David Axelrod was a senior adviser to President Barack Obama.

I used to think I was aware and sensitive on matters of race.

As a child during the Sixties, I was too young to participate in the civil rights marches and protests, but I fully absorbed news of that momentous era. I mourned the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the martyrs of the movement and cheered the passage of civil rights laws.

When I went off to college, I chose the University of Chicago in part because it sat on the city’s South Side, where a growing black independent political movement was challenging the city’s powerful Democratic machine.

And as a young journalist, I wrote about that battle. Some of my earliest stories were about the rebellion among some of the city’s leading black politicians against Mayor Richard J. Daley over police brutality in the black community.

One of the rebels was Harold Washington, who in 1983 toppled the machine to become the city’s first black mayor. Washington grew up in the Democratic organization but turned against the machine with thunderous rage for the degradations he felt it had inflicted on the city’s black and Hispanic communities.

When I left journalism for the life of a campaign strategist, I worked for Washington and spent more than two decades in politics working to tear down barriers to black and Hispanic candidates in places where they had not won before. I had the honor of helping to elect and reelect America’s first black president.

I thought all of this reflected a deep understanding of the struggle — a certification of my manifest commitment to justice and equal rights.

I was wrong.

Despite my work, I was too often oblivious — or at least inattentive — to the everyday mistreatment of people of color, including friends and colleagues, in ways large and small.

Although I was reporting on the issues of police brutality and unequal justice as a journalist, I didn’t experience it. My kids didn’t experience it. And I never really engaged my black friends and colleagues about their own experiences. I never asked, so far as I can remember, about their own interactions with police or their fears for their children.

I’ve always been outraged by the disparate educational and employment opportunities that separate black from white Americans and the self-perpetuating cycle of poverty. But I didn’t think hard enough about these things as the consequence of systemic, dehumanizing racism that has defined our history from the moment the first enslaved people arrived on our shores 400 years ago.

It took me far too long to fully understand that the Confederate flag and statues were more than artifacts of a shameful past. They are continuing symbols of white supremacy and an incitement to the violence we saw against George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and so many others.

As Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote recently, “Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere.” The image of Floyd begging for breath led us to see more clearly this pervasive racism.

I thought I understood. Now I realize I did not. Not well enough. Not in the visceral way that comes when you truly imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes. 

A lot of white Americans thought they understood. But the underlying legacy of racism still remains. The laws that were passed were hard-won and important, but they didn’t eliminate deeply ingrained biases and layers of discriminatory practices and policies that mock the ideal of equality. The election of a black president was a watershed event in our history that struck at the heart of the racist creed. But it didn’t end racism. In fact, it provoked a backlash that empowered a racist demagogue and new policies meant to further embed structural barriers to full citizenship for black Americans.

I realize these words might read to some like “performance wokeness,” as one of my young friends calls the growing chorus of white liberal confessors. I can only say my reflections are meant as an honest reckoning. There is still time and an absolute imperative to learn, grow and change, for me and America.

George Floyd should be home with his family. He didn’t seek to become a martyr. He just wanted to breathe. But the massive, moving and insistent protests that have swept the country in reaction to his grotesque murder feel different from any I have seen in their size and diversity.

Heinous as his death was, Floyd’s legacy might be more than laws to end the patterns and practices that have made black Americans exponentially more likely to die at the hands of police. It might also have begun a long overdue reconciliation with our racist past and all of its ugly manifestations that remain a grim reality for Americans of color every day.

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