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In the tombs of Saqqara, new discoveries are rewriting ancient Egypt's history

By Sudarsan Raghavan
In the tombs of Saqqara, new discoveries are rewriting ancient Egypt's history
Renowned archaeologist Zahi Hawass's dig site at Saqqara, Egypt, in February. The discovery, among many others, of a previously unknown queen has reshaped researchers' understanding of ancient Egyptians. MUST CREDIT: photo for The Washington Post by Sima Diab.

SAQQARA, Egypt - Seated in a yellow plastic laundry basket attached to two thick ropes, I was lowered into the earth. The light got dimmer, the temperature colder. A musty smell filled the air. The only sound was from the workmen above handling the ropes and yelling "shweya" - slowly.

One miscue, and I could fall 100 feet.

I was inside a burial shaft in Saqqara, the ancient necropolis roughly 19 miles south of Cairo. In recent months, a series of discoveries have captivated the world of archaeology.

The most significant find came in January, when archaeologists came upon inscriptions showing that the temple they were unearthing belonged to a previously unknown ancient queen. Her name was Queen Neit. She was the wife of King Teti, the first pharaoh of the Sixth Dynasty, which ruled more than 4,300 years ago as part of Egypt's Old Kingdom.

I was descending into the cemeterial netherworld below her funerary temple.

Midway down the shaft, the walls took on a honeycomb pattern, with large shelves carved into them. Thousands of years ago, they held painted coffins and mummies wrapped in linen and reeds. While I descended farther, the shaft narrowed as I passed through a wood frame that supports the walls. Just above the bottom, water glistened on the walls like jewels.

The basket touched ground.

The eyes adjusted to the dark. On the floor were two limestone coffins. Both damaged, their contents looted, perhaps more than 2,000 years ago. Who had been buried here? How and why were their coffins lowered so far into the earth? And how did the thieves know where to look?

"Our civilization is full of mysteries," NeRmeen Aba-Yazeed, a member of the archaeological team, said afterward. "And we have discovered one of these mysteries."

Before the inscription was found, King Teti was thought to have only two wives, Iput and Khuit. But the realization he had a third, Neit, with her own temple, was prompting a rethink of those ancient days.

"We are rewriting history," Zahi Hawass, Egypt's most well-known archaeologist and its former antiquities minister, would say later in the day.

- - -

Ancient history is being revealed in many parts of Egypt these days. In early February, archaeologists found 16 human burial chambers at the site of an ancient temple on the outskirts of the northern city of Alexandria. Two of the mummies had golden tongues, which Egyptian Antiquities Ministry officials said were to allow them to "speak in the afterlife."

That same month, a massive 5,000-year-old brewery - believed to be the world's oldest - was discovered in the southern city of Sohag. The beer, researchers hypothesize, was used in burial rituals for Egypt's earliest kings.

Last month, ruins of an ancient Christian settlement were discovered in the Bahariya Oasis, nestled in Egypt's Western desert. The find sheds new light on monastic life in the 5th century A.D.

And just last week, archaeologists announced they had unearthed a 3,000-year-old "lost golden city" in the southern city of Luxor, a discovery that could be the biggest since the tomb of the boy king Tutankhamen.

With every discovery, the government's hopes rise that more tourists will arrive, bringing much-needed foreign currency and creating new jobs for millions. Egypt's tourism-dependent economy has suffered in the past decade from the political chaos that developed after the 2011 Arab Spring uprising.

The Saqqara necropolis is at once a center of the country's aspirations and of its subterranean secrets. It was part of the burial grounds for the ancient capital, Memphis, its ruins now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

In Saqqara, 17 Egyptian kings built pyramids to house their remains and possessions for what they believed was the transition to the afterlife. These pyramids include the world's oldest, the Step Pyramid of Djoser, built in the 27th century B.C. Recent finds have drawn the world's attention, depicted in the Netflix film "Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb" and National Geographic's "Kingdom of the Mummies" TV series.

In November, for instance, archaeologists dug up more than 100 ornately painted wooden coffins, some with mummies, and dozens of other artifacts, including amulets, funeral statues and masks. Some of the coffins had been found on those shelves I had passed during my descent.

- - -

After I emerged from the burial shaft, Hawass explained how the discoveries were reshaping the understanding of Pharaonic times.

"Now we are writing a new chapter in the history of the Old Kingdom by adding the name of a new queen of Teti that he never announced before," said Hawass, 73, standing in the temple's ruins, wearing his trademark wide-brimmed Indiana Jones hat and a cream-colored safari jacket over a denim shirt and jeans.

But there was more to consider than just the emergence of a new queen. Could Neit have also been Teti's daughter? Hawass's team had found inscriptions that referred to Neit as the daughter of a pharaoh.

Incest would not be new for the ancients. In Egyptian lore, the god Osiris had married his sister Isis. Pharaohs were widely believed to have married their sisters and daughters, but that was during reigns later than Teti's Sixth Dynasty.

"Is she a daughter of a king of the Fifth Dynasty, or is she a daughter of Teti?" Hawass asked. "If she is a daughter of Teti, it would be the first time in Egyptian history to have a king marrying his daughter."

A short walk across the sand was another burial shaft where even more had been discovered about Teti's legacy.

I followed Hawass down a ladder, 36 feet into the ground. At the bottom, in a space the size of a walk-in closet, were wooden coffins stacked in piles. They were painted in hues of blue and red, some with intricate images of gods and goddesses. They still contained mummies, Hawass said, and the names of the deceased were written on the decaying wood. His team had found 54 coffins here.

From inscriptions on the coffins, the team had traced the subterranean cemetery to the 18th and 19th dynasties of Egypt's New Kingdom, from more than 3,000 years ago. The discoveries were shedding light on a little understood period of Saqqara, between 1570 and 1069 B.C.

Teti, it appears, had been worshiped as a god in the New Kingdom. Many of his followers wanted to be buried around his pyramid, often visiting coffin and mummification workshops in Saqqara, Hawass said.

The poor were placed in simple wooden coffins. But the colorful, ornately decorated ones that I was seeing had belonged to Teti's wealthy followers.

- - -

Placed inside the coffins were miniature wooden boats, games, pottery and tiny gold pieces to carry and use in the afterlife. Little statuettes and amulets carry the shapes and names of gods and pharaohs.

Among the artifacts discovered were pieces of a 15-foot-long papyrus that included texts of the Book of the Dead, a collection of spells written by priests to help the deceased pass through the underworld and into the afterlife.

Inside a store room, Ahmed Tarek and Maysa Rabea are placing the jagged pieces of the papyrus together, like trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle. They are also restoring and studying artifacts to gain more understanding of how Egyptians prepared themselves for the afterlife.

Shards of pottery found in the rubble unveil new details of ancient life. Many were imported, evidence that trade flourished between Egypt and Palestine, Cyprus, Crete and Syria.

Mohamed Mahmoud reassembles pieces of pottery to make them whole. In the tent next door, Asmaa Massoud analyzes skulls and other bones to determine age and cause of death. Next to her, in a small wooden box, is the mummy of a child.

"The excavations and artifacts show how much Saqqara was important in the New Kingdom," Hawass told me. "They tell us more about the beliefs, not only for the rich, but also for the poor."

Some of the discoveries, however, defy explanation.

In a burial shaft, this one 63 feet deep, a 20-ton sarcophagus the size of a Humvee and made of granite sits at the bottom. How did it get there? It, too, was looted by thieves. How did they know where to look?

Hawass expects to encounter more mysteries. It will take 20 years to fully uncover the secrets here, he says. "In Saqqara, we have found only 30 percent of what's underneath," he said. "It is a site that if you dig in any place, you'll find something."

- - -

The Washington Post's Heba Farouk Mahfouz in Cairo contributed to this report.

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For Atlanta spa victim Suncha Kim, America was always where she felt she belonged

By Michelle Ye Hee Lee
For Atlanta spa victim Suncha Kim, America was always where she felt she belonged
Suncha Kim and her granddaughter pose about 20 years ago in Virginia. MUST CREDIT: Photo courtesy of the family of Suncha Kim

Long before Suncha Kim settled into her adopted country of America, she knew it was where she and her family belonged.

She would visit street markets in Seoul to exchange Korean won for dollars, which she then used to buy pizza at a U.S. military base. She enrolled her daughter in an elementary school that taught English, and introduced her to "Peter Pan" the musical after it debuted in South Korea in the 1970s.

Kim loved everything about America, her family said. The grandeur. The food. The diverse races and religions. The land was vast - and so too, it seemed, were the opportunities.

America was also the place where, at 69 years old, Kim would be killed. She was one of eight people, six of them Asian women, slain by a gunman at three Atlanta-area spas last month.

The tragedy outraged Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders across the U.S., galvanizing the "Stop Asian Hate" movement as a formidable counterweight to the rise in reports of violence aimed at these communities - attacks disproportionately reported by Asian women over the past year.

The deaths of the six Asian women, all workers or managers at the spas, ignited a debate about race, class and gender, and drew particular attention to the struggles of immigrants working lower-wage service jobs to provide for their families. Their stories have highlighted the often overlooked vulnerabilities of such women, who can face language barriers and financial struggle while settling in the United States.

As they grieve their sudden and violent loss, Kim's family said they hoped she would be remembered for her love - for them and for America, her home for the last four decades.

In their first extended interview since the shooting, three members of Kim's immediate family shared their memories of her life of sacrifice and grit as a first-generation immigrant, and their struggles as they contend with the continuing attacks against people of Asian descent. They spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing a desire for privacy, but called on the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community to more forcefully denounce such racism. And as attention inevitably turns to the suspect's criminal trial, they want to ensure the victims' stories, and their legacies, don't become forgotten.

"We just ask that the AAPI community not let our mothers and grandmothers, our ummunees and halmunees, die in vain," said one of her children, using Korean phrases to describe mothers and grandmothers. "We have to make sure that the victims, their names will go on forever."

- - -

Kim arrived in Texas in 1980 with her 1-year-old son in tow. The first thing she ate was a corn dog at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. She had never tasted anything like it before.

She was about 29, a mother of two, and a wife to a man to whom she would remain married for more than 50 years until her death. Her daughter and husband joined them in America about five years later.

Kim's own mother died when she was in middle school, and as the oldest daughter, she was left to care for three younger sisters and her father, a police officer. She eventually helped them move to the United States, including by helping pay for her sisters' school tuition.

She and her husband lived a modest life in Seoul, and she was always fascinated with America and Western culture, her family said.

She admired the American democratic system, her family said, in the way that is common among some South Koreans of her generation who grew up during their country's own turbulent period of democratization.

Among her proudest achievements was becoming a U.S. citizen, they said, and she described her naturalization ceremony as one of the happiest days of her life.

"We went back a few times [to Korea] but this was home. America was home for her. This is where she wanted to die. She wanted to die in the United States," one of her children said.

But life in America was not easy. She spoke little English and worked two to three jobs at a time to survive - as a waitress, a janitor, a convenience store cashier.

Her family recalled her first job in Texas, washing dishes at an Army post near Killeen and scrubbing pots so big she could almost fit inside. She felt proud when she saved enough money to buy a car so she could drive herself to work - and it didn't matter to her that it was so beat-up the headlights were falling off, they said.

"I don't think she knew how hard it was going to be settling in a new country, because probably she had only heard and seen good things about here, the American Dream," one of her children said.

Despite the hardships, Kim maintained a positive attitude for her family, they said. She worked long hours, often coming home while her children were asleep, but left notes in their textbooks to let them know she was thinking of them.

Kim was a devout Catholic who attended church regularly and volunteered to help the homeless and underprivileged children. She used her cooking skills to feed the elderly at church and to raise money for a nonprofit that works to eliminate child hunger, said Agnes Choi, a friend with whom Kim attended church and volunteer work.

"She always thought about other people first. She was always smiling. She was always happy," Choi said.

Kim lived with her family for many years in the greater Washington, D.C., area, where she helped to feed the homeless and, in 2011, was recognized with a President's Volunteer Service Award, according to a certificate provided by the family.

Being a loving mother and grandmother was her top priority, especially after losing her own mother as a teen, her family said. She taught her children to love their own children fully: "As much as you can give," she would say.

Kim frequently left voice mails and wrote letters reminding her children and her three grandchildren that she loved them and that she was praying for them. In a letter last spring, Kim wrote in Korean:

"To my daughter, whom I love. Always remember this: The best thing I did in my life was raising all of you as God's children. Thank you, God.

. . . To my granddaughter, you are beautiful, so beautiful. Grandma loves you, and you are beautiful. Study hard and take care of your siblings, and have courage. I love you."

She signed the letter with an English word used by Koreans to express motivation and support: "Fighting."

- - -

In early March, Kim bought two pairs of sneakers: One for herself, and one for her daughter, so they could take a long walk together over Easter and enjoy the springtime weather, her favorite time of the year. She planned on traveling to Virginia from Georgia to attend Easter Mass with her family. Kim was scheduled to receive her coronavirus vaccines in time for the trip.

In her free time, Kim enjoyed taking Zumba classes and dancing to a Justin Bieber playlist. She loved gardening and flowers, especially daisies and cosmos, a popular flower in Korea. And she loved animals, cooking and hiking.

Kim had moved to Georgia a few years ago because of the big Korean community there, in hopes that she and her husband could spend their retirement years there, her family said. Her husband, 76, recently retired and lives with family members.

The Korean population in Georgia has ballooned over the past two decades, and the state is now home to one of the largest Korean American communities in the country.

Georgia's Korean business community has grown to offer everything from real estate and pest control to medical, legal and insurance services. There are churches, radio stations, newspapers and even phone books that cater to Koreans, and the growth has organically drawn more immigrants like Kim who are seeking a community they can navigate more easily.

A relative in Georgia recommended she work at Gold Spa, where she cleaned, cooked and did laundry for the other employees, her family said. Then, on March 16, the unthinkable: A gunman opened fire at three spas in the Atlanta area, including Gold Spa. Kim was shot twice in the chest, according to the autopsy report.

Earlier that day, Kim texted her daughter a photo of their new shoes: "Look, this is for you and me." Then she called later in the day, asking her daughter if she ate lunch, and they talked some more about their new shoes and her upcoming trip. That was their last call together.

Unlike many other mass shootings, it took several days for the victims' names to be confirmed by authorities. In that void, media coverage of the attacks was dominated by stories about the alleged shooter, Robert Aaron Long, his suspected motives, and conjecture over whether the killings constituted a hate crime.

For Kim's family, the delay was agonizing. They were unable to verify her death or know when they would be able to view her body. They said the experience spoke to the marginalization and invisibility of Asian women, especially older immigrants who have led quiet lives.

When the names were finally released and the victims' families were asked to speak about them, Kim's loved ones struggled to balance the Korean cultural expectations of keeping family matters private with wanting Kim's story to be told, they said.

"Culturally speaking, we struggle to share heartache. We do sort of keep it to ourselves and we grieve in silence. We've had a hard time being able to balance that," her granddaughter said.

Last spring, as reports of attacks against Asian Americans began spiking amid a backlash to the coronavirus pandemic, which originated in China, Kim warned her children to be careful of their surroundings. "Be careful when you go out," she told them. "They're angry at Oriental people."

The family said they were heartbroken to see another mass shooting, this time in Boulder, Colo., occur less than a week after the shootings in Atlanta.

And they are appalled by the continued attacks aimed at Asians, including a recent incident in New York where a man repeatedly kicked a 65-year-old Asian woman while making anti-Asian statements.

They thanked the public for the flood of support, prayers and donations to their GoFundMe page and for peaceful rallies calling for an end to racism and discrimination.

"While there's evil in this world, when we see things like that, there's still hope, and we see that there's still more love in the world," one of her children said, "and my mother would have loved that. My mother would have known that there's still love and positivity in the world."

Floyd's death led to concern for race and racism, but it's unclear what that means

By Silvia Foster-Frau, et al.
Floyd's death led to concern for race and racism, but it's unclear what that means
Crystal Lescault poses for a portrait at her Minneapolis home in March 2021. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Joshua Lott

MINNEAPOLIS - Every morning, Crystal Lescault stares at the app on her phone that has been counting the days since George Floyd's death.

On Tuesday, it read 330. And she wondered whether that number would be the one.

Lescault spent nearly a year praying for a guilty verdict in the case against former police officer Derek Chauvin, who is accused of killing Floyd by putting his knee on Floyd's neck for more than nine minutes. In the past few weeks, she's been unable to look away from the trial coverage, struggling to concentrate at work and experiencing escalating, debilitating anxiety as businesses boarded up their windows and police walked near her house, which is four blocks from where Floyd was killed.

"I could probably have tuned this out better in a different life, but not as a mother of a Black child. I have to pay attention. It's important," said Lescault, who is White, is married to a Black man and has biracial twins.

On Tuesday, Chauvin was convicted of second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.

As Americans awaited the verdict, many found themselves grappling with the racial reckoning brought about by Floyd's death May 25. Since then, huge numbers of Americans have shown up to Black Lives Matter rallies, bought books about racism, planted signs in their front yards and engaged in difficult conversations. Less visible are those who have remained silent and unchanged, making it unclear whether lasting systemic changes are on America's horizon.

Each time a Black person is killed by police or racism-fueled violence occurs, there is a burst of awareness and discussion, calls for action and promises of change - which often fade as time passes. Floyd's death, which was captured in a video viewed by millions, ignited a response that seemed to be longer lasting and has been resurgent as Chauvin stood trial.

Before the verdict, many residents of the Minneapolis area reflected on what the outcome could be and what it would mean.

For some, including Lescault, the verdict was be a symbolic measurement of where the United States is in its fight for racial equity. His conviction, they said before the announcement, is a sign that progress is being made. Anything less than that, they said, would have showed that nothing had changed.

Others struggle to see this trial as anything more than one police officer on trial for one crime, saying no deeper meaning should be gleaned from the outcome.

And others are not quite sure what to make of the trial, or how they fit in amid the Black Lives Matter protests and the pro-law-enforcement "thin blue line" flags.

Public concern for race and racism increased in June after Floyd's death, fell slightly in August, then plateaued in recent months at a higher level than it was before, according to Gallup polling. Although Gallup has seen similar spikes in attitudes about race in years past, this shift appears to be longer lasting than those before it.

But it's unclear how permanent this shift in opinion is. In the poll, issues of race and racism were considered one of the top four U.S. priorities but were overshadowed by concerns about the pandemic, the government, and the economy and unemployment. Levels of concern also split sharply along racial lines, with White Americans less concerned about racial issues than Black and Hispanic Americans.

After following the trial coverage for days, Justin Gelking said Chauvin should not have put his knee on Floyd's neck for those nine-plus minutes. But the 33-year-old, who is a fan of the phrase "All Lives Matter," does not think race was a factor in Floyd's death.

"Seems like a one-time thing that hopefully won't happen again," he said as he left his shift Monday as a dishwasher at Billy's Bar and Grill, a restaurant in the northwestern suburb of Anoka, Minn. He'd watched the concluding arguments of the trial that morning.

Gelking, who is White, said that police are "good at protecting people and doing what they're supposed to be doing," and that no matter what the jury decides about Chauvin's actions, that would not change.

Some experts say systemic racism is too entrenched in American society for one incident to make a difference.

Helen Neville said she's not convinced that Floyd's death "caught on video will transform U.S. society and people's opinions without deep, deep reflection and engagement." Neville, a University of Illinois professor who specializes in the psychology of racism, said: "I do see there's been conversations, but we'll see if real change happens."

- - -

In the weeks before Floyd died, reports were showing that Black and Latino Americans were becoming infected with the coronavirus and dying at higher rates than Whites.

On the morning of May 25, a Black birdwatcher in Central Park named Christian Cooper asked Amy Cooper, a White woman of no relation, to put her dog on a leash in a zone of the park where that's required. When she refused, he recorded her as she called police and told them that "an African American man" was threatening her. It sparked national outrage.

Several hours later that same day, a nine-minute video circulated that showed Chauvin putting his knee on Floyd's neck as Floyd pleaded for air, called out for his mother and died.

"It served as an awakening point," said Neville. "It alerted people to the harsh realities of police brutality directed toward Black folks, which then served as a symbol for institutional racism."

Samuel Sinyangwe, co-founder of Campaign Zero, an organization that tracks police violence and advocates for changes, said the video was unusual in the way it captured the "cold, emotionless expressions" on Chauvin's face.

He also pointed out that the presence of three other police officers in the video may have disabused some viewers of the "bad apple" myth - that the officers portrayed in police brutality videos are bad people who slipped through the cracks of a reliable system, as opposed to the officers being a symptom of a larger, systemic problem in U.S. policing. Those three officers are charged with aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter.

Then there were Floyd's last words, which included calling out for his mother.

The cries were a universal signifier, one that hit home for mothers across the racial spectrum. In Portland, Ore., a "wall of moms" formed during protests, with White women putting themselves between police and protesters of color. They grew to become such a symbol for White women's involvement in the Black Lives Matter movement that the group became an official nonprofit.

As the White proportion of the U.S. population shrinks, White buy-in becomes less essential to these movements, said Tim Wise, author of "Dispatches from the Race War." But for now, "in a society of white supremacy, Black moral authority" is not enough, Wise said.

In the Floyd video, the racism was overt, said David Campt, creator of the White Ally Toolkit. He said the video did not display "new racism," which he described as the subtle, unconscious kind that is difficult to see without an education on race issues and a willingness to view the world through a racialized lens.

That lack of subtlety, Campt said, has helped expose the more subtle acts ever since.

With the coronavirus raging last summer, many people were working at home and more exposed to the media images and details of Floyd's death, experts said. When protesters took to the streets in cities large and small across the country, it made the Black Lives Matter movement ubiquitous in the digital and physical realms, therefore unavoidable for many.

And Floyd's death occurred while the country was being led by President Donald Trump, who stoked racial tensions during his campaign and presidency. Floyd died during Trump's final year in office, as thousands of suburban voters were shifting left and preparing to vote for a different candidate in November.

It is for all these reasons that the video of Floyd stood apart from the others. And it's why many see the trial as a test: If this video would not make a difference, what would?

For Eryn Frost, 33, watching the video was a profound experience that she said changed her and made her realize that she had done racist things in the past, such as shuffling the job applications of those with hard-to-pronounce names to the bottom of the stack. The White resident of Prior Lake - a southwestern suburb of Minneapolis - grew up conservative and was the president of her college's Republican group. In 2016, she and her husband voted for minor-party candidate Gary Johnson.

But when Trump became president, a "crack" formed in the couple's mind-set, she said, and they became increasingly dissatisfied with where the country was headed. Then Floyd died, and Frost said "the whole thing exploded."

"You're like, 'What the hell is happening? What the hell is going on?' And then you realize this has always been going on," she said. "And once you hit that realization it's like, oh my God."

- - -

As the sun began to set over the George Floyd memorial site, Anna Ashcroft's son ran up to her, chalk in hand.

"Mama, how do you spell justice?" the boy asked, before writing out "Justice for everyone" in green chalk, feet from where Floyd died.

"This felt like the right place for us to be," said Ashcroft, who is White and was hoping for a guilty verdict. "In my mind, this is them processing," she said of her children's scrawls. It was Floyd's death that moved Ashcroft to talk to them about racism and police violence.

As the jury began deliberations Monday night, a feeling of anxiety mounted across the city. Many were concerned about what the verdict could mean for their hometown - whether people will get hurt, whether small businesses could suffer blows, whether troops would march in their streets.

"If they don't convict [Chauvin] of murder, I don't even know," said Zaynab Mohamed, a 23-year-old Somali American who awoke Tuesday morning after a sleepless night in her home blocks from where Floyd died. "I think we wonder, 'Are we less than human?' Because every one of us sees themselves in George Floyd."

She said many in the Somali community were watching the Chauvin trial after the 2019 verdict against Mohamed Noor, a Black, Somali Minneapolis police officer who was convicted of manslaughter and murder for killing 40-year-old Justine Damond, a White woman.

Miles away at an intersection near a CVS Pharmacy that burned during protests last year, was rebuilt and has been newly boarded up following the Daunte Wright killing in nearby Brooklyn Center, Brandon Bollig, 30, was walking his dog and following the latest trial updates "1,000%."

Wearing a Black Lives Matter wristband, Bollig spoke to the fact that Black and White people are not policed equally.

Tim Bohmer, 60, had not been following the trial closely and said he was not sure that Chauvin was guilty of murder - though he said what the officer did was wrong. Instead of framing it as a racism problem, Bohmer said police have "bad habits" that get passed on to their subordinates in a vicious cycle.

"I truly hope the city doesn't destruct itself. My biggest fear is we're going to go through what we went through last summer all over again," Bohmer said.

Leslie Redmond, former president of the local NAACP, said she was nearly drained of emotion.

"We're exhausted, and I cannot reiterate that enough. You can hear it in my voice," she said, her voice scratchy and quiet. "There's a lot of wear and tear on Black people."

- - -

Guskin reported from Washington. The Washington Post's Marisa Iati contributed to this report.

Pulitzer-winning opinion from the most respected voices in the world.

Killing capital punishment

By george f. will
Killing capital punishment

GEORGE F. WILL COLUMN

Advance for release Sunday, April 25, 2021, and thereafter

(For Will clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- The death of capital punishment in the United States is not only desirable but also paradoxical. Attempts to make this practice constitutional have enveloped it with ever-more-refined procedural safeguards intended to make it compatible with the Eighth Amendment's proscription of "cruel and unusual punishments." But the safeguards have made it increasingly like then-Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's1972 description of it as "cruel and unusual in the same way that being struck by lightning is cruel and unusual."

Maurice Chammah in "Let the Lord Sort Them: The Rise and Fall of the Death Penalty" says, "In 1959, there had been 124 murders in Harris County, Texas, which encompassed Houston, but only three people sentenced to death." Arbitrariness was one reason the Supreme Court, in a 1972 case that generated opinions from all nine justices (cumulatively, 233 pages), ruled that capital punishment in all 41 states that administered it was unconstitutional.

By 1976, states accommodated enough of the court's criticisms to revive capital punishment under laws that would prevent arbitrariness by requiring consideration of "aggravating" or "mitigating" factors about a murderer (e.g., youth, low IQ). And of particular kinds of murders (e.g., if the victim was a child or a police officer). And whether the crime was especially "depraved" or "cruel." But these complexities lengthened trials and multiplied grounds for appealing the capital sentences of those living on death rows. This increased the lightning-strike appearance of randomness of the few executions of murderers after an average (in 2018) of 19.8 years from sentencing to death. Today's capital punishment regime bears no resemblance to practices when the Eighth Amendment was written in the 18th century: Then death was not inflicted decades after the crime.

In 2015, in a 41-page dissent in a capital punishment case, Justice Stephen G. Breyer argued for revisiting, on the basis of experience since 1976, the question of whether capital punishment is incurably cruel and unusual. He cited evidence that "innocent people have been executed." He noted 115 exonerations in capital cases since 2002, including six death row inmates exonerated in 2014 based not on flawed trials but "on actual innocence." He said that researchers estimate that flawed forensic testimony and other factors indicate that 4 percent "of those sentenced to death are actually innocent." "Numerous studies," he said, conclude that "individuals accused of murdering white victims, as opposed to black or other minority victims, are more likely to receive the death penalty." And: Why "does one defendant who participated in a single-victim murder-for-hire scheme. . . receive the death penalty, while another defendant does not, despite having stabbed his wife 60 times and killed his 6-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son while they slept?"

Chammah notes that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams read Cesare Beccaria's 1764essay "On Crimes and Punishments," whose arguments against capital punishment inspired the Philadelphia doctor Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, to suggest that capital punishment "lessens the horror of taking away human life and thereby tends to multiply murders." Today, the conservative case against capital punishment is fourfold:

The power to dispense death cloaks government with dangerous majesty. (In "Hitler's First Hundred Days," Peter Fritzsche reports sudden German enthusiasm for capital punishment by hand-held ax because its "swift, direct action" emphasized the "superiority of the state.") Because government-inflicted death cannot later be reconsidered on the basis of new evidence, it must be administered with extraordinary competence, but do not count on this: Capital punishment is a government program. The labyrinthine legal protections surrounding the death penalty guarantee that it will be too infrequent to serve the penological purpose of deterrence. And the argument that there are especially heinous crimes for which death is the morally proportionate punishment collides with the disproportionate drain -- millions of dollars -- on communities' and states' resources.

Last month, Virginia became the first Southern state to abolish capital punishment. Today, 53 percent of Americans live either in the 23 states that have abolished it or the three others where governors have imposed a moratorium on executions. Twelve states with death penalty laws have not executed anyone for at least a decade. And a majority of Americans oppose capital punishment for murder when prompted to consider the alternative of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Capital punishment is ending because of a wholesome squeamishness that reflects (in Chief Justice Earl Warren's words) society's "evolving standards of decency." And because attempts to make it neither cruel nor unusual have made its implementation increasingly capricious, and hence morally absurd.

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George Will's email address is georgewill@washpost.com.

If you call the IRS, there's only a 1-in-50 chance you'll reach a human being

By michelle singletary
If you call the IRS, there's only a 1-in-50 chance you'll reach a human being

MICHELLE SINGLETARY COLUMN

Advance for release Sunday, April 25, 2021, and thereafter

(For Singletary clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By MICHELLE SINGLETARY

WASHINGTON - If you need help with your taxes, good luck reaching an IRS representative on the telephone.

So far this tax season, only about 1 out of every 50 calls have gotten through to an IRS customer service representative on the agency's 1040 toll-free line (800-829-1040), according to Erin M. Collins, the national taxpayer advocate for the independent Taxpayer Advocate Service, an organization within the IRS that helps taxpayers resolve issues with the agency.

Collins praised the IRS for soldiering through a tough tax season compounded by a pandemic, but she also outlined major concerns with how the agency is handling taxpayer calls and returns.

"From a taxpayer's perspective, it feels like their return has fallen into a black hole: they do not know what is going on, when they will get their refund, why it is being delayed, or how to get answers or help," Collins wrote in a recent blog post.

This filing season, the IRS has seen an increase of over 300% in calls to its Accounts Management toll-free lines, Collins said in an interview. But IRS employees have answered just 2% of the more than 70 million taxpayer calls to the 1040 telephone line as of April 10. On average, people spend 20 minutes on hold, although many taxpayers have reported much longer wait times. Others just give up and hang up.

Collins also highlighted the IRS's huge backlog of tax returns. The agency has designated more than 29 million returns for manual processing, she said.

Even when people do reach an IRS representative, it's unlikely the worker can provide help or guidance if the person's return hasn't been processed yet, Collins said.

This tornado of a tax season is due to a perfect storm: a high volume of 2020 tax returns that need manual processing, a huge backlog of unprocessed 2019 paper tax returns, and the daunting task of issuing hundreds of millions of stimulus payments along with the Treasury Department. The IRS also suffers from limited resources and technology issues, Collins said.

And there is a severe disparity in IRS services, as some taxpayers are getting much better treatment than others.

On the one hand, the IRS had already processed close to 111 million 2020 returns and issued 73 million refunds with an average amount of $2,873 as of April 16.

"The IRS website says that normal processing time for an electronically filed return is 21 days, but in reality, millions of taxpayers receive their refunds even quicker - sometimes within a week, sometimes in days," Collins reported in her blog.

And approximately 161 million stimulus payments have been disbursed with a total value of more than $379 billion - $3.4 billion issued this past week alone, said the IRS and Treasury in their latest update on the third round of the payments.

On the other hand, plenty of other people are deeply frustrated by the delay in getting their returns processed, refunds issued, or questions answered.

"I along with my tax accountant have been chasing my 2019 amended return since July 7, 2020, to no avail," one reader wrote. "I have checked online and by telephone during this time. No one answers the phone."

The IRS has said it's reviewing returns to look for discrepancies concerning the "Recovery Rebate Credit." Technically, the stimulus payments are an advance of credit. If a filer has made a mistake in calculating the credit, the agency will fix the error. But any inconsistencies between the IRS's records and what a taxpayer return requires a manual review.

Adding to the chaos is the need for the IRS to validate the 2019 income that many taxpayers used to figure out their Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). One of the biggest tax breaks for working people, the EITC helps low-to-moderate-income workers and families reduce their taxes, and can result in a refund. Working families with three or more qualifying children could be eligible for up to $6,660. Workers without a qualifying child could receive up to $538.

To claim the EITC, you have to have earned income. This became an issue for the millions of people who lost their jobs because of the pandemic last year. To address this situation, the Taxpayer Certainty and Disaster Tax Relief Act of 2020, signed into law late last year, expanded eligibility for the EITC, allowing people to use their 2019 earned income.

"If you look at the reasons that a lot of these returns are being pulled, it really impacts, unfortunately, lower-income taxpayers," Collins said. "That's a percentage of the population who do not need to have their refunds delayed."

Returns that are being pulled to correct the Rebate Recovery Credit for the stimulus payment or to verify the 2019 income for the EITC are sent to the IRS's Error Resolution System unit, where the forms wait in "suspense" until reviewed by an agency employee. And here's why calls to the IRS aren't fruitful. The IRS system isn't programmed to indicate why a return is in limbo.

As of the week ending April 9, more than 8 million individual 1040 returns were in suspense status because of the Rebate Recovery Credit or EITC income review, Collins said. The backlog also includes 5.3 million individual 2019 and 2020 paper returns; 4.7 million individual returns with processing errors or fraud identification issues requiring responses from taxpayers; and 11 million business and other returns.

Collins doesn't fault the IRS for all the delays. But she rightfully slams the agency for not providing taxpayers with more information about why their returns and/or refunds are held up.

"People would rather know the bad information so they can figure out how to deal with it," she said. "If you're sitting there every day waiting for that check or that deposit, it's got to be incredibly frustrating. And then you think, "What did I do wrong? What's wrong with my return?' And then people will think, "Should I file another one? Did they not receive it? What's going on?' The unknown creates more kind of stress."

One taxpayer from Nashville is waiting on more than $16,000 in refunds from his and his wife's 2019 and 2020 joint returns, largely due to claiming the Recovery Rebate Credit. He's tried numerous times to get an answer by calling the 1040 telephone line. He says he checks "Where's My Refund" at irs.gov several times a day.

"I understand why there's a delay with covid," the taxpayer said in an interview. "I just don't understand why I can't get any information."

- - -

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1301 K St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Her email address is michelle.singletary@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter (@SingletaryM) or Facebook (www.facebook.com/MichelleSingletary). Comments and questions are welcome, but due to the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible. Please also note comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

(c) 2021, Washington Post Writers Group

Risks, yes, but remember the reward

By fareed zakaria
Risks, yes, but remember the reward

FAREED ZAKARIA COLUMN

Advance for release Friday, April 23, 2021, and thereafter

(For Zakaria clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By Fareed Zakaria

The pandemic has brought out the crazy in all of us. We've all been selective about the science we take seriously and the stuff we disregard. We've often been more moved by vivid anecdotes than scholarly studies.

But I really start to worry when even the experts seem irrational. Consider the decision from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration to recommend pausing distribution of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine after six cases of severe blood clots were reported in the United States (now nine). Nearly 7 million Americans had already safely received the vaccine. That's a 0.0001% chance of a blood clot.

Meanwhile, 1.5% of covid-19 patients still die from the virus. In other words, even if all the blood clots proved fatal - and most have not been - the virus would still be thousands of times more dangerous than the vaccine.

The agencies' decision came after similar rare reports of blood clotting led European nations to temporarily suspend the AstraZeneca vaccine in March. That vaccine uses technology similar to Johnson & Johnson's, and again its benefits far outweigh the potential dangers.

These government pauses are fueling many people's fears about vaccine safety, perpetuating conspiracy theories and wasting precious time at a moment when the crucial imperative is to get people vaccinated. Many developing nations are counting on these two vaccines because they are cheaper than mRNA vaccines and easier to store. Now, though, even some people in those places are scared to get them.

There is a pattern to the problem. Politicians and governments are much too worried about the chance of something bad happening on their watch, no matter how unlikely. For example, there has been a reluctance to send children back to school, even though numerous studies have found the risks to be quite low if precautions are taken. And while the dangers are exaggerated, few people think about the massive benefits to society - to children, parents, the economy as a whole - if schools would reopen quickly.

Sometimes this obsession with risk turns into what the Atlantic's Derek Thompson calls "hygiene theater." It has been apparent that the virus overwhelmingly spreads by breathing, not by touching surfaces. Yet businesses have made a great show of sanitizing everything, as if activities such as indoor dining are somehow safe if only the tables are clean. Thompson is reminded of the "security theater" at airports after 9/11. An elaborate set of measures - toss away your water bottles! - was put into place to make people feel safe, much of it useless.

More important, the obsession with the dangers of terrorism - which, even after 9/11, were quite low - led us to build a massive new homeland security industrial complex, launch military interventions across the globe and curtail civil liberties just to try to reduce the incidence of terrorism to as close to zero as possible. We denied hundreds of thousands of people visas into the United States just because we wanted to be sure that no one let in someone who turned out to be a terrorist. In government, the incentive is always to take every precaution and spend as much money as necessary to ensure that bad things don't happen. Those are the events that make you lose your job or get you pilloried by the media or hauled in front of a congressional committee. If you make lots of good things happen, by contrast, you will be lucky to get a pat on the back.

During the early stages of the pandemic, the U.S. government kept worrying too much about all the problems that could emerge from rapid mass testing and neglected to consider the huge benefits of returning to normal life. Harvard epidemiologist Michael Mina argued that we should have authorized all kinds of tests - in-home, pregnancy-style ones, for example - that would have offered constant information about who was safe and unsafe. Getting tests to be 100% accurate was less important than catching most cases before they spread.

The truth is that we live with risks all the time. Nearly 40,000 Americans die every year in car accidents. Would we agree to make the speed limit 25 miles per hour if it would save half of those deaths? Even now, hundreds of Americans are dying of covid every day, compared with the nine people who got blood clots. We need to think more closely, carefully and rationally about risk and remember to balance it with that other half of the equation: reward.

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Fareed Zakaria's email address is fareed.zakaria.gps@turner.com.

Biden has an opportunity to ensure an FDR-like legacy, and he might blow it

By catherine rampell
Biden has an opportunity to ensure an FDR-like legacy, and he might blow it

CATHERINE RAMPELL COLUMN

Advance for release Friday, April 23, 2021, and thereafter

(For Rampell clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By Catherine Rampell

Over the past month, many pundits lavished praise on President Biden and his supposedly transformative domestic policy agenda. The White House has basked in comparisons to Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society; some argued Biden might leave a more lasting imprint on the role of government than Barack Obama, in whose shadow Biden lived for years.

But in truth, Biden risks falling short of such history-defining legacies. That's because he's getting cold feet about making the most consequential part of his own agenda thus far permanent.

The trigger for all those comparisons between Biden and previous "paradigm"-shifting Democratic presidents was the $1.9 trillion fiscal relief bill signed last month. Most of that legislation was advertised as a temporary, targeted response to the immediate crisis, rather than any sort of lasting transformation of the welfare state. With one prominent exception: its revamping of the child tax credit.

As child poverty experts and Democratic lawmakers such as Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (Conn.) and Sen. Michael Bennet (Colo.) have been urging for years, the bill converted the existing annual child tax credit into a more frequently issued "child allowance" (amounting to $250 or $300 per month, depending on a child's age). Perhaps more significantly, it made this benefit "fully refundable." That means even children whose parents make too little to pay any taxes at all would get infusions of cash. Previously, ultra-poor families had been excluded from eligibility for the child tax credit, even though they arguably had the greatest need for financial help.

Just as Roosevelt created Social Security for seniors, Biden had now effectively created it for kids, with a guaranteed income even for the poorest of the poor. Biden and other progressives celebrated the achievement, frequently touting one remarkable topline takeaway: the legislation would cut U.S. child poverty - currently among the highest in the developed world - in half.

But there was a catch. The bill created this new, celebrated government program for only one year; additional legislation would be required to keep the benefit in place beyond then.

Fortunately, tons of Democrats (and at least one prominent Republican ) have expressed support for making a monthly child allowance permanent. Among those on record for permanency are Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.; Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., who oversee congressional tax-writing committees; and most other Democratic lawmakers.

The White House has said the president also wants the policy to be permanent. Why, after all, allow such a monumental achievement to disappear?

And yet, Biden is expected to ask Congress for only a temporary extension, as part of his forthcoming $1 trillion "American Families Plan." Under this proposal, child allowances would expire in 2025 - unless lawmakers choose to extend the policy again.

It's extremely risky for Biden to cross his fingers and hope that whoever controls government in 2025 will choose to protect this critical program, and thus Biden's legacy. Especially since the 2024 Senate election map looks perilous for his party, with several Democratic incumbents in red or purple states up for reelection. Democrats must make their priorities permanent while they know they have power.

As the assault weapons ban showed, there's no guarantee that a progressive priority, even a popular one, will be extended once it is slated to sunset. And it is a heavier lift for Congress to renew an expiring policy than to simply leave a permanent one in place. Conversely, Obamacare has managed to survive, despite many GOP attempts at repeal and years of controversy, in part because its default was to remain law.

My own reporting suggests Biden settled on a four-year extension of the child allowance for fiscal reasons. The overall cost of his American Families Plan is expected to be enormous, and he wants to pay for everything, so he's limiting how much each element costs. That includes letting child benefits sunset.

But the fiscal dynamics of a child allowance are unusual; some research suggests that the costs of monthly checks will be at least partially offset by other government savings, because the children who benefit will grow up to make higher earnings and pay more taxes, and also need fewer services, as adults.

Moreover, even if the policy does get renewed in 2025, structuring it as a series of temporary extensions is likely to be more expensive in the long run than just making it permanent upfront. Why? Because history suggests Republicans will extract all sorts of other expensive concessions (estate, corporate, capital gains tax cuts) as part of negotiations.

Biden has an opportunity to be fiscally responsible; to permanently lift millions of kids out of poverty, promoting racial equity in the process; and to cement his legacy as the kind of transformational president he aspires to be. He should not waste it.

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Catherine Rampell's email address is crampell@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.

Formally recognize the Armenian genocide

By david ignatius
Formally recognize the Armenian genocide

DAVID IGNATIUS COLUMN

Advance for release Friday, April 23, 2021, and thereafter

(For Ignatius clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

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By David Ignatius

WASHINGTON -- When Vartan Gregorian was asked three years ago what it would mean for the United States to recognize the Armenian genocide of 1915, he characteristically looked forward, not back. "We intend to remain," he said. "But what for? And that's the point."

Gregorian died last week at 87, a beloved former president of the Carnegie Corporation and Brown University, and the savior of the New York Public Library. He didn't live to see the emotional moment that's likely to come Saturday, when President Biden is expected to become the first U.S. president to formally affirm the fact of the Armenian genocide.

On Saturday, the annual day of remembrance for the 1.5 million victims of the genocide, Gregorian would probably have asked the same question that he posed in the March 2018interview: "What is our duty as Armenians . . . to prevent others [from] facing the same thing we have faced?" How do we show our compassion for those who are mistreated today, as our ancestors were?

Armenians around the world surely will rejoice in Biden's planned announcement. They will celebrate the affirmation of justice and truth after so many decades of Turkish denial of the horrific events of 1915. But I hope they will also think, as Gregorian would have, about how to build bridges now to help Turkey escape from the horrors of its history.

Saturday ought to be a day when Turks, too, are liberated from the past. Denial of the genocide has wounded Armenians, but it has also damaged Turkey. Historians have long affirmed the truth of what happened, including Turkish scholar Taner Akcam in his detailed study of Ottoman sources, titled "A Shameful Act."

Denial of these facts has been a dead weight around Turkey's neck, as if dragging the past into the future. Turkey's continuing anger has been manifest, too, in its support for Azerbaijan's war against Armenia over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Time to let it go, in Ankara and Istanbul, and the ruins of towns and villages of Anatolia that are haunted by the ghosts of 1915.

My father's family came from one of those towns, a place called Kharpert in what's now northeastern Turkey. My great-grandfather attended Euphrates College there, founded by American missionaries, and then migrated to England and the United States, where his daughter met my grandfather, who had come to America from that same town in 1903. But other relatives stayed, and they experienced the terrible events of 1915: Men were separated from women and children and, despite resistance, slaughtered; women and children were sent on a death march across the desert toward Syria in which many perished.

Gregorian said that when he was a boy in Tabriz, Iran, in the 1930s, people didn't discuss the genocide that had happened two decades before. Iran was friendly with Turkey, and so it "was not spoken about," Gregorian said. Armenians talked simply of "the dead," and the refugees who had streamed into Tabriz, Beirut, Aleppo and a hundred other towns where they made new lives.

The past is always with us. We never forget, even when we try. But Gregorian was part of a movement that sought to use the experience of the genocide not to fuel bitterness and revenge, but to look outward and celebrate the spirit that had allowed the Armenian people to survive and prosper, and eventually rebuild an independent nation.

This movement is called the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative. It was co-founded in 2015 by Gregorian, Noubar Afeyan, a businessman who co-founded the biotech company Moderna, which has produced a coronavirus vaccine, and Ruben Vardanyan, a Russian- Armenian businessman and philanthropist. It takes its name from Aurora Mardiganian, an orphan of the genocide who became a symbol of suffering and survival. The group's motto is "gratitude in action" - celebrating the heroes in our time whose humanitarian actions have saved others.

Each year, Aurora honors laureates who struggle against genocidal violence in our time: Burundian activist Marguerite Barankitse won the award in 2016; American physician Tom Catena, who runs a clinic in the desolate Nuba Mountains of Sudan, won in 2017; Rohingya human rights campaigner Kyaw Hla Aung received the prize in 2018; Yazidi activist Mirza Dinnayi won in 2019; and Somali women's rights activists Fartuun Adan and Ilwad Elman were honored last year. I have served as master of ceremonies for five of these award ceremonies in Yerevan.

Justice is often denied and suppressed, as we know from the United States' centuries-long struggle against racism. But there must be an eventual reckoning with the past, as we saw this week with the murder conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin - and then, hopefully, we move into the future, sharing the blessing of truth and justice with others.

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Contact David Ignatius on Twitter @IgnatiusPost

How to confront systemic racism? Heed the call of Martin Luther King.

By michael gerson
How to confront systemic racism? Heed the call of Martin Luther King.

MICHAEL GERSON COLUMN

Advance for release Friday, April 23, 2021, and thereafter

(For Gerson clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- Eighteen days after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech, four young girls were killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. Days later, King delivered their eulogy, and demonstrated why America would have been lost without the civil rights movement.

If there were ever an excuse for retaliatory anger, it was the murder of these children. And you can tell King was feeling that emotion's pull. This act, he said, was "one of the most vicious, heinous crimes ever perpetrated against humanity." He then channeled the girls' voices, speaking to a hypocritical, racist, complacent society: "They have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. They have something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. . . . They say to each of us, Black and White alike, that we must substitute courage for caution."

This was probably expected. But King proceeded to make two points that would have left many uncomfortable.

First, he argued for a definition of justice larger than a correct legal outcome. "We must be concerned," he said, "not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life and the philosophy which produced the murderers."

Second, King held out hope that white-supremacist philosophy could be challenged and changed among Whites themselves: "We must not lose faith in our White brothers. Somehow we must believe that the most misguided among them can learn to respect the dignity and worth of all human personality."

This remains shocking, even decades later. Speaking in King's place at that funeral, I would not have been large enough to assert "faith in our White brothers" given how thin the reasons for such faith appeared to be. King could have said, based on strong evidence, that most White Americans were beyond hope, and that a government of the Whites, by the Whites and for the Whites was irreparable.

I thought of King's message in light of the death of George Floyd and the conviction of his murderer. In the case of the Birmingham bombing, justice took decades to arrive, during which time the murderers grew old in freedom. In Floyd's case, justice was swifter. But we are left confronting "the system, the way of life and the philosophy" that led to Floyd's death.

White people in America tend to assume, at a deep level, that America's economic, governmental and legal systems are roughly fair. This, after all, is how people such as me generally experience them. And this allows for facile, sometimes unconscious, judgments. Because American systems seem fair, it must be individuals' fault when they are poor, powerless or imprisoned.

It is a failure of imagination that leads to the persistence of injustice. People for whom the system works have a hard time understanding the lasting, disastrous economic consequences of centuries of stolen labor, or the continuing legacy of disenfranchisement and voter suppression, or the fear generated by policing that targets and dehumanizes minorities.

Focusing on such systemic injustice is not the recent result of "wokeness." It is unavoidable when a country's treatment of some groups is dramatically at odds with its national ideals. Through much of American history, this tension was described in religious rather than academic language. In 1775, an African British Methodist missionary was expelled from South Carolina after preaching "against the Laws of the Province respect[ing] slaves [and] compar[ing] their state with that of the Israelites during their Egyptian Bonda[g]e." For centuries, Black Americans have taken the story of Exodus -- the story of an oppressed but divinely chosen people seeking a promised land of freedom -- as their own.

But if Black Americans play the role of Israel in this historical drama, then America must be Egypt -- the Bible's embodiment of tyranny and oppression. This was a critique of systemic injustice far harsher than anything the New York Times's 1619 Project has produced, and a challenge to the dominant myth of American identity -- its claim of moral exceptionalism.

So the accusation of systemic injustice is hardly new. But the reaction of civil rights leaders such as King was remarkable. Rather than judging America beyond hope, they loved it for what it might someday become: a multiracial society of equal justice and opportunity. Opposing racism was not only a method to confront injustice; it was a way to help reclaim the personhood of Whites, who could finally lay down the burden of their bias.

America, it turns out, is both Egypt and Israel -- an oppressor struggling to challenge oppression. And the voices of those girls killed in Alabama, and of a man murdered in Minneapolis, still urge us to courage.

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Michael Gerson's email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.

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