by Dennis Trainor, Jr.| The Acronym Journal
Like all white Americans, I am the beneficiary of unearned white privilege.
While I agree with the memetic tropes claiming that White Silence = White Consent, many of us of (myself included) are clumsy when it comes to talking about issues of race with each other and in mixed-race settings, and downright failures when it comes to generating solutions. Anyone with an internet connection can see how our collective failure to dismantle systems of white supremacy are playing out.
Fortunately, also among the content available to anyone with an internet connection are words likes these, from Marc Lamont Hill:
“We need fundamental changes in society. Fundamentally, we have to, first of all, deal with the issue of white supremacy. This isn’t an issue of racism, this is issue — an issue of white supremacy. We live in a world where we simply believe that white lives are worth more and that black lives aren’t worth much. And because of that, even the most well-meaning cop looks at a black body and still may have a bias. And it’s not just white cops. It’s also black cops. There’s a study out of Stanford that says that police officers tend to look at black children as older and more guilty than they are. Which means that you see that 13-year-old boy, or 12-year-old Tamir Rice and you think he’s 21, as they did, and you shoot him like he’s 21 having a real gun instead of, instead of a play gun because that’s what happens all the time, even though white kids do it all the time with no consequence.
So, we need to redress this issue of white supremacy.”
Where to begin?
Looking at the already iconic photo of Ieshia Evans standing serene yet defiant as police officers in riot gear descend upon her Baton Rogue, Louisiana brings to mind the chant, aimed at police officers in situations like these: “Who Do You Protect? Who do you serve?”
The photo is already being compared to iconic photographs such as the image of time a white cop had an attack dog go at a high school student attacked in Birmingham, Alabama. Then, as now, a variant of that question also worth examination is “what do you protect? What do you serve?”
When I meditate on the pictures above, two conversations come to mind.
The first involved a well-known activist who was scheduled to deliver prepared remarks at a moment in time when ignoring the subject of yet another black man murdered by the police would have been impossible. It was a day like so many days in recent memory when the very air we breathed reminded us of Eric Garner’s final words, echoed by activists in the streets all over the country: “I can’t breathe.”
The activist, a colleague of mine, shared a draft of their prepared remarks to me, asking for my feedback. I felt privileged to be asked and took my role as confidant seriously. We were in a car, driving over a bridge on our way to the event where the activist was to speak.
This activist (whose identity is not important in this context) and I are both white folks who aspire to be allies to the movement for black lives.
The phrase white supremacy did not appear in the draft remarks. Including that phrase in the remarks became my primary point of my feedback the discomfort my colleague had with identifying the problem as white supremacy formed a wide moat that still hangs in the air between us many months later.
I suggested to my white activist friend that they include remarks that target the enemy not only a few bad cops or a few bad police departments but also the whole system of white supremacy that cops are enlisted to protect and serve.
Also scheduled to speak at this same event was another colleague of ours, a prominent African-American woman – also a prominent activist – whom I’ll call “X”.
X is prone to using phrases like “we need revolutionary change that will dismantle the system of white supremacy in America.” I further advised my colleague to reference or even quote X on the subject of systemic white supremacy.
“X can rant and rail against white supremacy because she is black, and people give her more leeway to be outrageous and over the top,” my activist friend lectured, getting defensive. “I am not a victim of white supremacy, so how can I point to it as the problem? It is not a problem for me. I will sound crazy. I’ll lose all credibility. I have a reputation to consider.”
I was getting pissed.
I have had this debate, with this colleague, before. I found their position cowardly. To be fair, I also find cowardly my own tendency to spend free time at the beach reading a book and bobbing in the waves rather than marching in the streets for justice. After all, haven’t I earned my time at the beach?
So I was open to the possibility that perhaps I was projecting my own cowardice and impotence onto my friend, someone who sits on a higher soapbox than mine from which to deliver a message and affect change. I was told, silently, to drop the issue.
In the space that filled our silence, I felt a sensed of lost opportunity. I was determined to close it, thinking my continued silence on the issue would somehow signal my acquiescence.
My approach was Socratic, and I broke the silence with all of the subtly of sledgehammer.
“Isn’t saying that you can’t name the problem as white supremacy because you yourself are not negatively affected by it the very definition of white privilege?” I asked.
This was a hit, a very palpable hit.
One of us turned on the car radio, ushering in the dulcet tones of Kenny G to fill the silence between us; the other would write about the moment sometime in the future and drop in a Shakespearean reference imagining himself Hamlet and his colleague’s Laertes.
How very white of us both.
It turns out that my friend and colleague did include some language about white supremacy in their remarks, linking that scourge to the murders of black men by police.
A tiny victory. Or perhaps not – but a better outcome than silence.
The second conversation did not involve me; it was an (unscheduled, and unwanted) conversation Hillary Clinton was forced to have with Black Lives Matter Activists Daunasia Yancey and Julies Jones in August of 2015.
Clinton essentially punted the issue back to the activists, and in doing so forwarded the narrative that the problem the country is facing is a black people problem and well-meaning white folks just need the black community to provide the solution.
The entire exchange is worth (re) watching, and the point that was a point of learning and clarification for me was when Julius Jones revealed the lie in the narrative Clinton was advancing in saying simply “this is, and has always been, a white problem of violence. It’s not—there’s not much that we can do to stop the violence against us.”
Responding to the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille, Michelle Alexander, the highly acclaimed civil rights lawyer, legal scholar and author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, notes that “what is happening now is very, very old and we need hat truly transformative change depends more on thoughtful creation of new ways of being than reflexive reactions to the old.”
“I know many people believe that our criminal justice system can be “fixed” by smart people and smart policies. President Obama seems to think this way. He suggested yesterday that police-community relations can be improved meaningfully by a task force he created last year. Yes, a task force. I used to think like that. I don’t anymore. I no longer believe that we can “fix” the police, as though the police are anything other than a mirror reflecting back to us the true nature of our democracy. We cannot “fix” the police without a revolution of values and radical change to the basic structure of our society. Of course, important policy changes can and should be made to improve police practices. But if we’re serious about having peace officers — rather than a domestic military at war with its own people — we’re going to have to get honest with ourselves about who our democracy actually serves and protects.”
Wall Street crooks who commit crimes that are so interwoven into s system that oppresses so many are deemed too big to jail while a policy of broken windows policing has literally put men in a choke hold and killed them for selling loose cigarettes.
Again, “what do you protect? What do you serve?”
Systemic racism, white supremacy, and mass incarceration: these are problems created by my people. And my people my people my white people! need to engage in creating the solutions to this crisis and not in the not the Hollywood white savior complex kind of way seen in “feel good to be white and liberal” movies like Mississippi Burning or Dances With Wolves, but in a way that listens to, learns from and contributes towards a future where we have eradicated systems of white supremacy and simultaneously builds new systems that claim for the first time in this flawed nation’s history- the promise of democracy for all.