Racism and Violence Are Not New and Won't Change Until We Do
We must demand and work for change if we are to heal as a nation
Posted May 30, 2020
I remember growing up in an almost entirely white community and hearing that there was “no such thing” as racism anymore. In the 1970s, I knew almost no people of color and wouldn’t until my own family became more racially diverse early in the next decade. As a child, I had no real understanding of what racism really meant, outside of the enslavement of Black people in the previous century.
Looking back, I remember that as my world expanded, I began to notice the pervasiveness of racist beliefs and behaviors. At age 16, my boyfriend’s mother remarked that she did not understand why Black people would go to the beach: “Why would they want to get darker?” She probably did not give the comment a second thought.
At age 9, I remember hearing 2 classmates refer to the large radios we all wanted as “N-boxes.” Later in the week, I asked my mother if I could have one of these – in front of my white grandmother and my aunt, who is a person of color. My mother pretty much grabbed me and dragged me into the kitchen, angrily telling me never to use that word again. To this day, I still feel deep shame when I think about that moment, despite the fact that as a child, I lacked a full understanding of the impact of that word.
Racism is insidious and multilayered and even the best of us have said something racist or believed something racist or behaved in ways that were racist whether or not we understood them to be so. One can be forgiven for ignorance—but only for so long.
It was probably not until my early 20s that I first began to understand what racism really means in America. I remember my horror at learning of Rodney King’s violent beating at the hands of LA police officers. At the time, I believed this to be a horrific but isolated incident. I am ashamed at my own ignorance at the time.
The officers who brutalized King would later be acquitted, igniting five days of rioting. I remember white people I knew shaking their heads at the riots, opining that they could not understand how this could “make things better.” "Why would they destroy their own community?"
Nearly 30 years on, things seem worse than ever, yet if you ask people of color, this is not news to them. To quote Will Smith: “Racism is not getting worse. It’s getting filmed.”
Understanding White Privilege
I’ve tried to imagine being the mother of a young Black or brown child and worrying that through no fault of his own, one day he might leave for school or work or to meet a friend and never return. I almost cannot fathom that pain.
That I do not have to worry about this personally is white privilege.
That said, I struggle with near-constant worry about those close to me who are also people of color; this includes family members, friends, colleagues, and my godsons. All of them live in an America that is very different from the one I do.
Like most people, I have been stopped for speeding (albeit a long time ago); and I have also undergone routine bag checks at the Port Authority and in the subways. Never once did I worry that I was at risk in any way; certainly, I never feared that I would die as a result of interacting with police, nor have I worried that I would not get a job, or fail to receive adequate healthcare because of my skin.
Owning White Privilege Does Not Mean Your Own Struggles Are Not Real
My whiteness does not mean that I have never encountered any form of discrimination or unequal treatment. (I have.) It does not mean that white people do not have legitimate concerns or struggles – of course we do. But it does mean that whatever our struggles may be, we don’t have yet another layer of risk or suffering or harm based solely on skin color. This is not news, but it bears repeating if we are to move past our own defensiveness and realize that nothing will improve in America without all of us waking up and speaking up.
Racism, Police Violence, and The Myth of the Moral Pedestal
Some of you will stop reading here, assuming my position is that all police officers are racist and dangerous; this is not my position, nor has it ever been. I believe that most police officers are decent people who put their lives on the line to help the rest of us. Or at least, I still want to believe this.
But it would be naïve and inaccurate to assume that there is not a well-documented history of police violence against people of color and Black men in particular. Black men are significantly more likely to die at the hands of police than white men. This is not opinion, but fact; the idea that we as citizens can only be either “pro-law enforcement” or against police brutality is a false dichotomy that shuts down vital discussion and perpetuates this very problem.
Recent Reports of Police Aggression
[**In the last 24 hours since this article was published, numerous instances of police violence against journalists and those protesting peacefully have been recorded on video, including a police officer pulling down the mask of a protestor who had his hands up; the officer then sprayed pepper spray in the man's face. In another video taken by a bystander, an elderly bystander who was walking with a cane is grabbed by police and pushed to the ground. In yet another video, police sick an attack dog on a Black man who has his hands up. And multiple videos captured two NYPD vehicles deliberately driving into pedestrians. Another NYPD office is seen making a white power sign. Police beat actor John Cusack's bike with batons as he filmed a car burning. And Minnesota National Guard marched down a quiet residential street, yelling at residents who were on their own porches to get inside before yelling, "Light 'em up!" and firing paint canisters at them.
There have been numerous reports of police attacks on journalists in different cities over the past few days. To name one incident, Minnesota state police fired tear gas at journalists who had identified themselves as such. - Content added 5/31/20]
It is an error to put law enforcement — or the members of any profession — on a moral pedestal; there are racist, corrupt, and dangerous police officers, just as there are deviants in every other profession, including health care, the clergy, teaching, veterinary medicine, and every other walk of life. Sociopathic, sadistic, power-hungry, and predatory people will always seek positions that allow them access to victims and empower them to victimize them.
Racism further fuels aggressive and predatory behavior against people of color.
The Intersection of White Privilege and Police Brutality
The difference between a racist police officer and someone in another profession is that police quite literally have the power of life and death over citizens. The case of George Floyd illustrates the impunity with which former Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin believed he would get away – literally – with murder.
Chauvin kept his knee in the area between Floyd’s neck and shoulder for nearly three minutes after another officer checked his pulse and found he had none. Chauvin was unconcerned about either witnesses to this act, or the fact that he was being filmed in broad daylight. In fact, Chauvin had good reason to assume he could murder George Floyd without facing any consequence: Chauvin’s previous and extensive history of conduct complaints (18, to be specific) included two that resulted in deaths. I cannot imagine another profession in which someone with this type of record would retain employment or remain out of jail.
Acknowledging privilege is uncomfortable because for many, it activates feelings of unfair blame: “I’m not racist!" Or it can trigger feelings that our own struggles and suffering are invalidated if we acknowledge that someone else’s struggles may, in fact, be worse. But nothing will change, people will continue to die, and the wound in our country will fester until there is nothing much left of us as a nation if we do not address what ails us.
Even when the consequences are not lethal, people of color are subjected to unequal application of the law, as well as non-lethal violence and humiliation. One need look no further than the fact that in Brooklyn, a woman of color was recently handcuffed and dragged to the ground by multiple officers for wearing a mask improperly. And for those who would point out that the woman can be seen yelling at the officers (and at one point slaps an officer's hand away from her), ask yourself how many recent videos have depicted a white person refusing to wear a mask – and indeed, in some instances screaming in the faces of police officers — but facing no consequence.
This, again, is white privilege. Privilege is why white, armed, and maskless protestors in Michigan who swarmed the state capitol were met with incredible police restraint – even when yelling at police officers, mere inches from them.
Silence Is Not an Option
I still mean what I have said in a variety of forums and contexts about believing that “empathy, compassion and kindness are the answer” to healing our world. Some people who are familiar with my work may be put off either by my waxing “political” or addressing a topic that in many ways I feel unentitled to, because this is neither my area of expertise nor am I a person of color. But in the wake of the murders this past week, and indeed, throughout the history of this country, I feel that if I say nothing, my silence makes me complicit.
We will never achieve the level of unity, compassion, and healing that we must, and that many of us desire, until we each look inside ourselves and challenge ourselves to do better. That means understanding that white privilege is real, that racism is endemic to our country, and that police brutality against people of color continues because too few of us in the racial majority understand the very legitimate survival fears and unequal treatment that comes with having brown skin. We desperately need reform in this country, and those who commit acts of violence must be held accountable, including those in law enforcement.
We must speak up, demand reform, and vote like our lives depend on it.
CBS Minnesota. (29 May, 2020). Former MPD Officer Derek Chauvin In Custody, Charged With Murder In George Floyd’s Death. https://minnesota.cbslocal.com/2020/05/29/derek-chauvin-arrested-george-floyd-death-minneapolis-police-officer/
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Naughtie, A. (14, May, 2020) Video shows police pushing woman to the ground and handcuffing her in front of her young child ‘for not wearing mask properly. Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/new-york-police-subway-mask-brooklyn-video-a9514116.html
Pereira, I. (30 April, 2020). Protesters, some armed, spill into Michigan Capitol building demanding end to stay-at-home order. ABC News. https://abcnews.go.com/US/michigan-rally-shelter-place-order-spills-capitol-building/story?id=70432928
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Santhanam, L. (9 August, 2019). After Ferguson, black men still face the highest risk of being killed by police. PBS News Hour. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/health/after-ferguson-black-men-and-boys-still-face-the-highest-risk-of-being-killed-by-police
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Stein, T. (29 May, 2020): Post on empathy, compassion, kindness. https://www.facebook.com/DrTStein/posts/1651557954982146