ActivePaper Archive Time to heed cry for justice - The Age, 6/6/2020

Time to heed cry for justice


These are hard times. Times when it feels like we are forced to choose sides. Times when race matters and I wish it didn’t. I wish we could stand for justice above race. But justice can’t be colourblind, because injustice was never colour-blind.

When I look at America torn apart after the death of another black man killed at the hands of police, I see people who look like the people in my family. I see people with a history of racism that I share. I am a world away, but bonded in struggle.

As a boy, raised in an Aboriginal family, in politics and the church I looked to the giants of America’s civil rights struggle: black pastors such as Ralph Abernathy, Jesse Jackson and of course Martin Luther King jnr, men who believed that character should matter more than colour.

But for black people, has America ever truly been the land of the free?

This week I have thought of the words of the African-American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates: ‘‘In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body – it is heritage.’’

Coates wrote his seminal book Between the World and Me after one of his friends was shot dead by a policeman. In an open letter, Coates warns his young son that ‘‘the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body’’.

Sometimes Coates’ words seem too bleak, yet this week they sound like prophesy to black Americans. This week, George Floyd is every black person in America who has died under a whip, been lynched from a tree, or perished in a building set on fire by racists in white hoods.

This week Americans hear the great James Baldwin: ‘‘To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.’’

I have felt that rage here.

I felt it when I saw the boys of Don Dale bound and hooded and beaten and tear-gassed. I feel that rage when I recall the stories of my own family’s past: of segregation, discrimination and police beatings.

I feel that rage when I think of how Indigenous people are the most incarcerated in our country. And how they die still in police cells: 432 black deaths in custody since the royal commission 29 years ago.

We should all be angry because when our country fails its people, we all fail.

Yes, Australia has been good for me but too many of our people cannot say the same. Too many are lost to early graves, locked in endless cycles of poverty and misery. This is the torment of our powerlessness; we know it is broken and still we fail to fix it.

This is the legacy of our history: those wounds of the soul that don’t heal and can so easily turn toxic.

History hangs so heavy in our world – on the streets of America, across the Middle East, in the borderlands of Europe and behind the wall of China.

These are treacherous fault lines. From the grievance of history we construct our identity, and identity at its worst can be a terrible thing. Identity can pit us against each other; we form our tribes and we tear each other apart.

The Indian philosopher and economist Amartya Sen was right: ‘‘identity can kill – and kill with abandon’’.

How I wish we did not have to choose sides. How I wish we could slip the yoke of history. How I wish this was not about race. But this week, it is hard to not see race when race is all we see. When people who have been branded by race seek the solidarity of race.

Dr King’s dream seems so far away.

Yet the violence can blind us to those people black and white marching together peacefully, those who still cling to what the greatest American president, Abraham Lincoln, called the better angels of our nature.

Democracy should be big enough to hold us all – regardless of colour or creed. And that’s the struggle of our age when around the world democracy is in retreat and authoritarianism is on the march.

That great beacon of liberty, that nation that promised to take in the poor and sick and huddled masses, the America of dreams, is ablaze, unable to police itself, let alone the world.

It is sad to see and we are all poorer for it.

As we look to America, as people here march in solidarity with the best of America, we can save ourselves from the worst of America.

This is a moment to ask if our country can fulfil its promise. Can our great country be great for all? These are just words. Actions are so much harder and, judged by our actions, history tells us we have failed.

But history need not define us. We are not America; our streets, thankfully, are not battlegrounds. Here, the cry of justice need not be an invitation to hate.

Stan Grant is a broadcaster and the vicechancellor’s chair of Australian/Indigenous Belonging at Charles Sturt University.