Like many of you, I’ve been glued to social media this week following the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. I’ve tried working through some of my emotions and thoughts on the subject in those social forums. Some forums are safer for that kind of thing than others. I’m learning that my safety (emotional or otherwise) is important, but not paramount.
As the details in the case continue to emerge, I have hope that the public will can shift toward justice, but I won’t wait for it. You see, this situation is not new. It’s not even a symptom of something. It’s a script we’ve been playing since this nation was founded. It’s the script of white supremacy.
I know that term is loaded, so I’m going to slow down and say it again so you know I’m saying it on purpose: white supremacy. Most of us are familiar enough with history to associate white supremacy with the past. We know about slavery. We know about Jim Crow. We know about the Klan. We think we can relegate white supremacy to those contexts and thereby keep it out of our house. But I’m telling you, it’s still here.
When I talk to my white friends about what’s gone down so far in Ferguson, I get many of the same kinds of comments I’ve heard before: “Let’s refrain from judgment until the facts are in.” “We don’t know why the cop did what he did, but I think cops are great, so let’s give him the benefit of the doubt.” “With all that looting, what did you expect the police to do? They have to keep order.”
While many of my friends are unaware of it, all of these comments are racially tinged. Before I get into how that works, let’s start with a summary of the facts from Professor Brittney Cooper:
All week long, the community of Ferguson and its supporters have been trying to keep the focus of this case on the shooting itself. But thanks to the media, the local police, and others, the story keeps getting muddled by other details. Mia McKenzie at Black Girl Dangerous anticipated these distractions in her piece, “6 Things To Stop Being Distracted By When A Black Person Gets Murdered By the Police.” You should really read the whole thing, but here are the highlights:
1. Over-Simplified Talk of “Riots”
According to media outlets and some residents, there’s been rioting in Ferguson since the killing of unarmed teenager Mike Brown. There have been reports of peaceful protests turning less than peaceful, with people confronting cops, throwing things at them, etc. I don’t know if the stories of rioting are true. Most of the video I’ve seen of Ferguson shows the protesters themselves gathered or marching relatively calmly. Angry sometimes, sure. But anger is a perfectly normal response to your unarmed teenage neighbor being gunned down in the street by police (police who have now showed up at your peaceful protest with attack dogs and riot gear).
But let’s get something straight: a community pushing back against a murderous police force that is terrorizing them is not a “riot”. It’s an uprising. It’s a rebellion. It’s a community saying We can’t take this anymore. We won’t take it. It’s people who have been dehumanized to the point of rightful rage. And it happens all over the world. Uprisings and rebellions are necessary and inevitable, locally and globally…
Looting is often part of the “rioting” narrative. Peaceful protests that turn violent are often accompanied by looting. During the first night of the Ferguson protests there was looting reported at various locations nearby. Looting—stealing merchandise from vandalized businesses during a protest—happens separate from the actual protest taking place and its actual organizers and participants in every case I’ve ever heard about, anywhere, ever. Looting is often an opportunists’ game.
Looting, too, is about power. When people have nothing and something happens to remind them, in a big way, that what little they do have can be taken away in an instant, including their lives and the lives of their children, they may reach for any semblance of power or control they can get…
Please don’t get distracted by celebrities. At times like this, famous people sometimes say really important, helpful, intelligent things. Other times, they open their mouths and the most ridiculous hot ass-garbage comes pouring out. (I’m looking at you, Morgan Freeman/Bill Cosby/Don Lemon.) Then everyone spends all day talking about the celebrity and what they said rather than talking about the issue…
4. The Murder Victim’s Past
I wish I didn’t have to tell some of you that victim-blaming when a Black person is murdered by police is a huge no. That it doesn’t matter if they were on the honor roll, or smoked weed sometimes, or were going to college, or what brand of hoodie they wore, or even if they spent time in jail at some point. That the right to walk down the street without being a target for murder by the police isn’t a right one should have to prove themselves worthy of. That we should all just have that right by virtue of being human beings…
5. Respectability Politics
Respectability politics is part of almost all of the things I’ve listed here already. It plays its part in most of the ways we get distracted when a Black person is murdered by the police. It’s there in the idea that protests should always be non-violent; it’s there in the idea that looting erases someone’s humanity; it’s there in the idea that the victim’s past, if not squeaky-clean by white supremacist capitalist patriarchy’s standards, makes their victimization less valid…
I understand how hard it is to accept that as a Black person your life means so little in this country that you can be killed by police for nothing. That walking down the street while Black can be the only reason your life, or the life of your son or daughter or father or partner or friend, ends. You want there to be another reason, any other reason.
Yesterday on Twitter, @prisonculture wrote, in response to a tweet suggesting Black people can dress better to avoid being murdered by the authorities: “looking the part” doesn’t help you brother…I’m so sorry. I feel so much compassion for you. How do you absorb & internalize that you are killable, always killable? You create your own fictions. To survive, to live. I understand.
I, too, understand that it’s hard. Almost too hard to bear. Who wants to have to carry these things? Especially when you’re young and dreaming of a life without barriers based on your skin color. But pretending we can “respectable” ourselves out of racism is dangerous. And it will not save you.
6. Lies Mainstream Media Tells You
Please understand and remember that MSM chooses what to show you and what not to show you. Remember how that news station I mentioned showed only looting? Well, by accounts of many folks in Ferguson that night, that was happening while the actual protesters were still protesting, their hands in the air, shouting “Don’t shoot!” at police officers in riot gear who were threatening them. Your MSM isn’t likely to show you that part.
Don’t be distracted by the sensationalized version, by the oppressor’s racist-colored lens that only captures nice police officers trying to do their jobs while animalistic Blacks steal TVs and burn shit down. Get your news from sources who stand in solidarity with oppressed people.
Like me, my white friends are struggling to understand all this. For most of us, these incidents of police brutality, or the racialized murder of black people, feels like a scene from the past because it’s not our present reality. We don’t get stopped by police for just driving down the street. The police come when we call them, and they almost always come to help.
Just because it’s not our experience, doesn’t make it any less true. As I learned this week trying to explain all this to my white children, these scenes rattle our narratives about good guys and bad guys. And when my kids hear “the talk” about race, respectability, and law enforcement, it doesn’t make sense the way it does when black kids hear it from their parents (who they have seen deal with it, even if it wasn’t vocalized).
Half of the white people I’ve talked to or read have been quick to derail or dismiss these events. The other well-meaning half are shocked by them. Both responses are indicative of a white supremacist culture that shields white people from the daily oppressions of people of color. These events remind us white folks of our complicity and beg our attention to problems that we work hard to isolate to the past.
Look, what we’re watching unfold isn’t news. It’s been happening all this time. On our “post-racial” watch. What we saw this week was the unfolding of a supremacy narrative: first, the preemptive militarization of local police out of fear of angry black people who’ve been denied justice. It worked this way during slavery: when preemptive brutality was used to protect the system of slavery, and used again out of fear that plantation owners would be killed in their sleep by those they oppressed. It worked this way under Jim Crow: when black people could be arrested for going about their daily lives, and it intensified when black people organized to take political action or assert their rights. Violence in America has always been heavily one-sided, as has the fear of violence, and black folks weren’t the creators of lynch mob justice.
The demands of the people in Ferguson are for orderly justice. It only feels disorderly because it’s disrupting our normalized structures of white supremacy. The media focus on isolated incidents of looting over the numerous peaceful demonstrations reinforces the “fear black people” narrative. The press ate up the fourteen-page police department story of Mike Brown’s “strong-arm robbery” and left the shooting behind, only later to find out that officer Wilson didn’t even know about the robbery when he approached, shot, and killed Mike Brown (as if that would have justified the killing). Even in stories that featured headlines focuses on the shootings, the thumbnail images shown at the side of the article were usually photos from the robbery camera.
This is how white supremacy has always worked:
Systemic oppression of people of color out of fear or for gain -> People of color no longer endure violence and begin to resist oppression (violently or peacefully) -> White power responds with “See! These people are unruly, we gotta keep a lid on that!” -> Oppression continues, reinforced by the white narrative of fear
We can’t afford to allow distractions in this situation. I’m calling upon my white brothers and sisters in Christ to get on board here. I don’t care if we’re late coming. We need to be here. I realize it’s uncomfortable, but for our sisters and brothers of color, it can be deadly. We don’t get to wuss out on this. We have to do better than the generations before us.
Blogger and racial justice reconciler Austin Channing Brown broke my heart this week with this truth:
…what I found most intriguing is MLK’s response to the question about his mistakes as a civil rights leader. His reply: “Well, the most pervasive mistake I have made was in believing that because our cause was just, we could be sure that the white ministers of the South, once their Christian consciences were challenged, would rise to our aid. I felt that white ministers would take our cause to the white power structures. I ended up, of course, chastened and disillusioned.”
At this moment in time, I cannot confess to the same shock, disappoint or hurt feelings that MLK describes. I’ve read too much, been at this too long to sincerely claim that I expected the white church to finally get it right in this present moment of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, John Crawford and Michael Brown. The white church doesn’t have a great track record on racial justice, and what’s worse, displays very little shame on the matter…
I am quite used to there not being enough room in the soul of the white church to care about black bodies. There is not enough room in the service, not enough room in the prayers, not enough room in the leadership, not enough room in the values, not enough room in the mission statement, not enough room in political stances, not enough room for lived experiences of African Americans.
I am convinced that the soul of the white church has yet to be ashamed.
I am ashamed. If you’re feeling ashamed at this point, too, let it change you. Repent and come alongside those whose yoke is too burdensome. Stop telling people who are calling for due process to slow down asserting their rights. White churches tried to tell Dr. King and other leaders of the Civil Rights movement the same thing:
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. 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 Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, 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 in 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.
I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.
Let’s be different in this generation. Let’s stop telling our brothers and sisters to wait for justice. For the love of Jesus, let’s stop telling them to play things our way.
Let’s educate ourselves instead of asking people of color to tell us what racism is or how it works. To that end, I’m going to share a few resources below. Please consider choosing something, one thing, any thing. I do not believe that white people getting on board against racism will save everyone. White people aren’t the saviors. We don’t get cookies for basic human decency. But it’s going to take more of us grappling with the systems of oppression if we’re ever going to topple the thing.
So if you’re a pastor, preach on this. If you’re a teacher, study up and teach on it. If you’re a parent, talk to your kids. Get on social media and share articles about Ferguson. Learn how to spot derailments, how not to get caught up in them, and then keep the focus on justice. Sign and share a petition calling for an overhaul of how we police communities of color. Learn about other stories where people of color are being denied justice (it happens to women, too) and read up more stories like Mike Brown’s.
We white people need to go beyond allyship. We need to be accomplices.
This is Kingdom work, y’all. I’m begging my white people: don’t miss it this time.
Michelle Alexander The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindess
Douglas Blackmon Slavery By Another Name (link is to the PBS documentary, still online, but there is a book as well)
Eduardo Bonilla-Silva Racism Without Racists
Essential reading from Prison Culture
Reading list from Irene’s Daughters
Field trip! Sankofa Journey with the Evangelical Covenant Church
And follow any of the people I’ve linked to or mentioned above on Twitter. Twitter has been instrumental in reporting news out of Ferguson. If you don’t tweet, you can follow some of these writers on Facebook as well.