Hey, white people! What’s our problem? Why have we broken society so badly?
There’s no other way to put it. This mess is all white people’s fault. And yeah, that has to include me, too. We’re all complicit.
What exactly am I talking about? Well, let’s run down the events of the last couple months or so, at least as of this writing.
Back in March, Louisville, Kentucky police kicked in the door of EMT and nursing student Breonna Taylor with no warning, and no announcement. Her boyfriend was understandably scared, and shot at what he assumed were home invaders. The police returned fire, killing Taylor. The drugs they bashed the door in to find belonged to someone who had already been arrested, and as a result, a young black woman died because of this mistake. The FBI has opened an investigation, but as of this writing, none of the police officers involved have faced charges.
About four weeks ago, cell phone video footage was released that showed a young black man named Ahmaud Arbery being gunned down in a suburban street in Georgia by two white men. This incident actually occurred on February 23, but the assailants weren’t arrested or charged until the video filmed by a third man came to light.
On May 25, cell phone footage circulated social media (and then regular media) of a white woman in Central Park in New York ranting at the black man filming her, threatening to call the police, and then actually doing so, while loudly and intentionally making sure to reference the man’s race. She made it clear she was hoping that the police would treat him harshly. It turned out her dangerous tantrum was a response to his mild request that she leash her loose dog.
On the same day, George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis, was killed by police while he was being detained. The officer who killed him knelt on his neck for several minutes while he pleaded that he couldn’t breathe, and continued to choke him for several more minutes even after he lost consciousness. This killing was somewhat reminiscent of the 2014 killing of Eric Garner in New York. Garner was also choked by police until he died, all while pleading for his life.
In response to these incidents, there have been many demonstrations and protests across the United States. Some have been peaceful, others more violent. Police have been accused of exacerbating and even starting the violence in some of these situations. Tensions are high, made even worse by the current COVID-19 pandemic. The current leadership in the White House has not been helpful, with the President tweeting his anger at protesters while ignoring the reasons for the protests.
So, what exactly is going on?
Well, the long explanation for these issues is complicated, and systemic, and difficult to simplify.
But the truth is that it mostly boils down to the persistent white supremacy that continues to plague our nation.
Violence directed at people of color is nothing new in the United States, and at times, such violence leads to mass protest. But the current wave of demonstrations is bigger and more sustained than any in recent memory. It seems like, just possibly, that last straw finally landed on the camel.
Initially, I was going to write about both racism and police policies. And as I wrote, I realized that while the need for reforming American police forces is urgent, and does intertwine heavily with issues of race, it’s also a bigger topic that deserves more words than I can fit into a readable piece here. I will get to it. For now, however, I want to talk primarily about racism in America.
But when I talk about racism, I mean that I need to talk to white people, specifically in the United States. I’m aware that racism exists across the globe, and different countries have different kinds of problems. But the kind of racial strife I can speak about is here in my home country. And I can say it’s been a problem since… well, before the beginning. Racism is built into the fabric of this nation. Colonial expansion, native extermination and forced relocation, slavery, Jim Crow… the list is endless. I’m not going to delve too much into history.
I am going to make a plea though. Specifically to my fellow white folks.
I need to ask you all something.
Are you tired of this? Are you tired of protests, of anger, of riots, of constant political debates, of accusations of racism, of the fact that this kind of thing keeps happening on a large scale every few years? Are you bothered by the unrest?
Good. I am, too.
But how do we make it stop? Well, we first need to acknowledge why this stuff keeps occurring. That tends to go missing from white criticisms of these demonstrations. I can say that it’s clearly not because of crime, outside agitators (even if they can occasionally assist), or people of color “playing the race card.”
You ever notice when someone you know keeps complaining about their relationship problems, and over and over they say the fault with the chaos in their lives is other people? Their ex is always crazy, their friend screwed them over, their boss just doesn’t understand, and so on and so on. But their friends – outside observers – can see it clearly. If everyone is always mad at a person, and has the same complaints about them, it may just be that the problem is that person.
Same goes with racial injustice. People of color aren’t just “playing the race card.” They aren’t kneeling, or marching, or striking, or fighting every damn day because they’re the ones screwing up. These things don’t keep happening due to bad luck or bad behavior on the part of the victims. Cities are currently being torn apart (during the worst pandemic in at least 50 years, no less) because of white supremacy. It’s because of the actions (and inactions) of white people.
And the most upsetting part is that the people to blame CAN fix this.
White people, please listen.
Black Lives Matter didn’t form because white lives don’t. It formed because those in power – almost always white – haven’t been treating black lives as equal to white ones. The Los Angeles riots in 1992 didn’t occur because of some inherent criminality of black people. Philadelphia police didn’t bomb an entire city block in 1985 as a reasonable measure to counteract criminal activity.
Nothing is happening in a vacuum. Unrest doesn’t occur for fun, or because people just can’t help themselves. Folks are angry, scared, and tired of being treated like second-class citizens. People can only take injustice for so long.
Yeah, it’s true that legal prohibitions against racial discrimination have existed nationally for decades. Defenders of the status quo love to bring that up. “Show me what laws currently in force discriminate against black folks,” is a question I’ve been asked repeatedly by white bigots. That argument assumes that all it takes to make up for 400 years of oppression is a handful of laws (enforced mostly by white people). In the eyes of these people, the Civil Rights Act was the final step, and now any progress is entirely up to the oppressed to figure out, and that those in power have already acquiesced to share power equally.
But that’s not how it’s worked. Legally ending Jim Crow hasn’t stopped other kinds of discrimination and even outright oppression from occurring. Those with the most power don’t need explicit laws to keep themselves in power. They simply need those who look like themselves (powerful and not), to help support the status quo. Police, elected officials, business owners – these groups all contribute to systemic racism. But they wouldn’t be able to if they didn’t have implicit support from “ordinary citizens.” And most of these “ordinary folks” are… drum roll please… white folks.
I get it. I really do. You don’t think of yourself as racist. You don’t actively seek to harm people of color. You think Martin Luther King was a cool guy. You may have voted for Obama. You have a black friend. Maybe even two.
But black Americans are still suffering. And you, me, and the rest of us need to do a lot more than not hate them for who they are. “Not being racist” by itself is passive. It’s not enough. It doesn’t prevent police from pulling black drivers over more often than white ones. It doesn’t prevent the court system from handing down significantly harsher sentences for the same crimes. It doesn’t keep landlords, realtors, lenders, and employers from requiring far more from black and brown applicants than from white ones.
If you really don’t consider yourself a racist, then you need to care about these issues.
It’s not enough to not be terrible to people of color.
We (as in my fellow white folks) have to hold each other accountable. We need to focus our political, economic, and social power on those of us running society’s institutions. We have to be the ones to demand better.
Instead of being mad at “riots” and “looters,” be upset at the system that drove folks to this level of unrest.
My fellow white folks, we can absolutely make these problems better. But it won’t always be easy. We have to be ready to feel uncomfortable. We need to be prepared to be called out, and called to task for our own complicity in a biased system. We need to know when to shut our mouths and listen. We need to understand that our position as the “default” American is unsustainable. We need to learn to share.
Support businesses owned by people of color. Donate to civil rights organizations. Vote for candidates – particularly POC candidates – who run for office on an anti-racist platform. Volunteer for their campaigns. Write letters.
But even more than that, you need to focus on your fellow white folks. Don’t try to place yourself in the center of anti-racist movements. Black and brown folks don’t need us to tell them about racism. They already know. But we can work on ourselves. We have to be willing to call out racist language and behavior when we see it. That includes our friends, coworkers, our weird uncle, and even the loud dude on the bus. We have to be willing to take a stand.
I’m not saying start fist fights. Escalation can be tricky, and sometimes it can be a risk to speak up to those you don’t know. But we definitely need to start saying something, when we can. We need to make it socially, politically, and economically intolerable to be racist in our society. Us white folks have that ability, if we want it. We just have to be willing to stand up against other white people. We have to be uncomfortable, and make others uncomfortable. We have to put in the work.
We also need to be able to step aside when needed, and not make this about us. We shouldn’t jump front and center in the anti-racist struggle when we’re working with people of color. By all means, volunteer to help, and step forward when asked. But we first need to be most active and assertive with each other. Posting on social media, or writing long-winded blog posts like this are fine, but generally require minimal sacrifice. The real challenge is to be willing to disrupt our own social circles, and our own lives.
But the fight starts with ourselves. If we want to make this a more equitable world, we need to stick our own necks out, and push back against the worst in our own circles.