I get it. It’s hard for you to understand where they’re coming from. You think they’re overreacting. You’re tired of them assuming everything is about race. You see authority as mostly good, rules as mostly good, the status quo as mostly good… because for you, they’ve been mostly good. Your life experience validates your beliefs (or vice versa). Perception is reality. Our experience shapes our world view. So I get it. You don’t understand why they’re still so angry. You don’t understand it because you haven’t lived it. And if you haven’t lived it, you assume other people haven’t either. But your assumption is wrong.
You assume that it’s just as easy for someone with an “ethnic” sounding name to be called in for a job interview. It doesn’t seem fair to admit that there could be deep-seated bias in people who don’t even recognize it within themselves, so you justify their behavior by thinking those job candidates just must not be as qualified, even though countless blind studies prove otherwise. You assume it’s just as easy for a person of color to get a home loan, get an apartment application approved, find a decent, safe neighborhood for their kids to grow up in. It’s too shocking to think that someone could be denied a place to live solely because of their race, so you decide it must be that their credit isn’t that great or their references must have not pulled through for them. You see upwardly mobile Black families in your community, and so you think these issues don’t exist, not realizing that even your Harvard professor neighbor, in your upper middle class neighborhood is not immune to racial profiling.
You assume that if someone is approached by police it must be because they’re doing something wrong because police have never approached, harassed or interrogated you unjustifiably. And so you justify the disproportionate numbers of interactions between police and people of color by attributing fault to the citizen, even though crime statistics categorized by race tell a different story. You hear ghastly statistics of the demographics of our prison population and can’t bear the thought that something could be devastatingly broken with our judicial system, that sentencing is subjective, that black juveniles are significantly more likely than whites to be tried as adults with harsher punishments for the exact same crimes. And so, to make yourself feel better, you justify these numbers with the argument that their culture celebrates violence, their history dictates their criminality, and every problem would go away if they’d just stop breaking the law.
The problem, white people, is not that Black people are overreacting. The problem is that our experience is not the same as the experience of those who don’t look like us and you’re failing to recognize this truth: Our reality is not the same as theirs. You think, “How could that be? How could someone treat them any differently than they treat me?” And the answer is just that – you see “them” as different from you. We tend to give more grace to our family than to strangers. We fear what we don’t know. And most of us don’t truly know enough people who don’t look like us. The reality is we will never fully understand the Black experience because we haven’t lived it. The good news is, we don’t have to understand to empathize. The good news is, we don’t have to understand to empathize. THE GOOD NEWS IS, WE DON’T HAVE TO UNDERSTAND TO EMPATHIZE. Empathize. Empathize. Empathize. Don’t try to understand. You and I never will. Just. Try. To. EMPATHIZE.
What you’re missing here, white people, and why you’re seeing messages of disdain, hurt, anger & resentment splayed all over your timelines is that the very benefit of the doubt you want to give these officers should actually be given to the people they’re killing. Our laws say we are to be treated as “innocent until proven guilty“. Until we change the laws, citizens are supposed to be presumed innocent regardless of color, gender, class, background, beliefs, or what we assume they have or have not done. It’s what our Constitution was built on. And yet, it’s not the truth for much of our population. Since the birth of our nation, the people we forced here were not even considered fully human (Literally, they were labeled as property and 3/5 of a human being in the Constitution). 200 years later, and Black people are still approached and treated with less dignity and more fear than people with different skin. (The officers who killed Alton Sterling called him “boy” before they took his life. If you don’t understand why that matters, pleaser refer back to MLK.) The reason that we are seeing a new civil rights movement unfold before our eyes is not just because sworn public servants have harassed, abused, and killed Black citizens at disproportionate rates. It’s because too often, no one is held accountable or responsible for doing so. That is why Black people are asking for their lives to matter.
“Well what about the Black cops?” This situation isn’t about good cop, bad cop, Black cop, white cop. It’s systemic. It’s about the institution they’re a part of. Plenty of cops have spoken out about the problems within their forces. Our prisons are privatized money making operations. There is a vested interest to keep them full. Law enforcement often dehumanizes civilians, and time and time again we see people of color on the short end of that stick. Why? Separation, detachment, FEAR. Police officers have a hard job. It’s easier to do when you don’t see other people as people. It’s a biological response of “us vs. them”. And just like biology creates dichotomies, fear triggers an automatic fight or flight response. The police are faced with a choice to fight or flee in the face of fear, and our judicial system has given them the green light to fight. The ratio of Blacks to whites in our country is 1:5. The ratio of Black people to white people killed by police is 2:1. And unarmed white people are less likely to be killed than unarmed Black people. Why do white people walk away from these situations with their lives still intact? Sorry to break it to you, white people, but it’s not because we’re just more upstanding citizens. It’s because more often than not, law enforcement walks into interactions with people of color with the presumption of criminality, while they primarily walk into interactions with white people with the presumption of innocence, even when they don’t realize they’re doing so. The interaction is different before the first word is even spoken. How do we know that? Because almost all of us do it.
“Well what about Black on Black crime?” That argument is a moot point. What about white on white crime? 84% of white people are killed by other white people. It can be assumed then that violent crime amongst a given race has more to do with environment and access than race… and has zero to do with paid public servants treating different groups of people differently. We all know that violent crime is more prevalent in the inner city than it is in the suburbs. But to jump to this argument as a means of justifying cops killing Black people is apathetic at best and shamefully racist at worst. The question you should ask yourself the next time you’re tempted to use the “Black on Black crime” argument to justify law enforcement’s excessive use of force is, “Did the people responsible for the crime receive punishment? Was there even a charge brought against the perpetrators?” Find the answers to those questions and then maybe you’ll start to understand the purpose of the Black Lives Matter movement. By the way, if you’re so concerned about Black on Black crime, what are YOU doing to help make a difference? Nothing? Then stop bringing it up as justification for your apathy.
“Martin Luther King would be rolling in his grave if he saw the Black Lives Matter movement”. You’re wrong. Just plain wrong. Learn some history outside of what our 8th grade whitewashed textbooks taught us. This comment is so ridiculous, I won’t even explain all the reasons you’re wrong because it’s already been written. Educate yourself.
“Well why don’t Black people work on bettering their own community and take ‘personal responsibility’?” Another moot point. While all of us bettering our communities is indeed important, it also has nothing to do with paid public servants treating people of color differently. It’s irrelevant to the topic at hand, and bringing it up when we’re talking about disproportionate numbers of Black people killed at the hands of law enforcement is an attempt to minimize the real issue. But if we want some facts, the Black community IS working to better their own community just as much if not more than other communities. In fact, the Black community is the most charitable racial community in the country. There are THIRTY organizations in Chicago alone, most of which were started by people within the community who are directly affected by the issues they’re facing, trying to make a difference and address inner city violence. Countless resources and organizations are out there. They just don’t make the five o’clock news.
And personal responsibility? Really? Every human being I’ve ever encountered in life (of every race) has at one point or another blamed someone else for something they should’ve taken personal responsibility for, myself included. That’s why programs like Landmark and MITT exist. It’s why the “self-help” industry is a billion dollar industry. It’s why I have a job – coaching people to take personal responsibility for their lives and their successes and their failures. We ALL lack personal accountability. This isn’t a disease unique to the Black community. Blame is a universally human response. But let’s just play along for the sake of argument. All the Black people I know do take personal responsibility for their own lives. It’s a common practice in the Black community to educate their kids about how to interact in police encounters, including being overly respectful so that they come back home alive. It’s so common in fact it has a name: “The talk“. It’s a common saying in the Black community that, “You have to work twice as hard to get half as far.” In other words, they literally teach their children to outwork everyone else.
Now to the more important question: Why is it every Black person’s responsibility to speak and act on behalf of an entire race of people? Do you take personal responsibility for the nineteen million white people on long-term government assistance? Did you even know that nineteen million white people were on government assistance? Do you take personal responsibility for all the white people in our country who’ve committed atrocious acts of violence? If not, why do you expect all Black people to take personal responsibility for all other Black people? I’m sure they would LOVE if they all could be treated by the content of their individual character, by their personal achievements. But, in general, we treat them as one homogenous group. Why do we expect to be judged by our personal character and achievements, but don’t grant the same grace to other people?
We have to stop criminalizing victims, white people. I know it makes us uncomfortable to think an innocent person could be gunned down with less regard than the gorilla in the Cincinnati zoo, but it’s the ugly truth. We have to stop with the immediate assumptions that these people did anything you or I wouldn’t have done in a similar situation. We have to stop looking for reasons to blame people for their own deaths. He had a past criminal record (Totally irrelevant. You smoked weed in college and that was illegal too. You just didn’t get a record for it. Or maybe you did. You’re still alive). He had a weapon on him (A week ago you were screaming about protecting “our” second amendment rights. Exactly who is the “our” you were talking about?). He shouldn’t have been resisting arrest (Legally we are supposed to have rights. You can’t just be arrested to be arrested. All arrests are supposed to have probable cause. And have you ever been tackled? Your body doesn’t go limp. It tightens up. It’s science). He should have just complied (Philando Castile tried that so what else you got?). Becoming a police officer should not make you immune to the laws of this country. You should not get to use a position you are entrusted with as a means to intimidate, harass, bully, attack, threaten or in any other way treat citizens as if they’re servants, slaves or animals.
Imagine a scenario with me for a moment, white people… What if for the last couple centuries, a disproportionate number of white college frat boys were killed by police for legitimate criminal behavior (smoking weed, selling their mom’s prescription pills, public intoxication, minors in possession of alcohol, sexual assault, etc). We wouldn’t say, “Oh well those boys were drunk and rowdy and breaking the law. They should have behaved and they’d still be alive.” We’d be outraged. We’d say the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. We’d demand justice. Now imagine even more of these college frat boys were killed because it was assumed they were partaking in the drug activity even though they’d never been involved in that. Would we write off their lives as “guilty by association”? Would we blame them for their own deaths because they were hanging out with the wrong people? Or would we be appalled at the police? Seriously, if you know a white guy who was in a fraternity, imagine it was him. That guy. The one with a name and a face and a family and a story. The human being you know and love.
Now let’s take it a step further and imagine the officers killing these “upstanding citizens” received no punishment because they “felt their lives were in danger” every time they walked into those frat houses. We’d think that was ridiculous. We’d see that as a huge miscarriage of justice. We certainly wouldn’t allow it to keep happening. Now imagine how you would perceive police in the face of all of this if you were a white college frat boy. You probably wouldn’t feel safe when they were around. Multiply that feeling by a few thousand and you’ll start to have some understanding of what all these Black people are talking about and why they’re so angry. The biggest difference here: the white boy chooses the fraternity. A Black man doesn’t choose his skin color.
I get that you don’t get it, white people. Because I used to not get it either. I work in the “self-improvement” industry. I coach clients every day on taking personal accountability for their lives. I’m a firm believer that your words precede your thoughts and your thoughts dictate your actions and that hard work trumps talent when talent doesn’t work hard. I firmly believe that life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you choose to react to it. I used to think that personal responsibility was the problem and answer to everyone’s struggles. I didn’t get it until I took it upon myself to learn. I didn’t get it until I studied real American history (not just what they teach us in K-12) and uncovered that the reality is, the playing field between us and them is not the same to begin with. I didn’t get it until I recognized that while I can absolutely take accountability for my choices now, they have nothing to do with the privilege I was born into. The “privilege” part of White Privilege is not solely referring to monetary privilege. The whole point of white privilege is referring to the privileges we don’t realize we have. It’s about the fact that we actually have to research this stuff to know what’s going on because we don’t personally experience it. It’s about the fact that we actually have a choice to tune it out or ignore it or turn it off. We’re talking about things like the fact that “nude” is a color that describes a variation of white skin and “flesh toned” bandaids are the color of white flesh, and what kind of impact visual messages like that have.
Take some time to study The Willie Lynch letter and then read some books on psychology and sociology to understand the lasting damaging ramifications of that sentiment. Slavery wasn’t just 400 years ago when the mindset and systems that created it are perpetuated, and the effects are lasting to this day. Jim Crow was in place only 50 years ago. Our parents and grandparents lived through it. And policy doesn’t change people’s minds. Just because the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were passed didn’t mean that overnight people’s biases that forced the need for that legislation in the first place, just disappeared. Learn about the history behind drugs and perpetual drug culture in poor (primarily minority) communities and where it came from. Do some research on the historical prevalence of planted evidence and you may start to understand why so many people of color distrust the police. Spend some time learning about all the work The Innocence Project has done to find out how prevalent it is for wrongful convictions to be against people of color. Read the Moynihan report to understand how the welfare system is a trap that perpetuates single parent households. Read up on where pubic school funding comes from to understand that the education gap is not because poor Black kids can’t or don’t want to learn or that they’re intellectually inferior. Access is not the same. Learn about Reagan’s War on Drugs and Iran-Contra and then ask yourself about how altruistic the administration’s intentions really could have been with eradicating drugs. This wasn’t 400 years ago. This was in the 80s and 90s. Learn about mandatory minimums, which crimes are targeted and who the perpetrators of those crimes are likely to be. It’s all over Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. The information is out there, white people. It should outrage all of us. The only excuse at this point not to know our history is at best apathy and at worst, racism & denial.
But ok, white people… You don’t want to make it about race? Make it about policy then. Make it about protocol. Make it about training. Make it about SOMETHING because this is unacceptable. These are paid public servants. They are paid to protect and serve. Nothing about protecting and serving implies intimidating and escalating. Our police forces spend FIVE TIMES more time on firearms and self-defense training than conflict management, deescalation, and ethics & integrity training COMBINED. It’s not just a Black and Brown issue, it’s an issue about excessive use of force and the lack of accountability in such cases. There are countless examples of excessive use of force against every race. There’s a problem if you don’t see a problem.
The police don’t get the “benefit of the doubt” until they stop reaching for their guns when they’re interacting with Black, Brown & Native people. You don’t get to CHOOSE a career that includes putting your life in danger as part of the job description, and then kill people with the justification that you felt that your life was in danger… especially not in an open carry state. If you are afraid of the people paying you to protect them, FIND ANOTHER JOB. Why don’t we give the man on the ground the benefit of the doubt? What if history has proven to him that law enforcement is something to fear? What if in the face of HIS fear, he too was forced to choose fight or flight? So far this year, nearly 600 civilians have been killed by law enforcement, and we’re only halfway through 2016. The number of officers killed in the line of duty so far this year? Fifty-nine… (And that includes traffic accidents and heart attacks while on the job.) In other words, an officer is 10 times more likely to kill a civilian than the other way around. So who are the ones who should really be fearing for their lives? Last year over 1,000 people were killed by police; ZERO police officers were convicted. This isn’t just a policing issue. This is a human rights issue.
I get that you’re not quick to jump to conclusions about race. The fact of the matter is, you’ve never had to. The fact that you want to “wait for an investigation” is actually not your fault. It’s a product of your experience. Your experience with law enforcement has probably been mostly cordial because there is mutual respect between you and them. But the truth is, white people: That doesn’t mean that all police officers are super humans who do no wrong. I think it’s safe to assume that most people think that most police officers have good intentions. But if someone in any other line of work acted with gross misconduct, we’d say they weren’t good at their job. They would be fired. Why can’t we admit when law enforcement is making mistakes? What is so scary about that? Why can’t we see that a badge and a uniform does not make someone superman? Why is it so hard to utter the words, “Not all cops are bad people, (in fact most probably aren’t) but clearly something is wrong”? We can love our children and still recognize when they’re misbehaving; We can love our country and still recognize there is something egregiously wrong. While it’s natural for you to feel the way you feel because of your life experience, what the Black community is desperately asking the rest of us to have empathy for and open our eyes to is that their experience is different. It’s not your fault you were born with the skin you were born with. It IS your responsibility to seek understanding.
As white people, we have to stop giving advice to Black people on how they should be navigating their blackness. Until we have put on Black skin, we don’t get to tell Black people how they should feel or respond to the injustices they perceive and experience. Nobody wants to hear about how you would act in the presence of law enforcement if you were Black. You’re not Black. Your words are not helping. They’re hurting. Our opinions on how they can “save themselves” in police encounters are irrelevant. If the only words you have are to criticize or downplay their feelings, please white people, just don’t say anything. If you are more prepared to defend the good cops than you are to condemn the bad ones or the problems woven into the institution they’re a part of, please white people, keep your mouths closed. If you are more concerned with talking about the crime in the Black community than you are with the systematic oppression of their people, please look in the mirror and work on fixing yourself first. If your first response is going to be anything other than empathy, concern, love & anger on their behalf, please just keep it to yourself. They’ve been hurt enough. They don’t need a layer of our apathy to be added to the pain. If you are at a loss for words and don’t know what to say, just say this: “I can’t possibly understand, but I am sorry you are hurting. I am with you.” Period.
Just to be clear: Being pro-Black or supporting Black Lives Matter does not equate to being anti-white, anti-authority or anti-police. Being FOR anything doesn’t automatically make you AGAINST anything else. Being FOR my family doesn’t mean I’m against yours. It means I love my family. Asking for equal treatment and respect does not imply that Black people believe their lives are MORE important than ours. (Key word: EQUAL). If you see no problem with Irish Americans celebrating St. Patricks Day, but you are uncomfortable with Black people celebrating their blackness, you have a problem. If you see no problem with Italians having restaurants in Little Italy and Chinese people having shops in Chinatown, but you see a problem with Black people celebrating Black community, you have a problem. If you march with the LGBT community for gay pride, but Black pride threatens you, you have a problem. If you don’t even blink when employees protest and picket for higher wages but you see a problem with Black people protesting for respect of life, you have a problem. If you think the Confederate flag is a perfectly acceptable symbol of Southern “pride” but dashikis and afros and kente cloth are “militant”, you have a problem. If any of this makes you uncomfortable, the problem is not them, it’s you.
#BlackLivesMatter is not divisive. You know what is? The rest of us saying it is. What’s divisive is our silence, our blatant apathy. What’s divisive is the fact that our Black “friends” and colleagues see us vocally opposing the shooting deaths of lions in Africa and gorillas in Cincinnati but not other human beings. What’s divisive is our support of attack victims in Paris and Germany and Turkey, but our silence regarding the attacks on our own neighbors. What’s divisive is that we are outraged when a civilian walks into a nightclub and murders innocent people but we justify when someone we pay to protect us murders innocent people in a traffic stop. Why are we ok with saying they were targeted because they were gay but we’re so hesitant to say they were targeted because they were Black?
What’s divisive is the rest of us refusing to acknowledge that Black lives matter, the rest of us who can’t wait to discount this movement by screaming, “All lives matter!” Yes, all lives matter. We’re not talking about that right now. We’re making a distinction about the Black ones because the actions of our law enforcement agencies and judicial system and white apathy keep telling us they don’t. Imagine how you would feel if you were venting to your significant other about having a bad day and their response was, “Well I had a bad day today too. Everyone has bad days.” You probably wouldn’t keep them around for long. You’d probably think they were totally clueless, lacked empathy and were completely self-absorbed. What if you went to the doctor with a broken leg and, without acknowledging your leg, he started to give you a lecture on nutrition and diabetes and talk to you about your cholesterol and heart health. Wouldn’t you think, “Yeah I know my whole body is important but let’s fix the broken part right now because I can’t walk!”? I’ve never seen October roll around and heard any kind of outrage because it’s BREAST cancer awareness month instead of ALL cancer awareness month. It doesn’t mean we forgot about all the other cancers. Yes, all cancers matter. Does it upset you that the NFL wears pink shoes for a month?
“But I don’t mean it that way”. It doesn’t matter what your intentions are when they’re telling you it’s insensitive. They’re telling you how it’s perceived. So stop. When your kid misbehaves or makes a mistake and says to you, “But I didn’t mean to do it,” do you just take his explanation and let him continue to misbehave? No, you course correct and expect him to learn and expect that he won’t do it again. How many cartoons and explanations and analogies and examples do you need before you realize it doesn’t matter that you don’t mean it that way? It’s insensitive. It’s a slap in the face. It misses the point. It is the exact reason the Black lives needed to be specified in the first place. It’s not about us for once. You’ve been informed. So stop acting like a whiny child who feels like he didn’t get invited to the party. Just stop.
Here’s where I’m about to shock you, white people. Get ready for it… We should not just be tolerating the Black Lives Matter movement, we should be supporting it, encouraging it, applauding it, on the front lines with it. Because BLM is not about targeting white police or hating white people. #BlackLivesMatter is simply calling, asking, peacefully protesting for a better, more compassionate, less aggressive, less reactionary police force. Period. We all aim to benefit from more compassionate public servants. We all aim to benefit if police treat us with less presumption of criminality and more willingness to listen. We all benefit from demilitarizing our police force. We all aim to benefit if police don’t see themselves as members of a military gestapo on the front lines of a war. Storm troopers are unnecessary outside of Star Wars and war zones. We all aim to benefit if the police stop the culture of “us vs them”. Take a moment and do a Google search. The videos are everywhere. There are unarmed people of all races harassed, beaten, handcuffed without probable cause, and killed at the hands of an overly aggressive police force. There are children… CHILDREN… who have been maimed and killed by overly aggressive law enforcement agencies who “accidentally” targeted the wrong people. Now there are also examples of police forces who have taken a good look at themselves, admitted there’s a problem, and are working to try to fix it with better training. And in those cities, it’s working. Now if some of the police forces across the country can admit they have a problem, enough to start to try to fix it, how in the world are you still in denial? The first step is admitting there’s a problem. The next is doing everything in our power to help support change. When BLM succeeds, we ALL benefit. We should be thanking them for taking the charge. Fifty years from now, I believe we will.
If the rest of us stood in solidarity with hurting people, realized “they” are not so different from us after all, recognized that they were celebrating our country’s independence on July 4th with cookouts and family and fireworks, just like us… If we weren’t so threatened by “Black Lives Matter” because we put an invisible “ONLY” in front of the statement instead of the assumed “ALSO” at the end, we’d be starting to get somewhere. If the rest of us said, “Yes, Black lives DO matter. I stand in solidarity with you. I’m with you. I, too, oppose systemic institutionalized racist discrimination. I, too, want to see this changed…” If the rest of us joined the movement instead of so vehemently opposing it, we’d come to unity in an instant. If we looked deep at our own hypocrisy, if we were willing to swallow our own pride, if we would choose to humanize victims instead of detach from them, we would start to bridge the gap. We have the CHOICE to stand up or be silent. They have no choice. We know we matter. Our history tells us so. Why can’t we let them matter too? We did not choose our skin color any more than they chose theirs. We did not choose the socio-economic environments we were born into any more than anyone else chose theirs. Stop taking credit and assigning blame for something none of us had any part in.
It’s our responsibility to have empathy & to seek understanding, white people. It’s our responsibility to use our positions of privilege to respond with more love and less criticism. If millions of our fellow citizens are telling us they’re having similar experiences, maybe we should listen. No part of listening requires giving our opinions. Just. Listen. Maybe, just maybe, we should respond with empathy and open hearts, instead of blame and disbelief. Recognizing the validity of someone else’s message should not threaten the integrity of your own. Your light does not diminish by letting someone else’s light shine. On the contrary, we shine brighter together. Our light has been shining for 400+ years. It’s ok to let someone else shine too.