THE BLOG

Want to Be an Ally in the Fight Against Racism? Two Teens Show How It's Done

06/16/2015 01:28 pm ET | Updated Jun 16, 2016

Every American has a moral responsibility to fight racism and injustice. What happened at a pool party in the Craig Ranch North community in McKinney, Texas, this week was but one more example that that fight is by no means over. If there is one heartening thing we can take from that afternoon's events, it is the fact that two white kids, neither of them old enough even to get a provisional driver's license in Texas, showed the rest of white America how to be a real ally in the ongoing struggle to make ours a more perfect union.

Often one hears white Americans who sincerely want to combat racism ask what they can do (I'm focusing on white people here, but of course they aren't the only group in America who can serve as an ally for another group in a given struggle). There are, in reality, many things they can do. They can get active in electoral politics; they can get active by supporting -- either with their time, money, or both -- a civil rights organization; they can get active by joining a protest. These are just a few of many ways one can have an impact.

One of the more difficult things to do, for many of us at least, is to react in the moment, when injustice is occurring right in front our eyes, but in a way that does not directly affect us. The "safe" thing to do is avoid the conflict, to get away and certainly not get involved. However, there are times when the safe thing to do is not the right thing to do. Albert Einstein observed that "the world is in greater peril from those who tolerate or encourage evil than from those who actually commit it."

Grace Stone and Brandon Brooks were at the pool party in McKinney, Texas. They could have done the safe, easy thing, and left their black friends and schoolmates to deal with hostile, hateful white neighbors -- one of whom slapped the party's African-American organizer and resident of Craig Ranch North, Tatiana Rose, in the face -- and with Eric Casebolt, a (now former) police officer who decided that restoring order required him pull to his gun on unarmed, non-violent teens wearing bathing suits, and to force a 15-year-old girl wearing a bikini to lie face down on the grass so that he could sit on her buttocks. Grace and Brandon chose not to do the safe, easy thing.

Grace Stone is 14 years old. When she witnessed white adults hurling racist insults at teenagers, she got right back in their face. A white man, a resident of the community where the pool party was taking place, told some black teenagers to "go back to Section 8 housing, where you belong, and get out of my neighborhood." The assumption that black kids couldn't belong in his neighborhood evokes George Zimmerman, who decided that Trayvon Martin didn't belong in his neighborhood either, even though Trayvon was an invited guest staying at a home in the gated community that Zimmerman had decided to "patrol."

Back to Ms. Stone, who stepped in and replied to the aforementioned bigot: "You should never be that hateful toward anyone, especially people half your age." As she told MSNBC's Chris Hayes, she knows it isn't right to speak rudely to one's elders, but asked, "If they really were our elders, why weren't they acting like it?"

Tatiana Rose, whose brother is a friend of Grace's, then stepped in. As she explained it: "Then they started verbally abusing [Grace], saying that she needs to do better for herself, cursing at her. And I'm saying, no, that's wrong -- she's 14, you should not say things like that to a 14-year-old." Black and white youths standing up for one another, standing against hate. Talk about inspiring. Less inspiring is the fact that Grace ended up in handcuffs for about 25 minutes that afternoon (before being released and not charged), the only white person handcuffed, she said. Not the woman who slapped Tatiana Rose. The 14-year-old who told a racist that he shouldn't be hateful.

Brandon Brooks is 15. He chose to take a different kind of action from Grace Stone. He pulled out his phone and took video of the outrageous things Officer Casebolt did. Although he wasn't the only person to take footage -- a brave African-American 13-year-old, Jahda Bakari, also captured some of Casebolt's abusive actions -- Brooks' seven-minute video went viral, with almost 12 million views thus far. The media coverage of the video is so widespread that the BBC called it "the police video that shocked America." Brooks also offered his own confirmation of the disparate treatment being meted out. "Everyone who was getting put on the ground was black, Mexican, Arabic," he said. "[The cop] didn't even look at me. It was kind of like I was invisible."

I want to make one thing very clear. The story of what happened in McKinney, Texas, is not a story of white heroes or saviors -- or whatever -- coming to the rescue of passive, cowering black victims. The actions taken by Ms. Rose and Ms. Bakari make clear that there were many heroes that day, white and black. The most important story of what happened at the pool party is that it is another example of police abuse, another example of what Shaun King called the "deep and dangerous white fear of black bodies."

Having said that, there is also room in our discussion of those events to call attention to those who did the right thing, including those who acted when they could have simply chosen to have been left alone. This isn't about white saviors, but about white allies. It's about showing the racists that some in their community reject their bigotry. It's also about showing African Americans and all those targeted by racism that they are not alone.

When we stand against racial injustice, what we are doing is standing up for the core ideals this country's founders declared to the world. We have spent the last 240 years trying to align our practices with our ideals. Although those who have fought and died have achieved a great deal, we haven't yet gotten where we need to be.

America cannot thrive in the 21st century unless we enshrine equality -- real equality -- not only in our laws, but in our lives. Those who perpetuate racism not only act immorally, they hurt America, despite whatever patriotic protestations they might make. Those of every race who fight against racism -- whether in its structural form or the actions taken by individuals -- are the ones who make this country stronger.

One might say that those who are victimized by racism and white supremacy have no choice but to fight back, while whites at least have the option of just walking away, of doing nothing, of remaining neutral between right and wrong. After all, apathy won't cost whites directly, even if they know in their hearts that they should do something. In reality, however, we don't have a choice.

We must act, both when confronted with racism in the moment -- like Grace Stone and Brandon Brooks did -- and by engaging in the long struggle that goes back to people like David Walker, Sojourner Truth, and Frederick Douglass, through the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century, right up to today's #BlackLivesMatter campaign. We white Americans don't really have a choice, we must stand with our fellow Americans of every race and background as they claim the equality and justice that is all of our birthright. If two teenagers in Texas can do it, what excuse do the rest of us have?