After My Uncle’s Execution, I Took a Break. Racism Didn’t [Op-Ed]

By Deu2019Jaun Davis-Correia Jul 01, 2020

I watched with horror as Derek Chauvin knelt on the neck of George Floyd, Chauvin’s hand casually thrust in his pocket.  Sitting in my Baltimore apartment, watching the video of Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, transported me back to Jackson, Georgia, where on September 21, 2011, I stood in the prison yard of the Georgia Diagnostic & Classification prison as another slow, excruciating state murder was enacted—that of my uncle, Troy Davis.

My uncle Troy had been convicted in 1991 for the 1989 murder of Mark MacPhail, a white police officer, in Savannah, Georgia. By the time of his 2011 execution, a mountain of evidence had amassed pointing to Troy’s innocence, and a global campaign to save his life had emerged.

The state killed him anyway.

How could it be that nine years later, I was now witnessing yet another Black man killed at the hands of the state? Had we achieved nothing as a society?

In the years leading up to Troy’s execution, my experience of injustice was largely framed by the court system and the death penalty. Between attending hearings and demonstrating on my uncle’s behalf, I grew into a youth activist, speaking out about the violence that my family faced at the hands of the legal system, but I could not see beyond those particular injustices.

After my uncle was executed, followed by my mother’s death, I stepped away from activism. I needed to process all I had been through, pursue my education and build my life. Stepping back at the age of 18 allowed me to see how racism manifested itself outside the courtroom—in our education system where students of color are disproportionately disciplined; in health care, where Black women are three to four times more likely than white women to die in childbirth; in the workplace where Black women earn just .62 cents on every dollar a white man makes—and in police officers brutalizing Black men and women in our homes and in the streets.

I became aware of racism grinding away at me in subtle ways on a daily basis. The low-grade fear I feel each time I leave home, checking my rear-view mirror as I drive. The woman who saw me in a parking lot near my home last week and instinctively clutched her purse. The willful ignorance of a childhood friend, who asked me over Facebook to affirm that “All Lives Matter.” I felt its proximity particularly sharply when Atlanta police violently arrested two students from Spelman and Morehouse without provocation (I’m a Morehouse alum) three weeks ago when the APD killed Rayshard Brooks on the street where I had lived.

Yet when I consider how to truly move forward, I have more questions than answers.

I do feel hope in seeing so many white community members finally speaking out against police violence towards Black Americans—but will their newfound commitment to racial justice endure? And, are they ready to go beyond the rhetoric of fairness and equality, even go beyond acknowledging their white privilege, and actually lay that privilege on the line? In places of work, learning, in every institution—will they relinquish their voice being centered, their power being assumed—and truly support and amplify the power and voices of Black colleagues and classmates?

How can we, as a Black community, ensure that our children are not only safe but that they thrive, given that racism permeates every institution of this country?

Is personal success the answer? I strive to consistently excel in all I do—first as a student, and now as an engineer who is starting his own business—yet still, the woman in the parking lot looked at me and saw a threat.

Is voting the solution? Though I strongly advocate voting and holding our elected officials accountable, I also recognize that the ballot box is consistently wielded against us. The hours-long wait without adequate equipment to vote in predominantly Black neighborhoods of my home state of Georgia is just the most recent example.

Should wealthy Black folks invest in community schools? Though I believe that education is the foundation for everything, I’m also wrestling with the question of why needs should be met by individuals, rather than demanding that the resources come from the systems that created the inequities in the first place. I’m interested in the calls to defund the police and re-invest those resources into education, mental health, jobs, parks, and community centers, but I need to drill further down to fully consider how this would be implemented and what the repercussions might be. 

I don’t pretend to have all the answers.  I am only now beginning to grapple with the deeper questions.  But I think about the possibility that George Floyd or Rayshard Brooks acted on my uncle’s behalf, and I know it’s time for me to step off the sidelines. I don’t know where we are heading as a country, or exactly how I can best make my contribution. But with a sense of responsibility—to my family and to Mr. Floyd’s—I’m ready to re-join the fight.

De’Jaun Davis-Correia is an engineer and a graduate of Morehouse College. He was named one of The Root’s Top 25 Futurists in 2011 for his youth activism.