About two months ago, I marched on Washington with half a million women determined to resist our country’s swing toward intolerance. People of all kinds and colors raised signs of humor and hope, power and defiance. And we honored it all.
So why is it that so many white people object so strongly to one particular sign: Black Lives Matter? Don’t we white people get that it’s a tragedy some Americans need a sign announcing that their lives matter? Don’t white people get that we’re fortunate not to need one? But instead of acknowledging this accident of birth, we’re mad that our color isn’t listed on its own damn sign?
Of course I realize not every white person is better off than every black person. It’s outrageous that this rich country has so many people out of work or working for poverty wages. People also face great obstacles around other issues: gender, religion, and health to name a few. I know I can only partially understand the struggle of a laid-off factory worker or a single mother juggling part-time jobs. There is no way I can come close to understanding life as a black person.
Yet, I believe it is worse to say nothing than to say the wrong thing. And this I see: the very visible fact of skin color and our very American bias against any shade not white. And the reality that this bias (seen and unseen) seeps into every aspect of American life, mine and yours, bringing with it injustice and tragedy.
No matter how dire your circumstance — picture this: You are on a dark street. You hear a gun shot, see movement. A police officer swings his gun toward innocent you. At that moment, do you want to be white or black? No matter how rich the black person could be, no matter how disadvantaged your white self may be, no matter how fair that officer might be – on that street, gun trained on you, what color do you think will most likely keep you alive? Whatever color you answered does not need its own sign.
Please, my brothers and sisters, can we work together for a world where no one ever again needs to raise a sign asserting that, against all evidence to the contrary, her life matters, his life matters? Black Lives Matter.
I spent a lot of time in hospitals during the last five years of my parents’ lives. I recall being in rooms with people in scrubs, and reminding myself, “Okay, the woman could be the doctor,” or, “The black man could be the doctor.” This self-talk infuriates and shames me.
I have also been thinking about my 70s childhood when many of us now middle-aged white people “learned” at school or home that “black people are as good as white people.” The phrase was not that whites and blacks were equal. And certainly not that whites were as good as blacks. No, it was blacks are as good as whites.
This is not just quibbling about semantics. This is powerful language, that intended or not, deeply affects how we think. In the “good as” phrase, it is always the second item that is the gold standard, the perfection everyone else is trying to reach: “Your pot roast is almost as good as Mother’s; She’s as pretty as a picture; Mary is good as gold.” In matters both small and great, the first thing (pot roast, she, Mary, girls, blacks, are being measured against the assumed ideal: (Mother’s cooking, a picture, gold, boys, whites.)
So, as a little girl in the 70s, when I “learned” that girls are as good as boys, and blacks are just as good as whites, I wasn’t getting quite the right message. I don’t think I was alone in this.
“Girls are as . . ..” Being on the left side of the “as,” the striving side, I got the message that boys really were the gold standard. (I mean, if someone has to announce to the world I am as good as the rest, there must be something not quite great about little-girl me. ) That is the message I absorbed, so quietly and deeply that I wasn’t even aware of it.
“. . . as good as whites.” Being on the gold-standard side here, I fear I internalized the opposite of my girl inferiority. Even now, writing this, I will assert that as a kid I do not recall ever feeling superior. (I can’t seem to admit my bias even in an article about bias.) Yet, I do remember feeling called upon to be nice to the black kids. That assumes a kind of superiority, or at least a smugness, doesn’t it? And if needing an announcement to assert that girls were okay made me feel a little less than, it stands to reason that hearing an announcement that black kids were as good as the rest of “us,” must have made me feel better than. Or perhaps, the more insidious message I absorbed was not just that we whites set the standard, but that we were of course the ones (with the power, the right?) to announce when other groups met that standard. Sadly, this rings true.
As a ten-year-old white kid in a white town, I did not think too deeply about social justice, but the few bits of memory I have suggest, whatever messages I was absorbing, I still had a normal child’s sense of compassion and fairness. My parents nourished those qualities, and I believe they stayed with me and helped counter those other, competing messages. I remember seeing a picture of a little black girl drinking out of the black-only water fountain. I could not understand how some white people could think that other people were not, (good enough?) to drink from their fountains. I didn’t understand it, but knew it was wrong, and I felt mad for that little girl. I really can’t imagine any child feeling anything other than horror when first learning about slavery, and that is what I felt. When a little Jewish girl moved into our neighborhood, and I recalled what I’d learned in Sunday School — that if you didn’t believe in Jesus, sorry, but you would go to hell — I understood right then, even as a devout little Catholic kid, that there was something wrong with my religion. So all that is in me, too.
Blacks are as good as whites and Black Lives Matter both insist, in their very existence, that black lives are not fully valued. But Black Lives Matter does so intentionally. It does so by being a seemingly self-evident truth, that, sadly, isn’t. Its power lies in both what is said and what is left unsaid.
I could live my life in this small town without discussing race. Indeed, white privilege and this white community separate me from people of color in many ways. But I also believe a shared history links me to my black sisters and brothers, despite and because of that white skin.
This shared history means I know the American life I enjoy was built with the labor of black men and women brought here against their will, brutalized legally and illegally for centuries. That as a white person, I walk around on this land freer in mind and body than so many of my black brothers and sisters. This shared history means I feel profound anger and disappointment that 150 years after the ratification of the Emancipation Proclamation, we are so far from racial equality, so rooted, still, in racism.
For change to happen, for progress to continue to be made, we have to truly see whatever is inside our hearts. Black or white, we will not begin to feel respect, to actually be respectful of one another until we face the failures within ourselves, acknowledge them, and work to correct them.
For it’s not just blatant racists who hurt the cause of racial justice. It can be people like me. People who completely and adamantly reject the ridiculous notion that the amount of melanin in one’s skin should matter, but who may still — even against their own desire — retain a remnant of bias. Bias that could cause me to assume — just for a split second — that the black man in scrubs was the orderly.
While it shames me, that split-second thought likely caused nothing more than momentary discomfort. But not every encounter comes at such a low cost.
Unexamined or unchanged, it is this very bias that leads so many white cops to stop black drivers in the first place. It is this very bias that can lead a cop to behave so rudely that a traffic stop turns into a tragedy. It is this very same bias that can cause a cop to see — just for a split second — the black man with a phone as a thug with a gun. Just a split second. But that’s all it takes.
Black Lives Matter. July 29, 2015
Some of my best friends are cops. That may be somewhat of an exaggeration, but truly, as a member of a public union, I’ve stood shoulder to shoulder with police and firefighters fighting for decent health insurance, fair wages, etc., and I think very well of many of them.
Policing only works if there is a healthy amount of public respect. In my previous post, I condemned officer Encinia for his treatment of the just buried Sandra Bland. I think there are far too many officers like Encinia. Yet, I firmly believe there are many cops on the beat who deserve respect and want all police to act in ways that would earn it. If a police officer yells, “Stop! Police,” I think everyone wants to believe that stopping will be both the right move toward finding justice, and one that won’t get you killed.
So, I am on the hunt for articles, information, glimmers of hope, showing police officers or better yet, police unions, joining the fight to make sure all our officers in blue deserve their badges. Do you know of any articles? The closest I’ve found in today’s search is not quite on the money, but it is informative. It’s a 2014 article in Mother Jones about former cops trying to police the police.
If I were a member of a police union, given the climate, I would be afraid (correctly) that many (most?) moves to “work” with unions are really attempts to co-opt unions, dismantle unions, destroy unions. Many of you may think that’s a good thing; I’ll have to save my reasons supporting unions for another day — but it is clear we are in very anti-union times. Sides seem very far apart right now. But didn’t it seem like the South Carolina Confederate flag, while still decades too late, came down all of a sudden?
Can (Do?) police unions work to improve the police force, by appropriately protecting all cops without unduly shielding those who need to go? Or could (do) unions work to demand better training for mediocre cops, better hiring practices so we start with a better force? Is pay a factor in the quality of our police? Can those police officers who are giving policing a bad name be removed from the force in a way that does not weaken, but actually strengthens the union?
Recall the video of Police Cpl. Eric Casebolt breaking up the pool party in McKinney, Texas. Look at what was happening to that girl. Then see the cop pull out his gun. It did not even occur to me that the young black man should do anything other than run.
Because of this growing distrust (and I get that it is growing only for some of us and has been a fact of life for many others) but because of this distrust, life is becoming more dangerous for both the police and suspects. To work smoothly, and without unnecessary violence, policing needs the respect of the community. Police do need to make tough, immediate, life-or-death calls. Their lives, bystanders lives, and the suspects lives are all on the line.
So, I am on the hunt for unions and activists working together. I don’t want to wage any sneak attack on the unions, but we have to do more than just shake our heads at the number of men and women, so many of them black and unarmed, dying at the hands or in the custody of the police. And ideas? I’d love to hear from the police.
The good news is these quotes were in the minority. Some depressing responses to Roxane Gay’s NYT Opinion Piece On the Death of Sandra Bland and Our Vulnerable Bodies
Blah, blah, blah. I’ve now reached my saturation point with these narcissistic narratives put forth by black scholars who should be more intelligent and have more integrity than to play into this “cops only kill innocent black people” narrative.
” I was ORDERED BRUSQUELY to produce an I.D. IMMEDIATELY, which I did, immediately… How do you think my day would have gone if I had gotten mouthy and/or acted in a threatening manner? Brandished a toy plastic gun, perhaps?”
I will reiterate: what happened to Ms. Bland was an unmitigated, inexcusable tragedy. I just think that mouthing off to a police officer, especially given the history between Black people and law enforcement, isn’t exactly the brightest strategy.
“It’s unfortunate that Ms. Bland committed suicide. But she also should have stayed quiet instead of ranting to the state trooper and getting into a power game that escalated to her arrest. Aggressiveness is not a wise strategy.”
Officer: “You mind putting out your cigarette, please, if you don’t mind?”
Ms. Bland: “I’m in my car. Why do I have to put out my cigarette?”
Officer: “Well, you can get on out now!”
— While possibly true, I just don’t think the point to this story is that Ms. Bland might be alive had she put out her cigarette. The point is, what can we do differently so we employ only those officers who know when and how to be aggressive and when and how to calm things down.
We can grumble all we want about how different individuals respond to the police. But as a matter of public policy, our focus should be on insisting that we hire and keep only those officers who won’t hassle, arrest, beat up, or kill someone simply for being sassy, black, or heaven forbid, both.
Bree Newsome shimmied up a S.C. flagpole to bring down the Confederate flag. Twelve-year-old Malala Yousafzai fought to get girls to school. And for every Malala, for every Dr. King, Gandi, and Susan B. Anthony, there have been millions of unknown activists who worked to make things better — demanded fair wages, clean water, justice for people of all kinds. Many of these people helped bring great change. But odds are, at least some of those activists found that for all their sacrifice, nothing much was gained. Maybe things even got worse. This fear, I think, of taking some risk only to find that your efforts are in vain, keeps many decent people, myself included, quiet when we should speak, still when we should act.
But you don’t know, do you, if your voice will make a different unless you raise it?
I am starting this blog to push myself, and maybe you too, into a better understanding of the issues that face us today. Maybe you will be the person to post the very comment that will win over one person’s heart to justice. Maybe this blog will play a small part in making this world just a little better.
Better, Like This Small Gem:
There was a recent article in the New York Times that ended with an account of a tall bearded man who walked into a Texas tattoo parlor asking for the removal of his 10-year-old Confederate flag tattoo. What made this Texan have a change of heart? He said he decided to remove the flag when he saw “the pained look on a middle-aged black woman at his gym.” He said if South Carolina could take down its flag, so could he.
If one woman’s expression can effect change, so can we. Let’s begin.