Saving the Souls of White Folks

In Current Events

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In the last 24 hours two more black men have been killed by police.*  In both instances, videos were captured and have been uploaded to the internet.  Within hours, the world has had the ability to watch for themselves the dangers of being black and male in America.  This meme showed up on my FB page.  It’s true.  The prevalence and ease of video cameras on phones is a new phenomenon.  But it is not just the cell phone cameras that is changing the game.  It is the internet.  Social media is changing the conversation, bringing a visceral and real understanding to White America about what black folks have been dealing with for a very long time.  This new development is giving us an opportunity to find redemption in light of this violence and oppression.

For hundreds of years, black people in this country have been violently oppressed, enslaved, imprisoned, and murdered for nothing more than being a darker color than the people in power.  The systemic racism that runs through the foundation of our country has held strong, despite emancipation and constitutional amendments.  Laws are passed, efforts are made, and still we have seen over 100 black men killed by police in the first six months of 2016.^  The majority of these men – 61% – were not fleeing the scene.  10 of these men were killed in just the last two weeks.

I don’t want to debate the character of those who have been killed.  It’s important to acknowledge that the police have a very difficult job and that the good ones – and there are good police out there – serve the community and risk their lives to protect the rest of us.  But this is not about good police.  This is about systemic racism and the internalized fear of black men.  This is about the fact that if a man is stopped by the cops – regardless of whether he represents a threat to their safety or not – his chance of surviving the interaction decreases dramatically depending on how dark his skin is.  That’s it.  Not how or why, not the details of whether or not the citizen had a legal weapon, had priors, was a church-going man, etc, etc.  When the numbers are this frequent the question is not about the specifics.  The conversation has to be about the cultural way that white people view black men as dangerous and black people in general as disposable.

Americans have a very long history of treated black folks as less-than-human in this country.  We brought them here and used their free labor to build most of the infrastructure – including many of our most beloved national monuments – that we use and cherish today.  Once freed, we kept them separate, denied them rights, and found new economic ways to keep them working for cheap.  We have and still keep so many black men and women in prison, that we have a whole new way of forcing them into cheap labor.^^  The laws we pass target black and other non-white communities more heavily.+  The sentences we give black defendants are unarguably harsher than the ones we give white people charged and convicted with the same crimes.++

So why should we, as white Americans, care about this?  I mean, beyond the whole “we should care about how everyone is treated” sort of thing, why should we actually, actively get involved?  Well, here are a few reasons.

  • Reason #1 – You might someday have a friend who is black.  Or maybe you already do.  These killings are not out there happening to those kind of people, these things are happening to people just like your friends.  Do you friends have kids?  Are they planning to?  Do they have a son?  Chances are, your black friend is far more aware of how dangerous the police are to them and their families than you imagine.  For them, this has not/is not/will never be an other black people kind of thing.  The institutional violence against black people happens in every state and every town no matter how successful, rich, or respected they are.  Church deacons and millionaires are not immune if they are black.  Just ask Jamie Foxx.
  • Reason #2 – You might someday have a family member who is black.  Or maybe you already do.  There are about 7 million people in the US right now who identify as mixed race and by 2050, the number is expected to be over 20% of our population.  But studies also show that only 40% of all mixed-race Americans identify that way, so the numbers are very under-reported.  Regardless of the stats, it is clear that our country is becoming more blended as the taboo of inter-racial dating fades away (good riddance!) and more cross-cultural dialogue brings people together across racial lines.  It may not be too long before the young dark skinned boy who needs to be taught how to interact with police to lessen his chances of being killed will be your nephew or grandson.#
  • Reason #3 – You care about the spiritual, ethical, and moral responsibility that rests on your shoulders as a member of the dominant community that has put these systems into place and benefits from them.  This is about privilege.  Not “OMG, You should feel so guilty because you are white and have done something wrong” privilege.  That is neither helpful or useful to anyone, including you.  This is about the REAL discussion of white privilege, an opportunity to bring your attention to the troubles and struggles of non-white people that you have not experienced in the same way.  This is about the discussion that says, “Some of what we have built as Americans has come to us, not because we worked hard, but because we used the free labor of your neighbors grandparents and great-grandparents.”  It’s about realizing that we are still benefiting from the prison labor and cheap labor that the black people in this country provide, whether we agreed to it or not.  It’s about the realization that no matter what other kinds of oppression we experience as a woman, queer, disabled, or poor person in this country, when it comes to race, we are still lucky to have been born white.  And that’s really all it is.  Just luck.  It is an accident of birth that I was born white in America and that lucky accident means I have avoided years and years of violence and oppression.  Some of my neighbors were not so lucky.  The very idea that whichever race you are born into in this country dictates such a drastically different life experience should bother you.  It should upset you and feel very very wrong.  Because it is wrong.  It is an injustice that we benefit from and it should bother you.
  • Reason #4 – White people are the only people who can really solve this problem.  A few years back I was having a conversation with a beloved colleague.  We were talking about Black Lives Matter and she said this to me: graceI was stunned.  She said it with no anger or accusation.  It was a simple fact.  Just like women can’t stop rape culture on their own, black folks need white people to stand up and fight for their lives and their freedom.  Racism wasn’t created by people of color and doesn’t benefit them.  It keeps them out of positions of power where they could change it.  After decades of being a race activist, supporting communities of color, and considering myself an ally, I had never been able to see the problem of racism so clearly.  That was the blindness of my privilege right there.  Just like every other white person in America, I am constantly learning how to be more aware of racial issues in my community.  That’s the work we do to be awake and aware of what is happening.  At least, that’s the first step.  The next step is to get involved.

If you want to get involved and DO something about racism instead of feeling guilty for being white, there is lots to do.  To start, I’d suggest talking to other white people who feel the same way.  Check out Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ).  They are a group that organizes white people for racial justice all over the country.  Look to see if there are any activities happening in your area and just go talk to people.

So, let’s come together and work to solve this.  Let’s stand up and show up and step in front.  Let’s use our racial power and privilege and the safety that resides in our skin to speak out and be heard.  As we do, step by step, we work towards the redemption of the soul of White America.  We can be better than our ancestors.  We can treat black people as equal living breathing human beings, the way they deserve to be treated.  We can fight anyone and any system that doesn’t do the same.

 

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*Philando Castile, a 32-year-old black man, was shot on July 6, 2016, in St. Paul, Minn. Castile was shot by a St. Anthony police officer after a traffic stop. Castile told the officer he had a weapon in the car. A woman in the car said he was reaching for his wallet when the officer shot him.
Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old black man, was shocked with a stun gun and shot on July 5, 2016, in a parking lot in Baton Rouge, La. Baton Rouge police officers were responding to reports of an armed man at a convenience store. Video recorded by a bystander shows that Sterling was on the ground when he was shot.
^ In the last few years, efforts have been made to begin collecting data on police killings.  There are several places to find this info, but I like the interactive graphic on Police Killings at the Washington Post.
^^ You can learn more about this either from Prison Legal News or The National Center for Policy Analysis.
+ For starters, just google something like “cocaine meth drug sentences racism”, but you can always start out at on this page at drugpolicy.org.
++ So, it’s called Google and you can find out all sorts of stuff if you use it.  Try “racism sentencing”.  Or just visit the ACLU.
# For more info about mixed racial heritage in the US, visit this page on the AAMF site and this research from the Pew Research Center.

 

PS – Kudos if you caught the nod to the brilliant article, “The Souls of White Folks” by W. E. B. Du Bois.  If you haven’t read that (or the more famous “The Souls of Black Folks“), you should.  Or maybe you should read it again.  I’m gonna go read it again right now.  Brilliant brilliant man.