THE BLOG
12/05/2014 04:32 pm ET Updated Feb 04, 2015

Building Coalitions for Racial Justice Is More Complicated Than Solidarity Rallies

In 1995, when I was starting my journalism career, Jonny Gammage was killed by suburban Pittsburgh police officers after a routine traffic stop. Gammage's reported last words were, "I'm only 31." The cops involved in the case were never convicted in Gammage's death, despite evidence showing excessive force for a traffic stop.

Two decades later, the death of Eric Garner seems to be eerily reminiscent of the Gammage case. The Garner case is especially shocking, gripping, and visceral because we collectively watched a man die on video -- and his killer(s) wasn't held accountable. The response to Garner's death seems to be unique in that it has drawn widespread shock from unlikely sources, including conservatives like Bill O'Reilly, and drawn attention to police use of excessive force against unarmed Black men. It's forced us to at least look in the mirror -- or at least the viral video that showed the chokehold -- and see that there is a problem. Moreover, we seem to finally be acknowledging that race continues to be an outsized force in American society.

Yet as protests across the country mount, we seem to be at a crossroads in how to deal with issues such as police brutality, racial profiling, and addressing systematic disparity in how Blacks and non-Blacks view law enforcement. I'm worried that our predictable response to the issue -- as well as the aftermath in Ferguson after a grand jury's decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown -- will keep us in the same place: reacting to singular events without addressing the roots of the problem.

During my years covering the cops beat as a journalist, I realized that the relationship between police and minority communities wasn't black-and-white, both literally and figuratively. Rather, it was that expansive gray area that really defined how police and the communities they were tasked to serve. For some community members I got to know, their frustrations with police had more to do with the lack of police presence in their neighborhoods. To them, some of the young men on their street corners represented a daily threat to their livelihood and safety. They felt that cops only came to their areas when responding to an emergency, rather than staying in the communities to develop constructive relationships and deter the kind of activities that de-stabilized their neighborhoods.

It's also important to note we continue to pay little to no attention to the unsolved deaths of many young African Americans across the country. One of my closest friends continues to seethe over the fact that his cousin and a friend were murdered over two decades ago in front of dozens of people, yet no eyewitnesses cooperated with law enforcement to help bring his killers to justice.

Additionally, failing to acknowledge the complex nature of our communities leads to broad based stereotypes of our attitudes. This is especially true in dialogues from within the South Asian American community. Some South Asian American organizations -- and Asian Pacific American activists as a whole -- have used Ferguson as a rallying call, and others have called upon their fellow South Asian Americans representing a kaleidoscope of cultures and faiths to confront racial injustice. For years, South Asian American activists have pressed for a sustaining coalition with African-Americans while calling for an end to anti-Black racism (even from within South Asian American communities). While these calls to action are important, and underscore a longstanding history of cooperation in this country between these communities, we have to understand why tensions exists within and among them. Having been at the forefront of these conversations both intellectually and on the activist frontlines (and edited a book about these issues), it's deeply problematic and inaccurate to assume a racialized ideological spectrum that puts whites on the right and non-whites on the left.

For some in the South Asian community, cultural histories -- such as the Indians from Guyana or Uganda -- have been shaped by racial violence and displacement. Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs in the United States have been targeted in schools and in other settings by other minorities, both out of xenophobia and religious intolerance. In towns such as Ferguson, tensions exist between the South Asian and Black communities, including the looting of Indian-owned (and other minority-owned) businesses in August and in the aftermath of the grand jury's decision not to indict Wilson. In such cases, the economic toll of lost businesses further devastates and divides these communities.

To nuance it further, immigrant African communities such as Nigerians, Kenyans, and Ethiopians have also had tensions with African-Americans, and it would foolish to dismiss those dynamics when trying to understand the multiple layers of race in America. In order to build multiracial coalitions against injustice, we need to admit that tensions exist and that race isn't a monolithic term.

Instead, we probably need to understand that nothing can -- or will -- change unless we begin to realize that our engagement with race, class, ethnicity, and even place are fundamentally flawed. We are demographically more diverse than ever, yet also hyper-segregated. As a result, we're seeing dialogues about race that are either non-existent, essentialized, or simply based on the abstract. Or worse, we think that we can know the world through Facebook or Twitter feeds. Simply put, we won't be able to deal adequately with the aftermath of Ferguson, Staten Island, or Cleveland unless we stop embracing oversimplified narratives about power and privilege devoid of context.

Instead of a one-size-fits-all social justice approach, maybe dialogues that confront our own prejudices would work better to address some substantial gaps that exist across socioeconomic, cultural, and geographic lines within these communities. In the meantime, what some are proposing (and groups like the Hindu American Foundation are backing) -- including the addition of body cameras to police officers and accountability measures for law enforcement agencies -- can help address some of the problems, but need to be done in tandem with a more holistic approach.

With that said, nothing should stop us from fighting for justice, equality and human dignity, and ensuring that policymakers do realize that all lives matter. It's probably still worth noting that unless we step back and acknowledge the multidimensional aspects of race, class, power, and privilege in America, we'll simply be back to reacting to the next Eric Garner-type case and the ones after that. That would be the ultimate injustice.