George Floyd was killed in a way that illuminates a national legacy of racism and disenfranchisement that has daily – and historic – echoes.
In the face of this national tragedy, in the midst of a pandemic that deeply exacerbates inequalities, words feel profoundly insufficient. They can’t seem to convey the sorrow, rage, strife, conflict, helplessness we feel. When we can’t find the words we need, we turn to humanists – our poets, musicians, photographers, filmmakers, historians, philosophers, cultural critics, journalists – to help us contextualize and translate what is in our hearts. I woke up this morning feeling like no words I have are adequate. Tonight, as I write this, the air shudders with the sound of helicopters flying overhead while protesters call for the right to peacefully gather and the entire public transportation system in Chicago has been closed. The convergence of rage, peaceful protest, racism, and violence are overtaking many towns and cities in the same way across the country at this very moment.
In 1967 Illinois Governor Otto Kerner was called upon to lead an undertaking to understand the causes of national race riots and to make recommendations to avoid city uprisings in the future. The resulting Kerner Report offered an unstinting assessment, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”
The report identified twelve ‘grievances’ in the cities they visited: 1. Police practices 2. Unemployment and underemployment 3. Inadequate housing. The others included 4. Inadequate education 5. Poor recreation facilities and programs 6. Ineffectiveness of the political structure and grievance mechanisms. 7. Disrespectful white attitudes 8. Discriminatory administration of justice 9. Inadequacy of federal programs 10. Inadequacy of municipal services 11. Discriminatory consumer and credit practices 12. Inadequate welfare programs.
The Kerner Report list is distressingly, disturbingly a document of the prevailing conditions experienced by so many Illinoisans today, urban and rural alike.
The humanities are being called upon with increasing urgency to help us find a way forward. Illinois Humanities stands in solidarity with our sister humanities councils from across all United States and Territories. My colleague, Kevin Lindsey, CEO of the Minnesota Humanities Center, reminds us the “…work of a just society requires all of us to play our part in advancing the cause of justice…We will continue to strive toward connecting people so that we see and understand how all of our lives are intertwined in mutual destiny.”
Illinois Humanities’ work is dedicated to bringing people across our state together to contextualize, amplify and strengthen our ability to understand and collectively imagine our mutual destiny. It’s work that requires an unwavering constancy of purpose and commitment. It is, in the words of the Kerner Report, the “unfinished business of this nation.” We must undertake this unfinished business. Because none of us will ever live in true freedom without ensuring that all of us have it.