Over the last year, we’ve witnessed a number of highly publicized killings of unarmed black citizens at the hands of the State. While many of us, myself included, have only recently become informed of the volume and frequency of these killings, those in communities acutely afflicted by police violence have been intimately familiar with its depth and breadth all their lives. These recent killings have publicized for a wider audience the fact that all across America, black lives are effectively worthless, and may be ended at any time, without real cause or consequence.
Depending on one’s proximity to police violence, reactions to reactions to these killings have ranged from justified outrage to understandable numbness. Huge numbers of Well-Meaning White People have expressed justified shock and outrage (A line from Dave Chappelle’s Killin’ Them Softly comes to mind: “Honey, did you see this? Apparently the police have been beating up Negroes like hotcakes!”), while for many members of the black community, the only difference between 2014 and 1968 or 1865 is greater publicity.
I’ve run the gamut of reactions. Unfocused rage at a legal (not justice) system I’ve only just realized is designed exactly to perpetuate police violence against minorities, not prevent it. Profound grief that even though my black friends are smart, talented, law-abiding, and live in mostly “progressive” parts of this country, they are putting their very lives at stake simply by being in public. A resigned slumping over in my chair after reading about the Eric Garner decision and wondering: Exactly what set of circumstances would have to coalesce for a police officer to be prosecuted for ending a black life?
To me, the base cause of cop-on-black killings, beyond the inequities of the legal system, is clear: The widely-held belief, as deeply rooted in America’s being as democracy, that black people, particularly black men, are super (or sub-) human creatures predisposed towards crime whose very existence poses a threat to society. This is not hyperbole. This is the belief that Darren Wilson admitted fueled his killing of unarmed teenager Mike Brown. The reason why people say, “well, Tamir Rice looked much older than 12.” It was Daniel Pantaleo’s justification, conscious or not, for choking a man to death, unprovoked, while he begged to be left alone.
We must fight the hatred & fear of black skin, and in cases where hatred & fear cannot be overcome, and results in violence and death, we must fight for real justice to be done.
If you are in a position to do so, you have a moral obligation to stand on the right side of history. For the first 30 years of my life, I have been complicit in America’s hatred & fear of black skin by not using my standing as a member of the most privileged class to work against it. I’m ashamed that it took all this death to crystallize my sense of purpose.
For my part, I’ve chosen to go to law school and pursue a career working for victims of civil rights violations. I have no guarantee of success, and perhaps I’m beset by overeagerness and white-knight naiveté. But thanks to the encouragement of friends and family, I feel confident that I will be able to make a real difference.
I wouldn’t advise everyone to become a lawyer, and many of my friends in the legal field wouldn’t advise me to become one either. I’d also be remiss not to acknowledge how fortunate I am to even be able to consider such an ambition. While I can’t purport to know all the other ways we might take action, over the past few months I’ve learned a few.
Speaking out online is simple, even effortless, and may seem hollow. But it can help to simply get Good Opinions out there. More powerful is directly engaging and challenging fear and hatred when you see it. I’m sure many of us dealt with casual racism at the the Thanksgiving table this year. It’s up to you whether you’re willing to sacrifice your family’s holiday peace to claim the moral high ground, and it may be the case, as it is for me, that some of your family members are a lost cause. But it may also be that a cousin, niece, or nephew hears a different, better opinion than what they hear at home, and chooses a different path than what circumstance had laid before them.
Equally as important as talking is knowing when to shut up and listen. This means not making any of the stories of police violence about you. Admitting your white privilege may be refreshing, but nobody cares about the time you were skateboarding around the loading dock at the mall and the police came but didn’t arrest you. Seek to understand, not to be understood.
As you’re listening, also remember that it is not Black America’s imperative to educate White America. If someone wants to share their lived experience with you, make them feel welcome to do so. But do not assume every black person is a Morgan Freeman character, come to omnisciently and wisely narrate for your own edification. I’ve made this mistake, and was rightly and roundly taken to task for it by a member of my community who I expected to eagerly enlighten me.
Beyond talking, there are numerous real-world applications of your good intentions. Protest if you feel comfortable doing so, or even if you don’t. If you have money and/or time, donate them to organizations that seek to correct inequality and promote social justice. I recently joined my local NAACP branch—yes, this is something white people are “allowed” to do. If NAACP membership is not for you, there are many other organizations with similar objectives. Look them up.
If you are white, understand that no matter what action you choose to take, you are fortunate to be able to take a stand, to reach an audience, that other members of society simply cannot. If we do not take advantage of our platform and safety, we are complicit in the injustice being done upon less privileged citizens. The relative comfort I’ve enjoyed as a white man has regrettably shielded me from reality, and I acknowledge, to my great shame, that it has taken the spectacle of killing to roust me from inaction. I must examine why it took this long to care. I urge you: if you are in a position to act, do not wait as long as me. Do not wait for another life to be recklessly cut short before deciding you’ve seen enough.
Many of us like to believe that society continues progressing forward, regardless of what we do or don’t do. This is true for advances in material comfort, technology, and wealth. But society will not self-correct for social justice. Our system of inequality and oppression has been well-constructed over the last 400 years, surviving and thriving amidst unrest, uprising, and war. But it is not self-perpetuating. It exists because we let it. Only when we collectively condemn and combat the tyranny may we realize the dream of a continually progressive society. The longer we fail to reckon with our deeply-rooted racist hatred and fear, the longer we will see our society’s promise deferred.
A few months ago, when protests in Ferguson were just getting underway, I met a well-known author, journalist and activist. I asked her what it’s like to work for 40+ years with seemingly little progress to show for it—after all, we’re seeing many of the same injustice today that she saw at the beginning of her career. She responded with a hopeful perspective I did not expect, though maybe I should have, given her wisdom, experience, and persistence.
“When a woman is the victim of abuse,” she said, “the most dangerous time in her life is right before she leaves her home. She may flee because it’s become too dangerous for her to stay, or her abuser may recognize she’s about to leave and escalate the abuse to a fatal degree. America right now is like a battered woman.”
At face value, I understood the analogy, but failed to see how that could inspire optimism. She continued: “The forces in power right now are tightening their grip. They see a changing society on the horizon, and are escalating their efforts to maintain the status quo. It’s why we’re seeing bills that restrict abortion access, voter ID laws, policies that engineer greater income inequality, unpunished police killings. These are all the last gasps of the abuser. It’s getting worse before it gets better. But I think we’ve decided that we’ve had enough. We’re going to fight this. And then, we may be free.”