Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Let's Not Get Distracted ...

One of the things that's difficult about having really substantive conversations about race -- one of the challenges of really facing and trying to deal with the issues -- is that it's so hard to get distracted by details.  I think that this is predominantly a white people's problem, and that we do it because the whole thing is so incredibly uncomfortable for us.  And we're not used to being uncomfortable.

Following the events in Ferguson and Staten Island a shout erupted across the country -- Black Lives Matter!  Black and browned skinned people were giving voice to a reality that they knew all too well but that was largely overlooked by white skinned folk -- the law enforcement and social justice systems are undeniably racially biased.  (I won't go into details to try to prove that point.  I'll let Frontline do it for me.)  This is a discomforting thing for white people to hear, because the ideal of a fair and impartial justice system is such a cornerstone of how we see (and experience) the world.  To hear otherwise shakes us from our complacency (and complicity).

Well, almost.  First we declare that "Black Lives Matter" is, itself, a racist statement.  The reality, we say, is that all lives matter, and that as long as we keep making it an issue of black and white we'll never get anywhere toward solving our problems.  The problem with that line of thinking, though, is that it's always been a "black and white" thing.  Black and brown skinned people have always known that their experiences and white peoples experiences are radically different; that we live in two different worlds, in a sense.  White people, though, don't feel comfortable with that because as things are our lives and experiences are the standard of ... well ... the way things are.  So we want to continually "broaden" the discussion to be "more inclusive," because to do otherwise would force us to recognize that the world isn't as "fair and balanced" as we believe it to be.

But there's another way that we distract from the real issue -- we make this a black/cop thing.  Sure, we say.  We'll acknowledge that there is a racial bias in the justice system, but we have to support our police officers.  They have an impossibly difficult -- not to mention dangerous -- job.  They're doing the best that they can.  And see?  The recent murders of the two officers in Brooklyn and the one in Florida (as of this writing) show us where all this divisiveness leads.  Sure, black lives matter, but so do "blue lives," and all this racial outrage has turned into "open season" on the police.

Do you see what happened there?  The situation we find ourselves facing becomes polarized as an either/or proposition.  If you stand in solidarity with the experiences of African Americans and other marginalized people then you necessarily are standing in opposition to the police.  (And vice versa.)   And, so, we get distracted -- the conversation becomes one of whether you are for or against the police.

But that's not the issue!  Sure, there are people who are angry at the police and who consider them "the enemy."  And there are certainly racist police officers.  But that's not the issue we need to be discussing.  The perceptions and actions of individual people can certainly be problematic and should be addressed, but we can not let that distract us from the real issue -- systemic racism.

Racism is so deeply embedded in this country that it's like the ground we walk on or the air we breathe.  Individual people don't need to be committing individual racist acts for racism to be still alive and well.  I would assert that the vast majority of police officers are not, themselves, individually racist and want to see the law enforced equally and justice to be fairly meted out.  But we have all be so deeply and powerfully trained to see black and brown skinned people and white skinned people differently that when split second decisions need to be made these unconscious biases and assumptions color the reaction.  Even not so split second ones -- a white person walking in a predominantly black neighborhood is, at first glance, assumed to be lost or their for a good reason.  A black person walking in a predominantly black neighborhood is, at first glance, assumed to be out of place and up to no good.  Even black and brown skinned people often have these two different reactions, because that's the way systemic racism works.  It's not a conscious thing; it's a conditioned thing.

In the days ahead there will no doubt be more violence directed toward police officers, as well as more incidents of police violence toward people of color.  I appeal to my white kinfolk, though, not to become distracted but to keep our eyes on the real issue.  Because all of us are hurt by racism, and these particularities we argue about are just symptoms.  As Emma Lazarus said, "Until we are all free, we are none of us free."

Pax tecum,


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