There are prayers we pray and forget, the words falling from our memory faster than incense can rise and dissipate. And then, there are the prayers that stick with us for a lifetime.
Sometimes these prayers stick with us because they are connected to trauma, loss or grief. And sometimes prayers stick with us because we must continue to pray them, and must continue to work to shape them into reality, in the face of the evils of this world.
One day in the spring of my sophomore year in high school, I found myself standing alone in my room, fervently praying one of those prayers. I prayed that day in the spring of 1992 as the flames of violence and hatred ripped through Los Angeles in the wake of a jury acquitting four police officers in the vicious beating of Rodney King.
More than 50 people died, more than 2,300 were injured, and about $1 billion in property damage took place, even as Rodney King pleaded for peace.
I prayed that day for peace, as businesses burned and as protesters were caught between police and looters.
I find myself praying that same prayer today as protesters, police and looters once again are caught in the old, ugly dance of rioting in Minneapolis, fanned into flames after a police officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck until he died on Monday.
This is an all-too-familiar tale in America — a tale of violence against black men spawning rightful protests, which boil over into violence on all sides.
But the sadness and revulsion we feel at these riots is too often limited to the surface — to the end effects of a much larger problem. We see the violence, the looting and the glow of buildings burning in the night. But we remain blind to the conditions that spark the fires and stir anger and resentment. We see the wounds, but ignore the underlying cause.
To be clear, rioting and looting are wrong. As Martin Luther King Jr., who was committed to nonviolence, pointed out: “Riots are socially destructive and self-defeating.” But, like King, we must recognize that social unrest and rioting are merely symptoms of a far greater and persistent disease in America — social inequality and injustice.
In a speech at Stanford University titled “The Other America,” in April 1967, King said “I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air.”
“Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots,” King said. “But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard.”
America, King said, “has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay.”
Sadly, those words remain just as relevant today as they were 53 years ago. We continue to live in the “two Americas” King saw in 1967. In one America, “people experience every day the opportunity of having life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in all of their dimensions” and “grow up in the sunlight of opportunity.” In the other, people languish amid “daily ugliness” that “constantly transforms the ebulliency of hope into the fatigue of despair.” This other America leaves the poor, people of color and the marginalized “perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”
King spoke not just for African-Americans, but for all — including impoverished whites — who faced inequality and injustice. Yet, despite his work and his death, despite all the sweat, blood and tears shed around injustice, we live in a republic with the greatest and rapidly increasing wealth gap of all G7 nations.
We live in a republic, in the 21st century, where being born black in 99% of American neighborhoods means you will earn less in your lifetime than white peers born at the same socioeconomic level, according to a 2018 study by Stanford, Harvard and the Census Bureau. In Oklahoma, black households have a median annual income of $36,898, compared to $62,950 for white households, according to 2015 census data.
If our economic systems are unkind to people of color, our justice system is outright cruel. Black men and women, after being born into a socioeconomic system designed to hold them back, have always been held to a different standard in American courts.
According to a 2019 Pew Research Center study, blacks represent just 12% of the U.S. adult population but 33% of the prison population, and account for more than a third of all executions in America.
One need only watch heavily armed white protesters take over state capitols, with no pushback from law enforcement, then soak in the imagery of black protesters facing tear gas, rubber bullets and surplus military hardware, to know there are two very different standards being applied in two very different Americas.
I make no excuse for rioting and looting. And I continue to pray for peace. But until we undertake the hard work of addressing the root causes of unrest, we will continue to see the symptom of violence arise from our national cancer of systemic racism.
In closing, I defer to the words of Philonese Floyd, the brother of George Floyd, speaking to “The Guardian” during Thursday’s riots.
“Everybody has a lot of pain right now, that’s why this is happening,” he said. “I’m tired of seeing black people dying.”