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Race and Bermuda: unfinished business

Most Bermudians will have been riveted to the tragedy unfolding in the United States since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

His death has been rightly condemned throughout the US — if smartphones have one virtue, it is that it makes this kind of crime undeniable, although it begs the question of how many similar deaths were denied in the past and the truth buried along with the victims.

As time has gone on, familiar debates have played out. There has been anguish that racism continues to exist in the US, and that it is immeasurably more dangerous to be black in America — in particular, to be a black male rather than white.

That this danger is heightened when black men have dealings with those sworn to “protect and serve” is a particular indictment of that country and its ideals.

At the same time, the familiar defences have already begun. While almost no one has denied that Mr Floyd should be alive today, the focus is already shifting from his death and the peaceful protests that surround it, to the damage to lives and property that have occurred in Minneapolis and in other cities around the US.

Goaded by the person in residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, many US leaders, especially on the Right, will point to those who use these moments of national tragedy to further their own extremist goals.

That is a shame because it serves to distract from the very real problems that the US continues to face as a result of its legacy of slavery, segregation and racism, along with the wider problems facing the Western world.

But, and this in no way is a defence of the rioting and violence that has broken out since — it is right to question what other options those aggrieved by Mr Floyd's death had.

Those who say that the protests should be peaceful should consider what resulted from the entirely peaceful protests carried out by National Football League quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

The former San Francisco 49ers player “took a knee” during the performance of the US national anthem before American football games to draw attention to the deaths of other black men at the hands of police.

For his pains, Mr Kaepernick found himself made into a pariah — in spite of certain NFL teams resorting to calling in retired players to fill roster spots at his position when he was available — and was accused of being unpatriotic and worse by many in the US, including that same temporary resident at Pennsylvania Avenue.

And we should not forget what happened to Christian Cooper just days earlier. Mr Cooper, a birdwatcher and Harvard University graduate, had the police called on him for asking a woman to leash her dog in an area of Central Park, New York, where unleashed dogs are not permitted. Fortunately, Mr Cooper — like Andrew Simons, the former Bermuda senator, in his 2017 episode with the Boyle family — had recorded the exchange he had with dog owner Amy Cooper, right down to her threatening to call police because she was being threatened by an “African-American male”.

Fortunately, we will never know what could have happened to Mr Cooper had he not recorded the conversation. But it seems unlikely that it would have been Ms Cooper who would have been pilloried.

It is worth asking as well where the condemnations of violence were when police and soldiers in Washington used teargas, concussion grenades and horses to clear peaceful protesters so that the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue could have a photo op.

And this goes back to the central point: what happens when those in power refuse to listen or to accept the evidence of their own eyes? What happens when the frustration of being ignored boils over? What happens when people are told not to do one thing while being subjected to that very thing by those in positions of authority?

This is a lesson for leaders all over the world, and not just political leaders. Failure to listen and failure to act can and does end in disaster. For many in Bermuda, there will be relief that similar events have not unfolded here. There may be some who complacently believe that they could not. Bermuda, despite or perhaps because of a good deal of past pain, may be farther down the road to racial reconciliation than the United States.

Eva Hodgson, who passed away last weekend, would probably disagree.

Dr Hodgson, who dedicated her life to fighting racism and resisting the evils of institutional racism in all if its forms, made few friends as a result of her efforts. Unlike most people, she did not get along to go along. She always put in the hard miles.

As a result, she was often criticised and made into something of a pariah herself. Sometimes she was ignored. Sometimes she herself was accused of being a racist and of peeling off scabs better left untouched. She was not any of those things.

She wanted nothing more than to engage with her fellow Bermudians, to build mutual understanding and, in doing so, to save Bermuda from its own history. Dr Hodgson was, in that all-too-familiar debate, accused of trying to keep alive grievances that were in the past.

“If only she would keep quiet, these problems would go away.”

But they were not in the past and they will not go away on their own.

White people in Bermuda are fooling themselves if they think there are no Amy Coopers among them whose default action when asked to do something they do not want to do by a black man is to call the police and claim they are being threatened. Or that there are not people in this community who would not keep their knee on the neck of a black man for nine minutes — even when that man has stopped breathing. They exist and they know who they are.

But this editorial is not aimed at them; they are probably irredeemable. The best that can be hoped for is that their children will be different.

This editorial is aimed at “middle Bermuda”, whites and blacks who hope that the worst of Bermuda's racist past is behind her and that a better future beckons, where blacks and whites are treated equally, where the colour of your skin does not determine access to opportunities, where access to education, healthcare and housing are the same, and where life expectancy is as well.

The truth — and this will come as no surprise to black Bermudians, and should not to whites — is that Bermuda is not there yet. As long as the clearest measure of inequity and inequality is race, Bermuda will be always at risk of seeing the same anger and despair boil over, and end in violence and worse.

The bad news is that these inequities are likely to widen as Bermuda comes out of the Covid-19 crisis, but also grapples with broader and epochal changes confronting the world. Even in the short term, these inequities will be clear. If schools continue to engage in distance learning, it is the poor who will be disadvantaged by a lack of laptops and broadband. And the poor in Bermuda are disproportionately black.

If the past is any measure, then as employment gradually grows back, whites will return to the workforce first. Blacks will remain unemployed longer, with all that that entails.

The likely sustained weakness in tourism will adversely affect black Bermudians more than whites.

And so on.

How does Bermuda solve this problem — not just to avoid the violence and damage we are seeing in the US, but to build a better community here?

The first step, as Dr Hodgson said so often, is to talk among ourselves, and to listen. This is harder than it seems. Some will feel they have been talking, or have been talked at, with little or no discernible progress. For decades. It is easy to become frustrated and to retreat into our corners. That's the time when we have to redouble our efforts.

The second step is more fundamental: Bermuda needs, desperately, to improve its public education system, which has become more, not less, segregated and divided in terms of race and wealth in the past 30 years, and where standards have failed to rise.

The Government was embarking on a major education reform before Covid-19 struck and presumably still is.

The need to raise the standard of education and the quality of teaching has never been higher. The working world is undergoing a revolution, likely accelerated by the pandemic, and people with substandard educations will be at a greater disadvantage than ever.

If the public education system is divided by race and is failing, a disproportionately higher number of black Bermudians will be more likely to receive a substandard education.

Covid-19 has shown that people with underlying health conditions are the most vulnerable to the virus, but this is true in general health as well. And in Bermuda, those with diabetes and hypertension are disproportionately black.

Access to affordable healthcare remains a massive problem for many Bermudians, while paying for it is an unsustainable burden for many employers. Again, the Government was trying to bring about a reform before the crisis and has, at times, tried to use the crisis to justify the reforms.

There are problems with the proposed reforms that need to be solved. But the ideal of making healthcare accessible to all is the right one and Covid-19 proves that — Bermuda needs to come together to find a system that works for all without bankrupting the island.

The list goes on, and there is not space here to identify all of the problems, let alone solve them.

But race is intertwined in all of our social and economic problems, and we cannot solve them without dealing with race as well.

As the Covid-19 crisis winds down, as it must, Bermuda needs to take the unity and openness we have embraced to solve it and apply it to our more intractable problems.

If we do not, the alternative is happening before us — just 700 miles away.

Hard miles: a protester wears a face mask to curb the spread of the coronavirus during a protest to decry the killing of George Floyd in front of the US embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel (Photography by Ariel Schalit/AP)

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Published June 05, 2020 at 9:00 am (Updated June 05, 2020 at 8:35 am)

Race and Bermuda: unfinished business

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