November 24th, 2014 was a turning point for me. I was driving when the news came that the Grand Jury in Ferguson Missouri announced no indictment of Officer Darren Wilson for killing 18 year-old Michael Brown.
I was stunned that the violent end of Michael Brown's life was unworthy of a trial. I had to pull over to collect my thoughts.
I thought about Michael Brown's family and friends and all the people who had protested by their side. All the young Black men and women who I mentor and how this announcement would make them feel. All the young People of Color in our country and their parents and how their parents would explain what happened to their kids. How to explain what happened to my kids. Later I was deeply moved reading Ta-Nehisi Coates and my friend Carvell Wallace describe how they handled November 24th as fathers.
I thought of the irony of celebrating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington in 2014. What Doctor King would think if he saw the mess we are in. On November 22nd, 2014 twelve year-old Tamir Rice was shot dead by two police officers in Cleveland Ohio. On November 23rd 2012, 17 year-old Jordan Davis was shot dead by Michael Dunn in Jacksonville Florida because he was playing music too loudly.
As the days went by, I thought about my responsibility and voice and how to use it. As a White American, I am part of and a beneficiary of the culture of systemic racism in our country. I grew up in one of the least diverse parts of the country. As an adult, I have lived in Texas, New York City, and California and made a career of reaching out to People of Color, first as an immigrant community organizer, later to encourage young adults to enroll in job training.
Over the course of my career I have built relationships with hundreds of People of Color. They have been my friends, colleagues, supervisors, mentors, and mentees. They have taught me what it is like to be a Person of Color in our country. To face each day as a battle to preserve your self-worth against a continuous onslaught. To feel like you have to be twice as good for half as much and yet still vulnerable at any moment to aggressions small and large. The comment from a colleague about how you were hired because of your race not your qualifications. The rejection on a dating site because "I don't date n-words." The feeling of terror during any interaction with law enforcement that could turn violent or even fatal. I cannot imagine how it must feel to not feel protected by- in fact, to be scared of attacks by - the officers whose sworn duty it is to protect you.
I realized on November 24th 2014 that I needed to change direction. Up until then, I had dedicated myself to helping People of Color change- to attain employment authorization, or become US citizens, or attain corporate careers.
From that evening on, I shifted focus- to helping White people change. To learn how to listen to People of Color. To develop authentic relationships with People of Color.
To understand our role in perpetuating systemic racism and to stop.
We White people originated systemic racism in our country. We continue to benefit from it and we hold the power to stop it. People of Color have been asking us for generations to change and we need to listen to them. Racism will not end from on high, it will end when a grassroots movement of people look ourselves in the mirror and ask "what role do I play in perpetuating racism?" and start to actively work against it. It will end when we all have strong interpersonal relationships with People of Color and share our social capital widely.
I hope in some small way to contribute to this grassroots movement and to see its fruition in my lifetime, and I hope you will join me.