to destroy this country. Now it is Antifa.
I’m convinced that among the peaceful protesters there are people who have a political agenda beyond eliminating racism and racial injustice. Also, there are criminals that will take advantage of these situations. But, that cannot overshadow the reasons for the protests. We cannot explain away the real anger and desperation in the people who feel oppressed and beaten down by the system. We cannot ignore the fear people of color feel when the police that is supposed to protect them, time after time, abuse their power with impunity. We cannot downplay the hopelessness and frustration so many feel because, after years of talking about change, the blackness of their skin in large part determines how people of color are treated by white America. We cannot pretend George Floyd's death is an isolated case. We cannot feign that we care and refuse to stand up against bigotry and fear mongering. We cannot broad-brush the protesters as thugs.
Clearly we all felt the pain of seeing a man plead for his life. "I can't breathe." None of us agree with the violence that has resulted in the death of innocent people and the destruction of property. But focusing only on this is wrong. It’s time for us to loudly and clearly say, "Enough." We must keep our attention on the peaceful protesters and what they stand for. We must demand justice and reform. The violence against peaceful protesters must stop. As horrific and distasteful the looting and vandalism in the streets are, we cannot let the fires and shattered glass and political rhetoric drown the voices of all people looking for justice not only for George Floyd but for everyone.
The good news is that I don’t believe my children and their generation will forget as I had. I think George Floyd’s death was so in your face, so appalling that it has us all thinking, if this can happen to this man, it can happen to me. My prosperity is on shaky grounds as long as there are millions who are degraded by a system that intentionally or unintentionally keeps people of color down. I pray we’ve reached a turning point and the American dream will one day be a reality achievable by everyone.