SALT LAKE CITY — I won’t bury the lead.
If you want to understand what the nation — indeed the world — is going through, two stories that appeared last week in the Deseret News by our journalists will get you closer to the answer. You can find them online under the headlines:
- “At what age do my kids turn into a threat?: Black moms discuss raising sons in America,” by Amy Donaldson.
- “Inside one man’s harrowing battle with COVID-19,” by Lois Collins.
Black Lives Matter is now mainstream following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, with daily protests throughout the country putting a spotlight on policing and racism. The coronavirus pandemic is a far newer threat, and it remains far from over, with people continuing to get sick and die. But what does that mean for you and me, and can we honor the people in the stories above by translating their experiences into new actions?
It’s been more than 50 years since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968. He became the principal leader of the civil rights movement, using peaceful marches to put the spotlight on racial injustice. His death came five years after he marched on Washington, D.C., in the months following President John F. Kennedy’s call for a comprehensive Civil Rights Act, signed the following year by President Lyndon Johnson after Kennedy, too, was assassinated. The act prohibits discrimination in public places.
Neither the Civil Rights Act nor the killings of national figures like Kennedy and King were enough to stop racism. What the story of “Black moms” gives us is a view of what the failure to end racism in America means.
As Deseret News reporter Amy Donaldson writes:
“Michelle Love-Day listened to a friend’s tearful fears with the kind of aching empathy that most black mother’s wish they didn’t understand.
“Her children are 3 and 4,” Love-Day recalled. “And she was crying as she said, ‘My kids are so cute right now. We go in places, and everyone loves them, like they’re little puppy dogs. But at what age do my kids turn into a threat?’”
The story recounts the fear that mothers carry as their children grow into teenagers and young adults. Why do some retailers treat black people like would-be shoplifters? Why do some police officers treat black drivers differently from white drivers when they are pulled over? Why does a police officer in Minneapolis put his knee on the neck of George Floyd while his fellow officers stand by?
If we want change, we have to build empathy. And understanding what black mothers of black sons go through is part of building empathy.
Justin Christensen is a 42-year-old dad who went to Disneyland with his family at the beginning of March. That trip to Anaheim, California, would take an unwanted detour to hell and back. He is a survivor — barely — of COVID-19.
They left Utah on Sunday, March 8, spent March 10 and 11 in the park, and then sickness gripped him on March 12. That’s the day after the world was reeling from Jazz star center Rudy Gobert’s diagnosis the day before and the shutdown of the NBA season. We wrote about it under the headline, “The day everything changed: The Utah coronavirus story.”
Thing is, the coronavirus story and the Black Lives Matter stories are actually thousands of individual stories of struggle, suffering and recovery, or struggle, suffering and sometimes death. It continues to happen all over the world and many of the outcomes are nuanced.
Are you unwilling to wear a mask? Read the story of Justin Christensen.
Think coronavirus is a story about Republicans versus Democrats? Read the story of Justin Christensen.
It’s about individuals in need of help. Empathy for them will build actions in us.
As editor of the Deseret News I spend time reading the comments that follows stories published online. Many comments are supportive. But others are critical and unkind, full of hateful rhetoric pointed at those in the articles. Those are from people who would rather lecture the public from a place of “I know best” than listen to the real experiences of others to find solutions.
Social media (and the mainstream media) is also full of lectures, with a scarce show of empathy. The family of Justin Christensen had to deal with that unkindness. But the men and women who shared their stories listed in this column can bring change and can prompt shared experience.
That became apparent when I read the following comment from a reader recounting his time as a youngster in New York City:
The commenter wrote:
Growing up in New York in the 1960’s, a bunch of us would take the subway into Manhattan on weekends, mostly to walk around, look at the buildings, the lights of Times Square, maybe go to a first-run movie.
The only black member of our group, Thomas, was always the best dressed: he always wore a button-down shirt, dress pants, and dark shoes. Never a sport shirt, jeans or sneakers.
One time I asked him why he always dressed so well; I thought it was in case he met a girl (when I was sixteen, I thought everything any of us did was in case we met a girl).
I remember his response over 50 years later:
“The cops are less likely to pick on a black guy if he’s well dressed.”
And then he added ... “when your mom wants you to dress well, it’s so people don’t think you’re a slob. When my mom wants me to dress well, it’s for my safety.”
One final note: The story “The day everything changed” referenced above, opens with Steve Starks, the CEO of the Larry H. Miller Group of Companies, recounting the phone call he took informing him of Rudy Gobert’s COVID-19 diagnosis. He was in southern Utah with his family for spring break, opting out of their planned trip to Disneyland.
Who knows if he and Christensen would have crossed paths inside the park that week. It would have been a shared Disney experience. What we do know is that we’re all connecting to the story of racism and the story of the pandemic. It’s up to us to determine if our shared experience will lead to important changes.