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For White People, Giving Up on Ferguson Is Not an Option

08/29/2014 02:02 pm ET | Updated Oct 29, 2014

The family of Michael Brown, the unarmed teen who was shot and killed earlier this month, has officially received less money from public donations than the officer who killed him, Darren Wilson. For Ferguson, this is a disturbing barometer not only of public opinion, but of where the money and power lie in our society and how unwilling we are to change that.

My first response to this was one you might expect from any white, affluent liberal: I got mad. I demanded to know why anyone would give money to a cop for shooting someone, anyone, six times and leaving their body on the street. I yelled at the TV and the newspaper, furious at the implication that Brown's misdemeanors somehow justified his death. I clenched my teeth as Facebook friends, instead of taking any stance on the issue at all, wondered why the media was still covering it.

But then I realized that these Facebook friends, all of whom were white, were really only different from me in one respect. We were all given a choice: we could either care about the controversy in Ferguson, or we could ignore it. Like any political issue, all of us have free license to start and stop pretending as if the death of Michael Brown, the militarization of the Ferguson Police Department, and St. Louis's legacy of unofficial segregation have nothing to do with us. No matter what people like me do, what happens in Ferguson will never directly affect us.

This is not the case for black Americans. People of color can choose not to care about Michael Brown or Darren Wilson, but they cannot avoid the problems of prejudice in the U.S. legal system. Unlike me, black and brown people in America can't choose to be uninvolved in this discussion because at any point, these issues might come to claim their lives, their children's lives. For them, there's more than at stake than winning an argument. They have a right to not "hear out" some white guy talking about how hard it is to be a police officer, or how this actually doesn't have anything to do with race.

White liberals like me, on the other hand, do not. Because of how polarized American politics tend to be, there is usually a point in the "discussion" where each side throws up its hands and decides that the other can't be reasoned with. But this time, we can't just roll our eyes, turn off Fox news, and declare that we're leaving the country, because there are Americans who can't afford to lose this argument, let alone move to Canada. Before we look at the people who defend Darren Wilson and simply give up, we should think about what and whom we're really giving up on.

That means that white liberals have to start looking at our opponents as reasonable human beings and not prejudiced monsters. As I've argued before, all of us are involved in the repercussions of institutionalized racism, and all of us suffer from the biases it supports. Our goal shouldn't be to shout these people down, but to engage with them about what's really happening in Ferguson.

So when we hear counter-protesters in Ferguson claim that "it's about rule of law," it's our responsibility to treat that view with respect, no matter how vehemently we may disagree with it. When we read an article claiming that Officer Wilson was just "doing his job," it's our job to contact the author and ask who it is that Officer Wilson is supposed to work for. When someone we know tells us this "has nothing to do with race," it's our duty to ask why officers tasked with keeping the peace are screaming racial epithets and death threats, why that neighborhood's police department has automatic rifles and military vehicles and yours doesn't.

In the greater St. Louis area, there's a coalition of peacekeepers easing the tensions between police and protesters, increasing understanding between the groups in the midst of "a massive communications breakdown." Their job is to quell violence and rioting so that their political goals can be taken seriously. According to St. Louis's police chief, "without them, we wouldn't have the calm that we have."

But even as the tension and violence in Ferguson dies down, it's become evident that calm on the street isn't enough. The American people need to understand why this country's legacy of degrading, displacing, and defaming people of color isn't worth one police officer's reputation. To convince them, we need peacekeepers on the national stage, people willing to suppress their outrage long enough to have a discussion with the rest of America.

If we want to achieve progress in this country, this is something that all of us should try to do. But for liberal white Americans, there's no longer any excuse. Like always, we have the privilege of deciding whether or not to care about this topic, but in this case, doing nothing leaves blood on our hands. When we decide that everyone else in America is just a crazy racist, we're not just disrespecting our opponents -- we're taking an opportunity to help the disadvantaged and using it to glorify ourselves.

Like it or not, America has demonstrated its continued desire to keep the rule of law in white hands. A smug sense of superiority isn't going to prevent more black and brown children from being killed. We may not be able to fix this system of law and justice by ourselves, but we can convince others that it needs fixing, refuse to stop reminding them that it's broken. The moral conscience responds to reason, not indignation. If we can't remember that, it's other people who will suffer as a result -- not us.