Turning the Dial on Injustice

Richmond City LimitThis spring, Richmond marked the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War and the end of slavery. Many of us spent the first week of April downtown attending commemorative activities. One particularly moving event, for me, was a gathering honoring the ancestors at the African burial ground.

The way the City marked that week seemed different. Several of the public events confronted the City’s past with a new degree of honesty. There was a broader public recognition of the city’s history as a hub of the national slave economy, as a place where families were bought and sold, as a place where human beings were systematically denied their human rights. As my friend and colleague Ram Bhagat put it, it was as if “the dial turned” that week. We seemed to take a collective step forward.

That very same week, a Richmond family that I know well found itself in a dire crisis. Living on food stamps with no other income, no transportation, and an adult member of the household incarcerated, the family, including two young teenagers, found itself homeless. The timing crystalized, for me, a contradiction: the contradiction between the emergence of our new narrative…and the lived reality of large segments of our community.

We’ve made some progress in how we talk about the past. There’s much, much more work to be done. But the dial has begun to turn, thanks to the hard work and effort of many. That is a healthy and overdue development…that we must continue to push forward. (Much more recognition of, and memorialization of, that history is needed in our public spaces and discourse.)

Yet…I struggle with the fact that our increased willingness to recognize historic harm has not yet translated into tangible benefits for the large segments of our community that remain “left behind” economically and socially as a result of barriers and systems that have origins in that very same racist history.

More people are ready to talk about historic trauma, thank goodness. But are we ready as a community to talk about current trauma? Are we ready to not just talk about, but act, on the scale necessary to begin to actually make amends for the past?

Our City has an almost 40 percent child-poverty rate, almost entirely children of color. Fifteen percent of our City’s population lives in extreme poverty (with income less than half the poverty line); that means 15 percent of our City’s people must struggle to survive from day to day.

The city’s “narrative” about its history has, I believe, begun to change. The conditions for the nearly 40 percent of Richmond’s children who live in poverty have not.

My hope is that our willingness to confront the past leads to a mobilization for actually redressing past harms. That means building a more just community where resources and opportunities are more equitably shared. I know that many others share this goal. When we improve the community conditions and life prospects for families like the one that remains on my mind…then we’ll have truly opened a new chapter.

That will be a good day indeed.