Irish in the US: ‘No one calls themselves a racist, and yet here we are’

Carmel McMahon, who lives in New York, on the deaths that have appalled protesters

There are no racists in the United States. I immigrated here 27 years ago, and I have never met anyone who would call themselves a racist. And yet here we are.

After a long shutdown, New York City, where I live, has begun to reopen in recent weeks, amid ongoing protests in reaction to the killing of George Floyd. People who had been quarantining for months have taken to the streets to participate in candlelight vigils, marches, demonstrations and actions of all kinds, including the much-reported riots and looting.

Social distancing has been relaxed as participants weigh up the odds: Covid-19 is a virus that will end with a vaccination or herd immunity; racism is a virus that continues to proliferate through generations.

Last Tuesday evening, at a gathering on Times Square, about half the 1,000 attendees were healthcare workers. They held signs that read “White Coats for Black Lives” and “Racism is a Public Health Issue”. They have been on the front lines in the global centre of the coronavirus pandemic crisis. They saw hospital beds and morgues fill, and unsettling trends emerge: people of colour dying in higher numbers. According to American Public Media Reports, African-Americans are 2.4 times more likely to die of Covid-19 than white Americans.

Online, essential workers shared photographs from their subway commutes. The train cars were packed full of black and brown people. The luxury of social distance was not afforded them: grocery-store employees, nursing-home employees, nurses’ aides and home-health aides. We call them heroes, and bang our pots and pans, and make our peace with the unease that, for low or minimum wage, they are putting their health and lives on the line, because many of them can’t afford not to.

The pandemic exposed the underlying structures that produce these disparities. Meanwhile, the first sunny days brought reports of police issuing summonses to black people for congregating or not wearing masks, while white people appeared to gather, maskless, without consequence.

Between the Zoom meetings and the inertia, we tuned into the New York radio, the New York news, the talkshows, the podcasts, the IG Lives, where professors, poets, talking heads, celebrities, and people on the street were all contributing to conversations about structural and systemic racism in the United States.

Then, in mid-May, we watched a leaked video of a 25-year-old man seemingly being gunned down on a Georgia street for the crime of jogging while black. His name was Ahmaud Arbery. More than two months after Arbery's death, the three men now accused of his murder had yet to be arrested.

News of Arbery’s death was followed up with much discussion of Breonna Taylor’s killing. The 26-year-old emergency-room technician, an essential worker, was at home sleeping when plain-clothes officers barged into her home. She was shot eight times. The officers have not yet been charged. The conversations continued.

In our liberal city, on the morning of Monday, May 25th, a tweet showed a video of a young white woman calling the police to "tell them an African-American man is threatening my life". The man, Christian Cooper, had asked the woman, Amy Cooper, to please leash her dog.

We could not stop watching the video. Amy Cooper was dubbed the Central Park Karen, and the story was picked up and shared all over the world. We discussed  “Karen” all day. We picked her apart, her words, her tone of voice, the way she choked her dog. And yet there was something else, something hard to pin down, difficult to name: the faint flicker of recognition. Not in the words themselves but in the entitlement and privilege driving them.

Amy Cooper unmasked white liberals like myself, with our politically correct terms and our rescue dogs. We who roll along in a society that favours us, and discriminates against others on the basis of skin colour. We scapegoated this woman because she showed us what could not bear to look at in ourselves: the ugly shadow of our complicity in this system. And now we cannot unsee it. We cannot go back to our old models of feigned ignorance and comfortable compartmentalisation. No one calls themselves a racist, and yet here we are.

Later that same evening, news came of yet another brutal death. A Minneapolis police officer knelt on the neck of George Floyd, seemingly squeezing the life out of him. Floyd’s crime? No more, it appeared, than attempting to use a counterfeit $20 bill while black. Floyd had survived coronavirus in April, but racism proved more virulent. The United States erupted, and its long overdue reckoning with itself, with ourselves, is here.

On CNN on May 29th, Dr Cornel West, a professor emeritus at Princeton University, said white supremacy is going to be with us for a long time, and we have to keep on fighting it. We must continue to be critical of the social, political, justice and economic systems, and we must continue to be critical of ourselves. In this ongoing work, he suggests as a response, we might look to Samuel Beckett, "the blues line of our Irish brother: 'Try again. Fail again. Fail better.'"

Carmel McMahon is a freelance writer and editor who is originally from Ashbourne, in Co Meath