"The Black revolution is much more than a struggle for the rights of Negroes. It is forcing America to face all its interrelated flaws—racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism. It is exposing evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society. It reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced. It is time that we stopped our blithe lip service to the guarantees of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. These fine sentiments are embodied in the Declaration of Independence, but that document was always a declaration of intent rather than reality. There were slaves when it was written; there were still slaves when it was adopted; and to this day, Black Americans have not life, liberty, nor the privilege of pursuing happiness, and millions of poor white Americans are in economic bondage that is scarcely less oppressive. Americans who genuinely treasure our national ideals, who know they are still elusive dreams for all too many, should welcome the stirring of Negro demands. They are shattering the complacency that allowed a multitude of social evils to accumulate. Negro agitation is requiring America to re-examine its comforting myths and may yet catalyze the drastic reforms that will save us from social catastrophe."
—Martin Luther King, Jr., 1967
There aren't the right words in English to simply and adequately describe what the last few months have been like. Let's begin with this word: grueling. It's been a grueling few months. Here at Chronogram, while we were halfway through putting the April issue together, New York shut down. Stories that we had been planning for months became instantly irrelevant. We pivoted. At The River, we went into 24/7 coronavirus mode, publishing daily reports on the tide of the pandemic as it quickly swept across the region, and reporting on its ancillary effects on everything from food and hospitality to health care. In the pages of Chronogram and on Chronogram.com, we covered the evolving economic devastation, telling the stories of businesses shifting their businesses models overnight to comply with government health mandates; and we reported on the resilience of our communities, how mutual aid groups sprang up like mushrooms to assist our most vulnerable neighbors.
While we were busy shifting our coverage to confront the "new normal" of the pandemic, Breonna Taylor was in a funeral home. The 26-year-old EMT was shot eight times by plainclothes police officers executing a no-knock warrant on March 13. Taylor was the latest Black person killed by cops in a string of racist police violence that predates the founding of the republic. (As Jon Stewart, still one of our most astute political commentators, noted in a recent interview with the New York Times magazine, police are not separate from society; they embody its values. "[The police] are not a rogue alien organization that came down to torment the Black community," Stewart says. "They're enforcing segregation. Segregation is legally over, but it never ended. The police are, in some respects, a border patrol, and they patrol the border between the two Americas.")
As the spread of the coronavirus swallowed the country in March, it also swallowed the story of Breonna Taylor's killing and the subsequent stonewalling of the Taylor family by the Louisville Police Department. It seemed that Taylor's killing would just be added to a list of names of Black people killed via state-sanctioned violence—Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Walter Scott, the names stretch on and on—and little else would come of it. The intractable problem of institutionalized racism in this country would forever remain beyond hope of redress and murdered citizens would be tragic statistics.
By early April, we had really settled (un)comfortably into the pandemic. Ennui became as much a source of anxiety as fear of contagion was. But like many others, we grokked the unparalleled disruption caused by the pandemic, welcoming the opening it made for challenging the dominant paradigm. The world was cracking open, and once-sacred shibboleths were looking as shaky as pizza in an earthquake. There seemed a chance that this crack in the facade of normality might give way to a new reality.
So we began working on an expansive special feature for the July issue. It would focus on innovative thinking in wide-ranging topics: food and farming, the environment, the economy, education, and wellness. The fruit of that particular effort, The Future Is Now: Toward a Better New Normal, begins on page 12. It contains some radical thinking about real solutions (much of which would be easily accomplished) to some of the structural flaws in society, from universal basic income (page 19) to reconceiving public space (page 36) to radical divestment from Wall Street and reinvestment in our Main Streets (page 21). As Cordelia Schiller optimistically reports ("Fossil Fuels on the Brink," page 38): "The uncertainty of the present moment destroys both our limited notions of what is possible and our illusions of powerlessness."
As were in the midst of working on the July issue, envisioning what a reimagined future might look like, George Floyd was murdered. The world cracked open again. People across the planet poured into the streets—coronavirus be damned—calling for justice, demanding change, expressing rage and grief. As if a dam that had been building up pressure for hundreds of years had finally broken open. But the pressure was not released, just redirected. A reckoning with the consequences of slavery, our country's original sin, was (possibly) at hand. (The mostly white jury is still out on this point; we shall see where this national conversation leads.)
And I saw that the topic of racial justice was not on the list of coverage areas in The Future Is Now. Reason being: before the events of this past month, the massive pushback of citizens against state violence toward Black Americans, I couldn't envision a future without systemic racism. Its stain was too deep in the bones of America.
There is no adequate defense of this cynical lack of imagination and accepting of the status quo. Like most white people, I have had to acknowledge that I have not done enough to fight racism and not worked nearly hard enough for the "radical reconstruction of society" (Dr. King) because I am too comfortable. This extends to Chronogram Media as well. And we know we need to change.
We've started with the July issue, which includes 10 pages on racial justice, featuring the work of many BIPOC writers and photographers. This was by design, and a small, first step in diversifying our organization. We are now engaged in a process that will center racial equity and anti-racist principles into our mission and practices, and will put in place commitments and systems of accountability to those principles. We are at the very beginning.
The last few months have been a global wake-up call. The coronavirus pandemic and the overdue acknowledgement of systemic racism in our society have led us to question many of our basic assumptions about what we value in our economic and social relations and what we're willing to do see those values borne out in ourselves and our institutions. There is so much work to be done. But it's past time, and the future is now.