I feel like I’ve spent the better part of 2016 crying. Crying, because of loss. Crying, because of hopelessness. Crying for my friends’ present and my children’s future. I’m not sure if I’m more attuned to the injustices of our country than I was before, or if people are just becoming unapologetically brash in their prejudice, but I have seen and heard things this year that have left me questioning our society and its citizens.
Just look in the comments section of any Kaepernick-related article, and you’ll find a collection of intolerant commentary. I’ve seen people claim that the blame behind blood shed by African Americans lays at nobody else’s feet but their own. If only they had been more compliant, more respectful, they might still be alive today. To those people, I ask one simple question:
How could Charles Kinsey have been more compliant? The mild-tempered social worker ―in the midst of caring for his autistic charge― was lying on the ground, hands in the air, pleading with officers to put their weapons down, prior to being shot.
How could Levar Jones have been more respectful? After being approached by an officer in a gas station and asked to produce identification, Jones reached into his car to retrieve his license. The frantic officer screamed at him to get out of the car, and when he immediately withdrew himself from the vehicle, he was shot. He hadn’t failed to comply. Quite the opposite. Nor had he failed to provide the officer with the required level of deference and respect. In fact, he can be heard calling his assailant “sir” and saying, “I’m sorry,” while he lay on the ground bleeding; shot for simply following orders.
I could continue on with more examples, but it’d be tedious, repetitive, and quite frankly, I don’t have the emotional strength or fortitude to continue revisiting these stories. But they are readily available to anyone with the initiative to find them.
And these are just the ones caught on video.
As it is, we already know that, when adjusting for population size, black people are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by the police than white people. And when both subsets of the population are killed while unarmed? Black people are a whopping five times more likely to be killed than those of Caucasian descent. This is why a 12-year-old like Tamir Rice is murdered within seconds of law enforcement’s arrival (even though the 911 caller said multiple times that the gun was likely fake and the person of interest likely a juvenile), while a white man who recently shot at police is brought in alive after being brought down by bean bags. It is why, after being pulled over on account of his “wide-set nose,” and after alerting police to the fact that he had a licensed weapon in the vehicle (because someone with ill intent would really do that), Philando Castile was shot and killed, while William Bruce Ray fires a gun at a deputy and lives to tell the tale. Now, I don’t draw these comparisons to bring ire to the officers who did not kill the suspects in question. To the contrary, they were doing their job and doing it well, by engaging in whatever action they could to deescalate the situation and emerge with lives still intact. But God forbid an officer attempt to peaceably subdue an armed black man, and he can say goodbye to his job and his pension.
Now, this is usually the part where someone brings up black-on-black crime, but the thing is…black-on-black crime isn’t a thing any more than white-on-white crime is. As a people, we are historically homogeneous and tend to live and socialize amongst people of similar demographic origin. It is why 93% of black murder victims are killed by black perpetrators, and why 84% of white murder victims are killed by white perpetrators. Similar numbers, despite one of those subsets being exposed to a history of oppression, a higher poverty rate, and notoriously poor school systems. While I could get into a more nuanced discussion on the subject, I’ll leave it at this: Black people in this country have not historically been set up for success; they have been set up for failure. And a closer examination of the numbers would suggest that black-on-black crime isn’t the issue, but poor-on-poor crime. Considering the fact that the Civil Rights Act was a mere 50 years ago, it’s unsurprising that African American individuals would achieve higher representation in that category than their more historically-privileged white counterparts. So perhaps it would be more productive to focus on finding solutions to the underlying cause, rather than seeking to place blame for the end result. And regardless, even if black-on-black crime were the issue, how does that prevent police killings from being an issue as well? As far as I know, we haven’t stopped looking for a cure for cancer, simply because heart disease is the leading cause of death. And before you suggest that police killings are a direct result of officer apprehension over entering high-crime neighborhoods, it has already been studied and proven that the crime rate of an area has no bearing on the resulting rate of police violence.
So where is the solution? In my view, it starts with us –the privileged. It starts with listening and actually hearing. Here you have thousands of people, maybe millions, trying to tell others about their experiences, and they are met with a wall of doubt and disbelief. They’re met with convoluted statistics, meant to belittle their impressions and disprove their accounts. This, despite the fact that statistics don’t always adequately account for the human experience. Having grown up in Atlanta and having been surrounded by a number of black friends, my husband was able to experience the racial disparities in police treatment firsthand. He had been held at gunpoint and detained for an hour, because the police got a burglary call and saw some black men (and one white man) in a BMW. He had been pulled over while driving in a car with his black friends, despite breaking no traffic laws, because the officer said it looked like “they were up to no good.” While waiting outside a venue for it to open, so they could discuss hosting a graduation party, he and his friends were confronted by police, made to put their hands on their car, and searched, because the officer said it looked like “a drug deal was going down.” Mind you, none of these things happened to him while he was with his white friends. And mind you, none of these experiences would show up in statistics. But that doesn’t make them any less real.
At the end of the day, I think it is our responsibility as members of the majority to look inside ourselves and ask each other why we’re so uncomfortable with the concept of present-day discrimination. And how are we potentially contributing to it? Are you really treating black people as equals, if you’re basically telling them that they are not worthy of being believed? Are you treating them as equals, if you’re treating them as inherently less trustworthy? And are you treating them as equals, if you’re denying their own accounts of their experiences and telling them that you know better?
And why is it that we’re allowed to criticize America, under the guise of “making it great again,” but the second somebody else does (cough, Kaepernick), it’s treason? Is it because you only find it acceptable to criticize those parts of America that directly or indirectly affect you, but turn a blind eye to those that don’t? And if so, how is that acting in furtherance of equality?
Ultimately, we of privilege need to be encouraging the Kaepernicks of society, not tearing them down. After all, change doesn’t come at the hands of the oppressed, but under the leadership and direction of those in power. We need to use our platforms and our voices to stand up to injustice. And we need to do it in the most peaceful way possible. I cannot tell you how many times I saw criticisms of the African American community for the protests held in the wake of Michael Brown’s killing. There was vandalism. There was violence. There were officer assassinations. And the criticism was well-placed. But now we’re criticizing someone for engaging in silent, peaceful protest that doesn’t harm or disturb. We’re issuing death threats to a man who has done nothing more than take a knee. And when we do that, we leave those suffering from oppression with few acceptable outlets, and we end up pushing them towards those that are unacceptable.
So the next time you see someone taking a knee, take a second to stop and reflect on your response. All too often, we as a people are quick to criticize, but slow to resolve, and we end up contributing to an even bigger divide. Take the Broward County Sheriff’s Union, for instance. They encouraged officers not to provide security detail to the Miami Dolphins, so long as the team failed to make their players stand for the National Anthem. Outside of the fact that such a mandate would go against everything that our armed forces risk their lives for, it’s a move that’s riddled with irony. You’re imploring your officers not to protect and serve a certain faction of the population, because said faction of the population doesn’t feel that they’re being…protected and served. You’re choosing to treat certain members of our society differently, because they’re…well…different from you. And then you wonder why we’re in the position we find ourselves today.
We as agents of the state and also as individuals need to stop offering pushback, and instead offer support. We need to stop finding things wrong with the protest, and instead work together to make the underlying cause right. We need to start holding each other to higher standards, and we need to start calling for change. And we don’t do that by remaining quiet or demanding that people operate within our comfort zone. I think we can all agree that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a visionary in this realm, and so I think it appropriate to close with a quote from him:
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council or the Ku Klux Klan, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you and the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action” ; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season,” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
Unfortunately, these words ring just as true today as they did when they were first written. So you have to ask yourself, how much progress has really been made? Unfortunately, the answer is not enough. Racism still exists. Disparate treatment still exists. To say that it doesn’t flies in the face of all available evidence to the contrary. At best, it makes you willfully blind. At worst…
So let us not decide for others what their day-to-day experiences look like. Let us not dictate for them the ways in which they should seek out change. And let us not keep pushing our peers to wait for a “more convenient season.”
As far as I’m concerned, football season will do just fine.