Why has it taken so long for black lives to matter?

Why did it take the death of George Floyd at the hands of a white cop in Minneapolis in the land of the free and the home of the brave, to once more tip the world into a state of self-reflection about how appallingly badly black people are treated, simply because of the colour of their skin?

It’s not as if there is any scientific underpinning that supports the pseudo-scientific hypotheses of white supremacists and eugenicists that white people are superior to the rest of humanity. There is in fact no credible science to support the theory of race. It simply does not exist.

It all comes down to an absence or presence of melanin, which in turn, is used to infer a staggering array of characteristics, including but not limited to, level of intellect, integrity, social acceptability, work ethic, reliability, trustworthiness, and suitability as a neighbour, friend, romantic partner, or relative by marriage, dependent upon one’s skin tone.

Whenever society experiences a renewed paroxysm of guilt over its systemic racism, the airwaves are overwhelmed by an outpouring of self-righteous indignation, which is eerily reminiscent of the oft-heard protestation during the Nuremberg trials: “Some of my best friends were Jews”.

It’s as if we feel obliged to explain how we are not like that cop, how we aren’t really racists, and inevitably, our introspection in the small hours of the dark morning brings us face-to-face with our own fallibility.

What seems to escape us as we go about our comfortable middle class lives, secure in the belief that we are not in any way, shape or form, racist, is that we can be, and often are, racist by omission, rather than by commission.

The Penny Sparrows, Vicky Mombergs, and Adam Catzaveloses of our world are racist by commission, and because we do not act out our bigotry the way they have done, we fool ourselves into believing that we are somehow better, somehow not like them, somehow, not racist.

We gleefully participate in the public evisceration of “people like them”, as if by so doing, we can somehow or other, cleanse ourselves of the label, racist.

In the days following George Floyd’s brutal death, the outpourings of self-righteous outrage have flooded social media and mainstream media, as we all, in effect, say: “Some of my best friends were Jews”.

Way back in the early days of our democracy, when we believed in the myth of our Rainbow Nation, Pieter-Dirk Uys did a biting satire titled Tannie Evita Praat Kaktus.

I recall watching the show in Grahamstown at the Monument Theatre in the early 1990s. True to form, the show was hilarious, but also typically PDU, in that the laughter was generally uneasy. The sketch that stood out for me was of the white South African male civil servant who has to come to terms with working for a black boss, telling his mates around the braai fire of a Saturday afternoon, how he takes no s**t from his new boss, how he actually runs the show in the office, because his new boss is black and incompetent.

His frequent catchphrase during the monologue, as the alcohol level rises and the inhibitions decline, is: “I’m a white South African and proud of it, so f**k you all!”, until, that is, his wife calls from inside the house, that his new boss is on the telephone.

He scuttles inside with indecent haste, and we hear an obsequious: “Good afternoon, sir. Of course it’s no problem you calling on a Saturday afternoon. What can I do for you?”

And in that single exchange, PDU’s character, exposes the foul underbelly of our systemic racism.

It is worth noting that Pieter-Dirk Uys still does the same show, all these years later, most recently, February 16, just before the coronavirus pandemic shut the doors at Evita se Perron, in Darling.

The inevitable competing narrative to #BlackLivesMatter, that #AllLivesMatter, is as threadbare as #StraightPride in retaliation to #GayPride, #WhiteHistoryMonth in retaliation to #BlackHistoryMonth, and #MensRights in retaliation to #Feminism or #MeToo.

We seem to be driven to level the playing fields, but all we do is minimise and demean the imperative demand for change, by wheeling out the tired trope that “we are all born equal”, when nothing could be further from the truth.

In the idiom of Napoleon in George Orwell’s Animal Farm: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

George Floyd is not the first African American to die at the hands of a white police officer, and he will not be the last.

The road that America must walk to redemption is long and tortuous, and so too is the road that we must walk.

Making #BlackLivesMatter isn’t an imperative of only black people, for the power to effect the change that is needed, is disproportionately in the hands of those who are more equal than others, and it is to this cohort that falls the task of deploying the agency that we have, to make #BlackLivesMatter, by commission, rather than omission.

Doing nothing in the face of racism, overt or otherwise, has never been acceptable, but all too often, it has been the default response of so many of us who actually do know better.

Often, in the interests of harmony in our social gatherings and groupings, it is easier and less awkward to ignore some or other racist trope, railing against it in private later, rather than being the anti-racist and calling out the perpetrator. Only thus will we start the process of rooting out the deep-seated racism that still pervades our society.

The late Pius Langa’s observation that “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance” was prescient for it enjoins us all to be eternally vigilant in our pursuit of anti-racism.