I want to write about Michael Brown and the struggle and strife in Ferguson, Missouri. But words are hard to come by, especially as a white person who cares deeply for social justice and hates racism. But what can I say? The police are racist? That is not new information. Black people are targeted by the criminal justice system? That is not news, either. The only good cops I know are the ones with a college degree. Is that a bad thing to say? I think all police should have degrees in sociology or psychology. Much has been written on this topic, so I am going to include some other folks’ words that resonate with me.
USA Today reported that on average there were 96 cases of a white police officer killing a black person each year between 2006 and 2012, based on justifiable homicides reported to the FBI by local police.
Blogger Eric Brewton, in his blog “The Game is Rigged in Ferguson,” writes
“It was Wilson who pulled his police issued revolver and fired anywhere between five and seven shots at an unarmed Michael Brown, killing him while his hands were in the air in a show of surrender. It was Wilson’s police chief Tom Jackson who took the first step towards putting Brown on trial by releasing a convenient store surveillance tape that showed the eighteen year old swiping cheap cigars and shoving a store clerk who tried to stop him just minutes before his death. It was Jackson who admitted that there was no link between that robbery and Brown’s deadly encounter with Wilson. It was the city’s mayor James Knowles, who in the wake of public unrest displayed a frighteningly high level of ignorance by suggesting the town had no racial strife when everything from traffic stops to the lack of diversity on the city’s police force would have suggested otherwise, and it was the state’s Governor Jay Nixon who was missing in action Wednesday night when the St. Louis County police force put on a performance that would have made the cops from the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago proud. Nixon’s presence hasn’t exactly made the situation better. His latest stunt, calling for a citywide curfew for it’s residents has only added to the raw anger and intense pain being felt by so many.”
In Mother Jones last week, Jaeah Lee’s article “Exactly How Often Do Police Shoot Unarmed Black Men?” contains a troubling graphic:
So what’s a well-meaning white ally to do? How can those of us committed to an anti-racist world stop violence against people of color? What can we do to change the ways that people are socialized in our society and by our media? I don’t know. But I am thankful to Janee Woods for giving allies a place to start.
1. Learn about the racialized history of Ferguson and how it reflects the racialized history of America.
Michael Brown’s murder is not a social anomaly or statistical outlier. It is the direct product of deadly tensions born from decades of housing discrimination, white flight, intergenerational poverty and racial profiling. The militarized police response to peaceful assembly by the people mirrors what happened in the 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement.
2. Reject the “he was a good kid” narrative and lift up the “black lives matter” narrative.
Michael Brown was a good kid, by accounts of those who knew him during his short life. But that’s not why his death is tragic. His death isn’t tragic because he was a sweet kid on his way to college next week. His death is tragic because he was a human being and his life mattered. The Good Kid narrative might provoke some sympathy but what it really does is support the lie that as a rule black people, black men in particular, have a norm of violence or criminal behavior. The Good Kid narrative says that this kid didn’t deserve to die because his goodness was the exception to the rule. This is wrong. This kid didn’t deserve to die because he was a human being and black lives matter.
3. Use words that speak the truth about the disempowerment, oppression, disinvestment and racism that are rampant in our communities.
Be mindful, political and socially aware with your language. Notice how the mainstream news outlets are using words like riot and looting to describe the uprising in Ferguson. What’s happening is not a riot. The people are protesting and engaging in a justified rebellion. They have a righteous anger and are revolting against the police who have terrorized them for years.
4. Understand the modern forms of race oppression and slavery and how they are intertwined with policing, the courts and the prison industrial complex.
We don’t enslave black people on the plantation cotton fields anymore. Now we lock them up in for profit prisons at disproportionate rates and for longer sentences for the same crimes than white people. And when they are released, they are second class citizens stripped of voting rights and denied access to housing, employment and education. Mass incarceration is The New Jim Crow.
5. Examine the interplay between poverty and racial equity.
The twin pillar of racism is economic injustice but do not use class issues to trump race issues and avoid the racism conversation. While racism and class oppression are tangled together in this country, the fact remains that the number one predictor of prosperity and access to opportunity is race.
6. Diversify your media.
Be intentional about looking for and paying close attention to diverse voices of color on the tv, on the internet and on the radio to help shape your awareness, understanding and thinking about political, economic and social issues. Check out Colorlines, The Root or This Week in Blackness to get started.
7. Adhere to the philosophy of nonviolence as you resist racism and oppression.
Dr. Martin Luther King advocated for nonviolent conflict reconciliation as the primary strategy of the Civil Rights Movement and the charge of His Final Marching Orders. East Point Peace Academy offers online resources and in person training on nonviolence that is accessible to all people regardless of ability to pay.
8. Find support from fellow white allies.
Challenge and encourage each other to dig deeper, even when it hurts and especially when you feel confused and angry and sad and hopeless, so that you can be more authentic in your shared journey with people of color to uphold and protect principles of antiracism and equity in our society. Go to workshops like Training for Change’s Whites Confronting Racism or European Dissent by The People’s Institute. Attend The White Privilege Conference or the Facing Raceconference. Some organizations offer scholarships or reduced fees to help people attend if funding is an issue.
9. If you are a person of faith, look to your scriptures or holy texts for guidance.
Seek out faith based organizations like Sojourners and follow faith leaders that incorporate social justice into their ministry. Ask your clergy person to address antiracism in their sermons and teachings. If you are not a person of faith, learn how the world’s religions view social justice issues so that when you have opportunity to invite people of faith to also become white allies, you can talk with them meaningfully about why being a white ally is supported by their spiritual beliefs.
10. Don’t be afraid to be unpopular.
Let’s be realistic. If you start calling out all the racism you witness (and it will be a lot once you know what you’re looking at) some people might not want to hang out with you as much. That’s a risk you’ll need to accept. But think about it like this: staying silent when you witness oppression is the same as supporting oppression. So you can be the popular person who stands with the oppressor or you can be the (maybe) unpopular person who stands for equality and dignity for all people. Which person would you prefer to be? And honestly, if some people don’t want to hang out with you anymore once you show yourself as a white ally then why would you even want to be friends with them anyway? They’re probably racists.
11. Be proactive in your own community.
As a white ally, you are not limited to being reactionary and only rising up to stand on the side of justice when black people are being subjected to violence very visibly and publicly. Moments of crisis do not need to be the catalyst because taking action against systemic racism is always appropriate because systemic racism permeates nearly every institution and community in this country. Some ideas for action: organize a community conversation about the state of police-community relations* in your neighborhood, support leaders of color by donating your time or money to their campaigns or causes, ask the local library to host a showing and discussion group about the documentary RACE – The Power of an Illusion, attend workshops to learn how to transform conflict into opportunity for dialogue. Gather together diverse white allies that represent the diversity of backgrounds in your community. Antiracism is not a liberals only cause. Antiracism is a movement for all people, whether they be conservative, progressive, rich, poor, urban or rural.
12. Don’t give up.
We’re 400 years into this racist system and it’s going to take a long, long, long time to dismantle these atrocities. The antiracism movement is a struggle for generations, not simply the hot button issue of the moment. Transformation of a broken system doesn’t happen quickly or easily. You may not see or feel the positive impact of your white allyship in the next month, the next year, the next decade or even your lifetime. But don’t ever stop. Being a white ally matters because your thoughts, deeds and actions will be part of what turns the tide someday. Change starts with the individual.
What will you do?