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Change has come?

By Troy Cooper

“I see you. I hear you. And I will fight for you.”

Being in my 40s, I grew up in the ’90s. That was a time when the young black male was the most feared profile you could have in this world. Though I lived in a pretty rural area, got pretty good grades in school, and hadn’t really even seen hard drugs in my young life, I was seen by many as an urban, ignorant, violent threat.

In college, I had those moments all young black men had. The proprietor of a store eyeballing you the whole time you patronized their store. People rolling up their windows when they saw you walking past their car. Even people crossing the street to avoid passing you in broad daylight. And you could never really tell if these incidents were actually racially motivated or if it just felt that way.

As I got older, I developed a way of thinking about racism that has kept me in good stead, philosophically and emotionally. I chose to see racism as a disability. After all, a disability is something that prevents you from doing things and diminishes your quality of life. Being racist essentially means you choose to prevent yourself from getting to know people as individuals, by assuming certain characteristics are present in them, based purely on race. And limiting oneself in that way greatly diminishes the quality of a person’s life. Isn’t that a disability? So, I truly came to feel bad for people that were racist. They limit themselves needlessly.

But even with my way of viewing racism, I still had to come to accept certain things about my reality. Racism will always exist. And it will always be just our cause to take up in life.

But some 30 years later, I attended a small protest on College Drive in response to the tragic and needless death of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis, Minn. As I shot photos among the still-assembling protesters, I saw a young woman — not of my race, mind you — spring from the sunroof of a car and yell out a common rallying cry during this crisis, “I see you. I hear you. And I will fight for you.” The words rang out pure and clear. They seemed to really resonate with me at that moment.

In that moment, I couldn’t help but ask myself, would someone have spoken out so freely and assertively against racial injustice back in the ’90s? Given the climate at the time, I’m sad to say probably not. Our rage over injustice felt largely unnoticed back then.

So if we’re trying to measure our progress as a society in ending racial injustice, I feel like eyes are opening. This isn’t just black people’s fight anymore. The black community is not going through this alone. People of all races are grabbing the yoke with us and plowing in the right direction. That makes the young black man in me feel less alone in the fight.

In the end though, systems can be put into place with the best of intentions but, sadly, it is individuals that operate within it. And the reality is that there are individuals who still exist having been raised in the hidden and not-so-hidden fields of racism. And if racism is a disability, there is no test to detect it. The main problem with that is it goes undetected until it’s far too late and someone else dies.

But, I find hope because I truly believe those fields that cultivate racism are significantly smaller than when I was younger. I want to believe that with every fiber of my being, for the sake of my nieces and all the generations to follow.

It may be hard to see the good taking place right now. But the fact that more people from all walks of life are standing up for justice that previously kept silent or turned a blind eye and deaf ear are steps in the right direction. This plugged-in, social media-obsessed society does have the huge silver lining of bringing injustice right into everyone’s home and consciousness with irrefutable hi-def clarity. People witnessed nine undeniable minutes of George Floyd’s death. Nothing is left up to grainy, split-second interpretation.

Racism can’t be completely stamped out. That’s just the world we live in. But racist actions can be deemed so unacceptable by the system and by all races, that the actions we all witnessed in Minnesota could actually be stamped out for good. That’s progress, isn’t it?

Troy Cooper is a Suffolk resident, former News-Herald designer, and current designer of Suffolk Living Magazine. He’s also the husband of Editor Tracy Agnew.