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Demonstrators lie on the pavement in honor of George Floyd on Hanes Mall Boulevard during a Black Lives Matter protest on Tuesday in Winston-Salem.

Recently, a meme came across my Facebook page. It depicted the small portion of an iceberg above the surface accompanied by the words: “The racism that you see!” Below the surface, the much larger remaining portion, were the words: “The racism you don’t see!”

As far as memes go, it was effective at making its point. But as with most memes, it was overly simplistic. More to the point, it did not go far enough.

America, since its inception, has struggled to confront matters of race that rest on the surface, while the largest portion of the iceberg remains hidden beneath the surface. It’s not only the racism we don’t see, but also the issues of class we choose to ignore.

The original unstated, but nevertheless, intended beneficiaries of American largesse were white, male landowners. Just as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are an all-or-nothing proposition, it was equally true for white male landowners. The removal of one aspect invalidated all.

As much as America has been hamstrung by race, it has done so in order to ignore larger issues of class. On the conversation of race we are hamsters on the treadmill. But when it comes to substantive discussions of class, we are sequestered comfortably in the quagmire of “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.”

Historically, conversations of race in America have invariably proven paradoxical. They obscure any conversations about class, creating binary discourse that should be multilayered.

The death of George Floyd quickly became a euphemism symbolizing everything from systemic racism to climate change, from the impact of the 2008 recession to mounting student loan debt. From San Francisco to Syria and beyond, Floyd’s senseless death was transformed into the flickering embers of hope, as global protests bore witness.

It is not an either/or proposition, race and class are inextricably linked, but we pay lip service to one and disregard the other.

While I support this generation’s resolve to not be pigeonholed by the false nostalgia of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, there are lessons from that majestic effort that could be helpful in a macro context.

Substantive change is a heavy lift. It requires a sustained effort irrigated by frustration. Change can ill afford to maintain a reactionary posture; it must find a way to become proactive.

The civil rights movement did not wait for a senseless death to take action. To do so would have kept it in a defensive posture. It was their proponents’ unyielding efforts that slowly put the status quo on the defensive.

Is that not what’s at stake today? The overarching question for any movement: Does it stand to make America better?

The class conversation, therefore, must be married to race, if we are to make progress. By doing so, it becomes more apparent that this is not merely a discussion that applies to a sector of the country; this is an American problem. The malefactors are Americans as are the victims, varying according to race, gender, sexual orientation and age, etc.

Are we going to momentarily yell and scream, only to cool off until the next tragic occurrence? Or will the death of George Floyd be the impetus to engage the necessary work to realize change?

Lest we forget, it was a decade after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling that struck down desegregation that the 1964 Civil Rights Act became law, and another year before the Voting Rights Act was signed. Prior to his assassination in 1968, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was addressing the structural impediments of poverty.

Since King’s death, poverty remains the largely unspoken noun that combines race and class like no other issue. Poverty exacerbates nearly every issue that challenges 21st century America.

The effort will not be perfect, there will be pushback, but the mantra was already provided by the Jewish religious sage Hillel roughly 1,000 years ago, “If not now, when?”

In this latest test of American elasticity, let us heed the words Abraham Lincoln spoke in his re-election speech from November 1864:

“Human nature will not change. In any future great national trial, compared with the men of this, we shall have as weak, and as strong; as silly and as wise; as bad and good. Let us, therefore, study the incidents of this, as philosophy to learn wisdom from, and none of them as wrongs to be revenged.”

Or we can be content to make George Floyd but another missed opportunity.

The Rev. Byron Williams (byron@publicmorality.org), a writer and the host of “The Public Morality” on WSNC 90.5, lives in Winston-Salem.

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