The People is our section for all opinions concerning Black Chicago. In this opinion piece, Rockford-based social worker Stephen Marshall talks about the complexity of covert racism, and the rationale of Black folks rebelling against an inherently racist American system.

Like many of you, I have had a multitude of feelings over the past few weeks; anger, hurt, proud, hopeless, sad and fearful — the list goes on. None of these feelings are new. Like most Black Americans, I’ve learned to not only live with these feelings, but also keep them suppressed. I thought about getting my thoughts out in a video or maybe going live, but being in front of a camera isn’t really my thing, and I find solace in writing my thoughts out. So… here they are.

On May 25, I woke up to a video of a gentleman named George Floyd handcuffed by a white Minneapolis police officer who was suffocating the life out of him as three other cops stood and watched as if nothing was happening. 

As much as watching this video hurt, it is a story told all too often. Since the untimely deaths of Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, the country has been turned upside down via a rebellion that was long overdue. 

Does COVID-19 play a factor in this rebellion? Possibly, or are Black people in this country just tired of the heartbreak that comes with seeing its unarmed civilians murdered? 

Let’s talk about how we got here, the responsibility we have while being here, and where we go from here. 

How We Got Here…

Racism is an extremely complex concept to understand. It’s easy to spot overt racism, but understating where that racism comes from, how it is strategically taught in school curriculums, in media and media personalities, in music, through certain symbolism and embedded deep in laws, it isn’t easy.

As a child, I couldn’t point out institutional and structural racism. Although I couldn’t point these dimensions of racism out, I always knew certain things just weren’t right. 

For instance, when I was in 4th grade, one of my classmates lost his yo-yo. He  searched his backpack, his coat, and the surrounding areas, but his yo-yo was nowhere to be found. After a while, the teacher asked him to sit down, but assured him his yo-yo would show up. 

After starting our lesson for the day, the teacher called me (the only Black student in the classroom) into the hallway and began to question me on the whereabouts of the yo-yo. I told her I didn’t know anything about the missing yo-yo and  thought that would be the end of the discussion — but I was wrong. 

My teacher then asked me to go back in the classroom to get my backpack and coat and I obliged. She then began to search through my belongings in the hallway. I wasn’t worried because I knew I didn’t have the yo-yo; in fact my initial thoughts were “man we are about to have a lot of free time, because she has to call everybody to the hallway and go through their things.” 

Again I was wrong. No one else was called to the hallway or questioned about the yo-yo. At the time I didn’t see this as a form of racism, but I knew it was wrong.

There were countless times a white friend or classmate and I would be talking during class or while the teacher was talking, and it was always me that would have to go to the hallway or get sent to the office. At the time, I didn’t really care, because I didn’t want to be in class anyway, but looking back on it, I realize that this was the educator’s way of telling me that my white classmates’ education was more important than mine. 

I’m not alone in my experience of these forms of covert racism, and for most of us these experiences aren’t limited to elementary school. Microaggressions and interpersonal racism follow most of us through college, the workplace, when we’re shopping, etc. One of the most dangerous things racism does is enforce white supremacy to Black people. For me it took a lot of unpacking, unlearning and relearning to fully understand racism and how it works.

Our responsibility…

At this moment we all have one main responsibility — to pick a side. It’s really pretty simple; you’re either for racism and oppression or you’re against it. There is no more time for playing the middle field when it comes to racism. We all have a responsibility to dedicate ourselves to the physical and mental well-being of Black America. Dedicating ourselves to this cause unapologetically and being intentional about our purpose is how we show our allegiance. 

I have chosen to be intentional about my purpose, and that can look like a lot of different things. I have been intentional about educating youth, while also continuing to educate myself on matters such as education, justice and prison reforms. I think we also have the responsibility to not only do a better job at recognizing, but correcting white people when they display instances of covert racism. 

It isn’t enough for our white peers to live by the “I don’t have a racist bone in my body” logic. They need to commit themselves to being anti-racist. They need to not only be aware of their unearned privilege, but also reject that privilege as a means of showing allyship.

We need the celebrities and brands we support to pull their resources together, along with the power and privilege they have, to help evoke change. That change could look like using their voice for a curriculum change and education reform within public school districts. Or donating money so therapists and counselors can be easily accessible in disenfranchised communities, investing in our neighborhoods to reduce the high levels of gentrification that are running rampant across America or ensuring that there are healthy food options so we can decrease the number of food deserts. 

Companies selling their products to a majority Black audience need to make sure their staff reflects their targeted audience. Just about every major sports team came out with a statement suggesting they are against racism — and that’s cool — but all these professional teams together are worth billions of dollars. What would it look like if they all put a certain percentage of their earnings together and spent that money on reforming the criminal justice system? Real allegiance and allyship is shown in actions, not statements.

I understand not all celebrities can articulate themselves and form their thoughts as it pertains to racism without it going left or it being taken out of context, and that’s fine. But you need to figure out what other ways you can help. Now is not the time for silent donations. Black America needs to see you and know you’re helping and standing in solidarity with them. 

Where do we go from here?

So collectively, how do we voice being fed up? I don’t think there is one simple answer to that question. If some people feel that rebelling is the answer, who are we to tell them they are wrong? If during a pandemic, where unemployment rates are the highest since the Great Depression, and some people still haven’t received their unemployment benefits, who are we to tell them not to partake in looting goods and services that will help them and their family? 

As protest began to spread like wildfires across the country, so did the looting. Before I go any further, I think it’s imperative to define the word “looting”. Looting —  “steal goods from a place, typically during war or riot.” The most important question to ask here is why is this the preferred method? Why are people choosing to take things? 

In my opinion, this only points to a larger issue that this country has chosen to ignore for an extremely long time, and that is poverty. When the word “poverty” is used most people think solely of finances, or the lack thereof, however people don’t usually take into account the effects of poverty. Living in poverty usually affects a person’s emotional state, their mental state, their spirituality, and their health. I didn’t do any looting; I chose other methods, such as writing, educating and brainstorming for the future to voice my anger. Although I didn’t do any looting, I thoroughly understood those that chose to do so.

There is no point in us spending time arguing or belittling each other over trivial disagreements, this only hinders our progress. We have a responsibility to instill everything we have into our youth; they are our future. The day will come when we have to hand the baton off to the younger generation. We can’t complain about youth if we aren’t willing to be patient with them and educate them. 

My personal passion will continue to be educating youth through counseling and creating programs, similar to the hip-hop therapy program I have. In this program, my friend and I use hip-hop as a form of education for the youth. Although we have a long way to go, I think it’s imperative that we acknowledge our progress. We are only four or five generations, roughly 155 years, removed from slavery. I’m excited to see where we will be in the next 50 years, I think we’re on the right track — we just have to stay persistent in our fight.

Headshot of Stephen Marshall
is a Rockford-based social worker, hip-hop educator, and current graduate student in Northern Illinois University’s counseling and higher education program.