I was heartened to see positive responses to the George Floyd protests across letters and articles in last week’s paper. In particular I was glad to see the interview with local black musicians Morgan James (Mwalim) Peters and Eddie Ray Johnson in the “Listening Local” section. Their words provide a small window into what racial profiling and systemically racist policing looks like to the people who experience it, right here on Cape Cod. That is a truth we must all reckon with: it can be easy, especially here in Sandwich, for racism to feel distant in both time and space, but it isn’t. Racism is here on Cape Cod, and it always has been.
While I am encouraged to read that Cape police chiefs are beginning a dialogue, the suggestion to help citizens better understand complaint procedures treats a symptom, not the problem itself. It presumes that if a few problem officers are reported and held accountable, the racism will end. It looks at individuals, but it does not look at the system that creates them.
You may have heard the term “a few bad apples” used recently to describe problem officers, and your instinct might be to agree with it. And why shouldn’t it be? The stories we tell ourselves in history and fiction praise noble individuals—MLK and Rosa Parks, Atticus Finch—and show us that if we can only defeat the villains at the center of our struggles, peace and justice will return. It makes for a compelling story—and I have an MFA in screenwriting; I should know. But in the case of inequality of race, class, gender, sexuality, and so on, this story simply isn’t true.
The story that’s truer is tedious and long. It is the story of policies new and old enacted to disenfranchise black voters, to restrict generational wealth in black families, to punish poverty with violence. It is the story of policies and ideas that even long after they are declared unconstitutional persist in subtler ways, as in how racially homogenous neighborhoods create de facto school segregation long after Brown v. Board of Education. It is not the story of a few bad apples. It is the story of a poisoned orchard. Removing the worst apples won’t solve anything when the problem goes down to the roots.
It is time to dig up the orchard. It is time to understand where racism comes from and what policies in our own community perpetuate it. Examining and educating ourselves is critical, but we must also come to see the larger system in which we all live. Learning about it, addressing it, and passing on this truer understanding of racism is the only way to ensure that the events of the past weeks become the last mass protest against racial injustice and police brutality ever needed in this county, not simply the latest in a centuries-long line.