Editor's picksOpinion

Greensboro’s challenge on race is America’s challenge


The generations before us made monumental strides against centuries of entrenched prejudice and bigotry. Standing on their shoulders, we should appreciate the head start we have but acknowledge too the responsibility we have as humane and fair people to continue the work remaining.

There is a familiar pattern when it comes to issues involving race in Greensboro. When evidence of racism comes to the fore, like with the recently released police body camera video showing a black man’s harrowing encounter with two white police officers, people in Greensboro, with great predictability, take their position and assumes their roles.

Justice warriors clamor. Elected officials equivocate. Rivulets of public sentiment dribble into well-worn channels: There are those who shrug in apathy, those who nod in quiet but detached agreement and those who find themselves rankled by those who call out racism and feel the need to put the morally righteous in their place.

The majority of Greensboro seemingly shrugs in fatigue. “Here we go again. More of the same.”

But there is a morally superior position here and to the extent we think of ourselves as an upright people, those who rise up against racism, no matter how familiar they are to us by now, no matter how old their complaints – they are our better angels, even if they don’t look like the cherubs painted on the church walls of our youth or sound like what we imagine the divine should sound like. Right is right, and we generally know it, even if we don’t want to admit it because it might give credit to someone who rubs us the wrong way.

Speakers address Greensboro City Council upon release of police body camera video.

That grievances seem unending should be a signal for us to pay attention and muster our own courage, the courage to find our own outrage, certainly not to turn away. The people who are dedicated to standing up and speaking out should not be marginalized because of their persistence or familiarity.

Dejuan Yourse was waiting on the porch of his mother’s house when he was confronted by police who were responding to a 911 call reporting a possible attempted break in. Without litigating all the details,  the body camera video is clear about a few things.

Yourse was polite and cooperative. He was goaded by a police officer who, prior to issuing any verbal commands, pounced on Yourse in an attempt to take his phone when Yourse was seated. A struggle ensued, the officer punched Yourse in the face, twice, and the encounter ended with Yourse hog tied in the front yard of his mother’s house. That much is indisputable.

The measure of our morals comes in what we recognize in seeing such an encounter, ending with a black man face down in the grass. Like an animal. Chained, subjugated and denigrated, unnecessarily, at the hands of two white police officers. This was not good police work or proper procedure. No charges were pursued against Yourse and the police officers resigned as an internal police department investigation determined that the puncher had violated police policies.

Some community leaders, mostly the “same old” people, decried this treatment as racist and demanded greater accountability and transparency from the police. Others attempted to dismiss concerns and shift blame.

The Greensboro Police Officers Association issued a letter denouncing release of the police video as a “politically motivated witch hunt” and asserting, without justification, that city council had broken the law by releasing the videos.

In the shadows and through the grapevine, people set about trying to smear Yourse, passing around his criminal record as if that and a wink were enough to justify the abuse delivered to him.

Still others took to social media to complain about those who were speaking up, personally attacking those who cried foul and suggesting that nothing is ever enough for “them.”

And this is why we keep going around and around on race here in Greensboro, as in America. It is not because of the “agitators,” “race baiter,” “whiners” or “social justice warriors.” It is because we cotton to the diversions, dismissals and distractions that are effective just enough to keep the morally correct marginalized.

America has done some heavy lifting when it comes to combating racism and prejudice. But great progress cannot be an excuse to stop making progress. For some white people, it can be tiring to keep hearing about it. “Aren’t we there yet? Haven’t we done enough?”

But surely we have some reserve of empathy that allows us to realize, however perturbed we may be by the constant refrains, the proper target for our discomfort is not the complaints about racism, but the racism itself.

Black children are more likely to get spanked in schools where it is allowed, unarmed black people are more likely to be shot by police than unarmed white people and black people are more likely to have their cars searched in traffic stops even though they are found less often to posses contraband.

Greensboro’s public schools, for a while in the 1970s had highly integrated schools where racial suspicions among parents and students took a back seat to common interests. Now most of our schools look like most of our neighborhoods, mostly of one race or another and segregation is the de facto practice once again. And we cannot kid ourselves, the school and neighborhood where children start has an undeniable effect on his or her prospects.

88 percent of black North Carolinians think police body camera video should be public record, but recent policies and laws adopted by Greensboro’s city council and the state legislature erect monumental barriers to public access, amounting to direct legislative affronts to the interests of black people.

A recent federal appeals court ruling throwing out changes to North Carolina’s voting laws judged them to have targeted African-Americans with “almost surgical precision.”

The common denominator in all of these disparities is race. Your blackness or whiteness. Racism exists: institutional, systemic and individual.

We simply cannot leave that alone. Why should we? The generations before us made monumental strides against centuries of entrenched prejudice and bigotry. Standing on their shoulders, we should appreciate the head start we have but acknowledge too the responsibility we have as humane and fair people to continue the work remaining.

It’s not going to be easy, to be sure, to eradicate the last vestiges of racism. I used to think it would happen in my lifetime. Now, I think maybe not. But it can and must happen. We will be better people, collectively and individually, when we do.