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One of the main reasons police officers give when they engage in violence against Black people and people of color is that they “felt threatened.” What’s devastating is the number of instances in which, despite the complete lack of real danger, police officers nonetheless equate a Black or Brown body with threat and proceed to violently, and often fatally, assault them.

What is paradoxical about this is that the longest history of groups of people engaging in horrendous acts of terrorism in the U.S. belongs to white people. Government-sanctioned terror took place daily during slavery and with the collusion of law enforcement during Reconstruction and the years after.

What history is there of groups of Black and Brown people brutally whipping, raping, branding, or maiming white people on a daily basis? How many instances have there been of groups of Black or Brown people lynching someone to terrorize the white community?

Rather than white people acknowledging and owning the reality of the horrors of slavery and the barbaric nature of lynching, we have “whitewashed” history and projected onto Black and Brown people the true violent and terrorizing nature of how white people in this country acted for centuries.

We need to take the projection back and own our history. Just as we are beginning to hear the voices and stories of sexual abuse survivors (although we still need to pay more attention to the voices of survivors who are Black, Brown, immigrants, nongender-conforming, poor, etc.), we need to lift up and listen to the voices of slaves, the voices of those who were lynched, and now the voices of those, both men and women, who continue to be brutalized by officers of the law and others.

The Equal Justice Initiative’s new National Memorial and Legacy Museum is an important step toward ensuring that these voices are heard. It can help bear witness to the stories of those who were enslaved as well as to the legacy of racial hierarchy that remains. This is the only way we can heal as a country. As James Baldwin said:

Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

In a recent Washington Post podcast, Bryan Stevenson, Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, talks powerfully about the need to confront racial terrorism in America. He says:

We are all haunted by this history. We’ve just practiced silence for so long.”

The psychological damage of racism has deeply impacted both Black people and white people in the U.S. As white people, we can only reclaim our humanity when we acknowledge our country’s history and its continuing legacy. Doing this is not so that we can become engulfed in shame, but so that we can let the healing light of the sun shine on it and take responsibility for eradicating this devastating legacy of injustice and brutality.

Let’s work on breaking the silence of all the voices who have not been/are not being heard, bear witness to them, and then take action.