Commentary: The tyranny of racism

Man at Nashville rally, June 4. (Photo: Alex Kent)
Man at Nashville rally, June 4. (Photo: Alex Kent)

June 6 is the anniversary of D-Day, the event in which Allied forces took on the Nazi army in France and began the march to Berlin that culminated in VE – Victory in Europe – Day May 8, 1945.

I’ve always been attuned to the date, likely because my dad was a veteran of WWII. Not Army and not in Europe – he was with the First Marine Division on Guadalcanal – but when I was little, I didn’t fret over details. I just knew June 6 was an important day. 

So this week, I’ve been tuning in to TV documentaries on D-Day as I always do this time of year and watched one I’d not seen before: “D-Day: Last Words.” The show featured interviews with veterans who had been part of the invasions cut in with real-time footage and realistic reenactments. 

I didn’t learn anything new from a historical standpoint, as the invasion has been parsed by countless historians, but I was moved hearing the perspective of surviving veterans.

In Nashville, June 4, a soldier kneels (Photo: Alex Kent)
In Nashville, June 4, a soldier kneels (Photo: Alex Kent)

Jim “Pee Wee” Martin, an elderly Iowan who jumped behind Utah Beach as a member of the 101st Airborne Division, closed out the second part of the documentary series.

“I knew if we didn’t get into (the war,) the world would be different. We had to go,” said Martin. “None of us have ever considered this a sacrifice. And I tell people I consider it an honor and a privilege to be part of history. When you live in a country like this, it’s your obligation to go when you’re called.”

“We went over there to get rid of a tyrant in the world.

His words resonated with me. Earlier in the evening, I’d been covering one of the many rallies in Middle Tennessee to protest the death of Minneapolis man George Floyd on May 25 and other black men and women who have been killed by police in public spectacles over the last few years. 

If you’ve been to a protest or rally in the last few years, as I have, you’ve probably been called a number of things by passersby. Maybe you have been told you aren’t a patriot and don’t appreciate the country.

And here is where I argue a sense of patriotism should make you do just the opposite, should drive you into the streets and cause you to speak out against endemic racism, not just in police departments but in all parts of society. 

Tyrants aren’t necessarily embodied by a human being, for racism surely is a tyrant that holds our black friends and neighbors down. 

When violence is committed against a black person, inevitably we hear, “This isn’t who we are.” But it is part of who we are. 

Patriotism requires action and your sense of patriotism should drive you into the streets to speak out against racism.

Racism is part of the fabric of our culture, going back to America’s original sin – slavery. Since 1619, when African were first brought as slaves to Virginia, Americans have viewed and treated blacks as “the other” – different, something to be feared and looked down upon. 

I’m no paragon of social justice. I wish I could say differently but I didn’t think enough about racism and it’s dangerous, frightening and toxic effects on my own longtime friends until a few years ago. 

As one of my favorite authors, Maya Angelou wrote, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

I’m still not perfect. I’m ashamed of myself for taking so long to try and understand the continued legacy of racism. I’ll never be perfect but I know better than I did and I try daily to do better. And there’s no excuse for any of us not to avail ourselves of information, knowledge and to develop the empathy to do better. 

If you want to show your patriotism this D-Day anniversary or on the upcoming July 4 holiday, by all means, hang your American flag. But real patriotism means taking action to better your country. Speak forcefully to your neighbors who think a peaceful vigil equates with a “riot.” Donate to black candidates for office. Read one of the many books to acquaint yourself with issues of racism. 

When you know better, you’ll do better. And get rid of the tyrant of racism.