“What’s Happening?” vs. “What’s Going On?”

by Scott Douglas, Executive Director

These are trying times, but hope exists for such times as these – not as wistful, wishful thinking, but as reimagining possibilities.

Despair exclaims, “What’s Happening?” But that’s a 1970’s TV show and the entry line for the late Fred “Rerun” Stubbs. It was a funny, light comedy inquiry into the trivia of the neighborhood.

And, yes, what’s happening is that there are too many bitterly traumatic events that have accumulated in recent months:

  • The vigilante murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia on February 23
  • The police killing of Breonna Taylor as she slept in her bed in Louisville, Kentucky on March 13
  • The police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25
  • The COVID-19 virus pandemic and its disproportionately negative health, employment, and social impacts on Blacks, Hispanics and Indigenous peoples.

The social and emotional impact of the convergence of these multiple, simultaneous, mutually reinforcing traumas affect us all, but none more than people of color. Those traumatic experiences include months of suffering losses such as the closing of schools and daycare centers, restaurants and other hospitality venues populated by a low-income workforce, congregational worship spaces, culturally reaffirming spaces and the lost lives of friends, family and co-workers we knew and those first responders we didn’t know, but deeply appreciate.

But in the face of despair’s obstacles, hope challenges with a question that can portend greater and deeper inquiry as in Marvin Gaye’s song, “What’s Going On?”. This is the incisive, inclusive, participatory and democratically accountable question that must be asked and for which strategic, transparent, and participatory answers must be found to the question how do we not just fiddle with challenging racism at its moments of embarrassing manifestations; but begin to end racism at its structural roots. Alabama has a great example of structural racism, it’s the Alabama State Constitution of 1901. AT the Convention, the Convention President, John Knox, proclaimed its purpose – “what we want to do is to establish white supremacy by law”.  You see, in the Post -Reconstruction era, powerful whites were getting embarrassed by the extra-legal efforts to suppress the Black vote.

In Birmingham, in 1963, a church was bombed, and four little girls were killed. It wasn’t the first church bombing in Birmingham, but it was the bombing that drew the attention of the nation and the world. We as a nation were embarrassed before the world, we, as a state (in terms of action), not so much.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act grew out of Birmingham just as the 1965 Voting Rights Act grew out of Selma as an embarrassment before the nation and the world. Except for grudging compliance with the new federal legislation and a slew of lawsuits against the state, official Alabama was not on board.

What’s going on? Though progress ebbs and flows, the late Bishop John Hurst Adams noted in his sermon delivered to GBM’s 1997 Urban Convocation in 1997 the character of progress that actually flows, “Progress must embrace those who are in the struggle for equity in our society, as I call the race, class, gender, age struggles the equity struggles of our time.  And many of us wish they would go away, but they are not.  Every generation is going to renew the effort to achieve equity until it is accomplished.”

Today’s multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-faith, multi-generational movement is affirmation that identifying, addressing and changing systems of inequity is the calling for our times.