I can’t think-can’t focus. I’ve got tons of work to do this Sunday afternoon/evening for my full time job, but I can’t get my brain to stay on task.
There is much that has been written about the events of the past week. I’m not qualified to speak to most of it, because I have no business speaking on injustice and poverty that I have not only not experienced, but have benefited from.
But I live in a neighborhood that has a high percentage of blacks. And I’ve been listening, and reading, and watching. I also have friends and family who are critical of black victims of violence, and raging at protesters. And I’ve listened. Hell, I used to be one of them. I could write the scripts. I get “not all cops are bad,” because I have family members and friends that I love and respect who are cops. I don’t want to believe that any of them would participate in the murder of George Floyd, or in the violence against protesters we’ve witnessed over the weekend. But still, I’ve made it a point to listen for the past few years to voices from people who don’t look like me. I’ve listened to black mothers describe the fear of their child being a victim.
Remember Tamir Rice? He was the 12 year old African American boy killed by Cleveland Police in 2014. I’ll never forget. At that time, I was trying to be available for
another 12 year old African American boy in my church. His dad had suffered a massive stroke, and this boy was missing his father. He was a lot like any other 12 year old boy. He knew everything. He was convinced he was smarter than all the grownups. He had just enough testosterone raging in his body to cause his brain to think he might be able to whup an old man like me. Just like every other 12 year old boy who was starting to feel his oats, and whose brain development was lagging his physical development. For this young man, that could easily have been a fatal problem. You see, his physical body had grown to be bigger than mine (and I’m 6’0″, 230#). The boy wore a size 13 shoe! Anyone observing from more than 10 feet away would very easily mistake him for an adult based on his physical characteristics. But he was a BOY, just like Tamir Rice. And his favorite thing to do with his dad was to shoot his bb gun. An innocent hobby (ok, not so innocent, but pretty darn common for all young boys growing up in the South) that could get him killed by a cop. I felt his momma’s fear.
So I’ve listened. And I’ve watched. And I’ve tried to live out “Seek first to understand…” I’m no expert on the lived experience of black men in this country, but I’m convinced that it’s a systemically unjust life. The oppression of all people of color, but especially blacks in our country needs to be called out and eradicated. I have so much I want to say, but I’m going to try to focus on one element for now: protest.
Too many people who look like me have been confronted with such undeniable evidence of injustice that they have had to acknowledge that the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd were, well, problematic. Even Rush Limbaugh went so far as to say, “I cannot find a way to explain that. I can’t find a way to justify it.” (kinda disappointing that he tried to find a way to explain or justify it, but hey, it’s progress). It was encouraging to see so many come to terms with the fact that their preconceived notions might need to be reconsidered. And then the protests started.
And we started judging. We quickly found comfort in the fact that our preconceived notions were right. These people don’t want justice, they’re self-serving savages who want to steal their 84″ flat screen, rather than working hard to pay down their credit card bill. Tonight’s outrage is directed at protesters in Minneapolis who were blocking a highway and a trucker ran a tanker truck into the crowd. “If you don’t want to get hit by a truck, stay off the highway!” screamed my news feed. It’s pretty safe to say that us white folks don’t approve of the way people are protesting. We’d be OK with nonviolent protest in a confined space that didn’t inconvenience us, or disrupt our lives. Many of us are even trotting out an insulting meme using the image of MLK to condemn the protesters. But that just shows our ignorance of MLK, and our willingness to co-opt his teachings to our purposes. Read his own words from his 1968 speech, “The Other America:”*
But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity. (emphasis added)
MLK clearly believes that nonviolent direct action “brings tangible results,” but he also acknowledges that an oppressed people can reach such a point of despair and anger that they feel they have no other alternative.
“That’s BS!” you exclaim. They can vote. They can work for change. They can get an education. Pursue economic growth. Be nonviolent, like Dr. King.
Let’s take a look at those claims:
Voting: The past 55 years since the Voting Rights Act passed demonstrates that little has changed. Gerrymandering has diluted the black vote. Voting systems and ID requirements are designed to erect barriers to black participation. In the state of Florida, when voters changed the law to restore the right to vote to previously incarcerated individuals, the state legislature imposed an unconstitutional restriction to countermand the will of the people. Our own President has declared that mail-in voting, while good enough for him and his family, are unacceptable ways to allow ordinary citizens to participate in the upcoming election, possibly because it will lead to outcomes he doesn’t like:
MAIL-IN VOTING WILL LEAD TO MASSIVE FRAUD AND ABUSE. IT WILL ALSO LEAD TO THE END OF OUR GREAT REPUBLICAN PARTY. WE CAN NEVER LET THIS TRAGEDY BEFALL OUR NATION. BIG MAIL-IN VICTORY IN TEXAS COURT TODAY. CONGRATS!!!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 29, 2020
In short, the systemic barriers to voting have precluded the black vote from making a significant difference. And recent actions by our President and the GOP have only affirmed that they intend to strengthen those barriers. It’s not unreasonable for blacks to not believe that voting will bring about the change they seek.
Education: Barriers to blacks attaining equality and justice through education are just as powerful as they were in 1954 when Brown v Board of Education ruled that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. Economic attainment is considerably worse for blacks despite comparable education levels (here’s just one study resulting from a quick internet search).
Economic success: Many of us whites believe that blacks are suffering because of their own laziness. After all, they were freed over 150 years ago; that’s long enough for them to have pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps.** This convenient excuse turns a blind eye to the structures that have kept blacks from accumulating wealth at the rate of whites. 2016 US Census Bureau data reveals that black households in the US have approximately 9% of the wealth as white households. They started with nothing after emancipation, and their occasional successes were sabotaged (see Black Wall Street Massacre, as just one example). Redlining, felony hiring prohibitions, and many other acceptable practices have served to keep blacks from attaining and retaining wealth.
Be nonviolent: All of those who hold up Dr. King’s nonviolent direct action campaigns fail to acknowledge a few bitter truths:
- He was assassinated long before he was able to complete his work.
- Whites who feel their rights are infringed upon resort regularly and quickly to violence or the threat of violence. In fact, it’s often presented as patriotic. You can find this sentiment in a lot of colors and designs:
“But white protesters don’t actually get violent–look at the armed protesters in the Michigan capital–they didn’t vandalize anything or hurt anyone.” You are correct. They got what they wanted: the government shut down, capitulated, and in many similar cases refused to deploy law enforcement to enforce legal restrictions for public safety during a pandemic. All of which reinforces the perception that nonviolent protest works for whites, but doesn’t for blacks. And whites aren’t always nonviolent. When they are violent, like in the case of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge takeover, they see very different outcomes.
All of our white objections to the protests center on one thing: We don’t approve. We don’t approve of actions which make us mildly inconvenienced, let alone ones that make us feel threatened. But here’s the problem with that: we have no authority to tell the oppressed how to respond to oppression, other than the authority which comes from being the oppressor. Blacks have tried to work within the systems and structures to bring about change. But the very legal system that forms the foundation of those structures has failed the black citizens of this country for generations, and in thousands of documented cases, it’s killed them. By it’s very nature, protest against oppression must be designed to make the oppressor uncomfortable! If it doesn’t at a minimum inconvenience you, nothing will change! I can attest to this first-hand, as for most of my 54 years, the plight of the black man in the US didn’t have any impact on me at all. So I just assumed everything was even-Steven, just like all my teachers told me, since the Civil Rights movement was over and we had achieved equality.
“But why do they loot and burn?” Maybe because they’ve tried everything else, and it hasn’t worked? I don’t know–why don’t you ask them?
Here’s my best guess: There’s an overwhelming sense of anger, frustration, and despair that pervades most moments of their lives, and boils over in response to crises like we are experiencing. They hear us trying to dismiss the video evidence of oppression with “wait until all the facts come in” and other such nonsense, and realize that they’re not going to get anywhere within the system. They hear us justify monuments to oppression as “preserving history” despite their pleas to take them down to honor their humanity. They see symbols of white power in corporate American headquarter buildings, and symbols of Karen’s oblivion in Target stores, and they lash out. Sure, it doesn’t make sense to you, because you’re not that mad! Have you ever been so mad that you punched an inanimate object? You may have even felt that you were exercising restraint, because you didn’t punch the person that was the source of your anger. I think that’s kinda what burning and looting might be. Black anger hasn’t escalated to the point that they are ready to direct it at the source of their pain–their oppressors–us.
I’m not saying it’s right, and I wish that we could come to a peaceful conclusion, but I can’t condemn. Instead, I’m going to speak up. I’m going to step out. I’m going to be an ally. You can too.
First, educate yourself. Sit at the feet of black teachers and learn. That’s a whole ‘nuther book for a different time.
Look for opportunities to stand in the gap. That might be standing between cops and protesters. Or between white punks vandalizing businesses and the businesses themselves.
Hold politicians and police accountable. Let’s demand justice that’s just as swift for the black man as that which we demand against him.
One last thing–I don’t care to hear your “but what about…” crap. I’ve heard it. I’ve said it. It’s wrong. So don’t bother @ing me. I don’t have time for it. I’m going to love my neighbor. You can come with me, or come against me. I’ll be standing with my black brothers and sisters.
* I can’t recommend enough that each of us should read and ponder the full text of this speech, as it seems like he could have spoken these words this May 31st, 2020, just as relevantly as he did on March 14, 1968.
**See Dr. King’s refutation of this really ignorant statement in the same speech.