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JC Watts: After lockdown and George Floyd death, this still holds true – No one is nonessential

JC Watts: After lockdown and George Floyd death, this still holds true – No one is nonessential

In the wake of George Floyd’s tragic death, streets that were empty just a few weeks ago suddenly filled with thousands of people. The contrast was striking, and I think it’s trying to teach us something.

As COVID-19 spread, we were told to stay at home and practice social distancing. Public gatherings were canceled and get-togethers with family and friends went virtual. Most surprising for me, though, was how quickly the term “nonessential” became commonplace.

If your job wasn’t considered essential, well then – in a sense – neither were you. The result? Millions of Americans lost their jobs. Houses of worship stood empty. Bustling communities became ghost towns.

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Then, Derek Chauvin kneeled on George Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, ending his life.

Just as TV footage of Bull Connor’s police dogs and fire hoses electrified our nation in 1963, the video of George Floyd’s death hit us all in the gut. And our response has revealed an important truth.

No one is nonessential.

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In normal times I suppose this would be self-evident, but these are not normal times. Instead, this is a time when reflecting on how essential we are may be just what’s needed.

I say this not just as a general principle, but from personal experience.

I grew up in a rural, racially segregated Oklahoma town. If black folks like me wanted to go see a movie, we had to sit up in the balcony. My elementary school was named after Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy. I was chased by white men with evil in their hearts, pulled over by six police officers (as a congressman no less!) and profiled by department store security guards.

Every step of the way, I also learned how essential each of us is. I helped integrate that elementary school, and my father and uncle did the same at the whites-only pool. My uncle led Oklahoma’s NAACP and was targeted for death by the KKK, but he brought the head Klansman to Christ and made him a close friend.

Later, I became my high school’s first black quarterback and the second one ever to start at the University of Oklahoma. I was the first black Oklahoman elected to statewide office. I was elected to Congress by a largely white district. Now I’m founder of the Black News Channel, the first 24/7 cable news network devoted exclusively to the culture of the black community.

In my journey, people didn’t just see me just as black or male, as Christian or conservative. They saw me as essential. And it made all the difference in the world. 

My life is a testament to how far we’ve come, but we still have so much more distance to travel.

The very thing that keeps our body together – our skin – continues to be the thing that tears our society apart. And that won’t change until the only thing defining us is the essence of who we are.

In my journey, people didn’t just see me just as black or male, as Christian or conservative. They saw me as essential. And it made all the difference in the world.

That difference is what our world needs now, more than ever. Whatever our race, gender, age, religion, income or address, all of us are essential.

God sees value in us all. He doesn’t care if we’re red, yellow, brown, black or white. Nor does He care if we’re male, female, billionaire, bankrupt, Republican or Democrat. God loves us all because He made all of us essential.

We humans could learn something from that. Too often we love each other in return for something, like a favor or a vote. But love that’s conditional isn’t really love at all.

This is the point my friend Kay Coles James recently made when she wrote, “It’s time America takes responsibility and expands human flourishing to all of its citizens – not just the majority of them.” She was criticized, but she’s right. All Americans deserve nothing less.

In her incredible life, Kay has faced closed hearts, minds and doors. With equal parts kindness and grit, though, she never stopped treating people the way she wanted to be treated. She prioritized relational development over racial division, and she rose from public housing to the White House and America’s most influential think tank.

Which brings me back to today: like all crises, the ones happening now aren’t telling us what we are so much as they’re revealing what we’re not. And both the COVID-19 lockdown and George Floyd’s tragic death reveal the same thing: none of us is nonessential.

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After all, what is a business without its customers or a school without its students? And why did so many Americans fill our streets if not to prove a simple, but powerful point?

Because – deep in our hearts – we know all of us are essential. And we believe if our nation is true to that unifying foundation, it will be stronger than ever.

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