This Is What Change Looks Like

February 7 2021

Megan Kang

On the sixth day of his presidency, President Biden signed four executive orders aimed explicitly at eliminating systemic racism in America. Prior to signing the orders, he proclaimed that over the last year “what many Americans didn’t see, or had simply refused to see, couldn’t be ignored any longer.” He cited the 8 minutes and 46 second that took George Floyd’s life and opened the eyes of people around the word, marking a turning point in our nation’s struggle for racial justice.[1]

This is what change looks like.

Seven months earlier, Americans refused to stand by after watching another black man get murdered by the police. In downtown Chicago, people emerged from quarantine to show solidarity for the people of Minneapolis and for the Movement for Black Lives. They poured into the streets with their signs, masks, anger, and grief. Some stood quietly holding up their signs and fists. Others moved through the cleared-out streets chanting, “No justice, no peace.” Some walked around with spray cans painting “fuck 12” (slang for “fuck the police”) on the building windows. Others handed out water bottles and pumps of hand sanitizer.

The mostly peaceful protests took a turn as the sun went down. At dusk, I stood outside my apartment building with my doorwoman as we watched a city-owned van get smashed and set on fire. People walked by carrying piles of goods they took from the stores on S. State St. We stood there unable to look away as our city was burned and pillaged. I stayed awake that night watching crowds of people moving through the shops below my apartment, grabbing the leftover spoils through the shattered store windows. My apartment building was broken into around 2am.

The next day the blaming began. We heard it’s the fault of the police, the democratic mayors, President Trump, the radical left, white supremacists, pent-up covid rage, all us Americans. Cancel culture was at its worst.

Then came the reckoning. We stumbled through awkward conversations with friends and family about what it means to be antiracist. We read solidarity statements from our places of work. We realized the importance of not staying silent.

We experienced the backlash. We saw our cities occupied by troops.  Trump cut federal funds to organizations that held diversity, equity, and inclusion trainings and pointed to critical race theory as the problem with our country.

We survived the election. We watched Biden’s victory speech on November 7th during which he stated he had a mandate “to achieve racial justice and root out systemic racism in this country.”[2] We saw Georgia elect its first Black senator. We watched the capitol get attacked by Trump’s followers who believed the election was stolen from them. We saw our first Black-Asian female VP sworn into office by a Latina Supreme Court justice.  

As someone committed to studying issues of violence and justice, the events of the past year have made me examine some of my basic assumptions. We often focus on violence and crime for their disruptive consequences on those most disadvantaged among us. There’s good reason for this. Violence arises out of cycles of poverty and exacerbates them. Its presence disrupts the social fabric necessary for communities to thrive. And yet-

I’m realizing that violent conflict deserves a more sustained and nuanced analysis, that even today white violence is viewed as protective or patriotic and Black violence as taboo. I’m seeing that violence and change mustn’t be paired together, but that “so often the watershed moments of historical record are draped in violence.”[3] We need not condone this fact, but must acknowledge its truth. Rather than viewing conflict as undesirable or problematic, I’m learning to see it as generative.

This is what change looks like.

It’s messy, it’s nonlinear, it’s inevitable, it’s necessary.


[1] https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/01/26/remarks-by-president-biden-at-signing-of-an-executive-order-on-racial-equity/

[2]https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/biden-systemic-racism/2020/11/13/c99ec540-239a-11eb-952e-0c475972cfc0_story.html

[3] Kellie Carter Jackson, “The story of Violence in America.” The Square One Project.


Megan Kang is a Sociology Ph.D. student at Princeton University. Her work aims to make sense of issues around violence and criminal justice by providing a perspective that’s hard to access through conventional data. She intends to use ethnographic methods and photography to this end.

Follow her on Twitter at @kang_megan.

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