The protests in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death have exposed, again, the roil of racial tension America prefers to ignore. Pundits argue about rioters and protestors, thugs and n*ggers. We fixate on a black woman hitting her son to keep him from throwing rocks at the police. White America too easily accepts this as an answer to the looting; Black America sees a woman desperate to save her son. Statistics get thrown back and forth: how many black children grow up with lead poisoning. How many black boys are shot, imprisoned, written off.
The numbers aren’t news, of course; we’ve known about the devastation plaguing America’s inner cities (particularly in Black areas) for decades. America’s just terrified that suddenly, someone is forcing them to notice. Someone is pulling the blindfold. Take a good long look at the places where you reflexively lock your car doors. See those kids on the corner as more than the t-word – it’s the t-word now, because when was the last time you used it on a white kid? Realize the fruits of decades of poverty, of neglect, of inadequate addiction and health care, of corrupt courts and cops. Jim Crow didn’t die. He just moved downtown.
White America recoils in horror. Then it starts trying to name names. A beating, or a justified response to fear? Rioter or protester? Can we really not say the t-word anymore? Maybe we should do this. Maybe Baltimore should do that. Obama tells us this, but I think … and on and on and on.
Dear white America, shut up and sit down.
You’re the problem. Yeah, there are lots of problems. Systemic racism is at the heart of them. White privilege means that you participate in a system that gives you advantages over people of color. You’ve got a stake in ongoing injustice in Baltimore. Stop arguing about it and start admitting it.
It’s frightening to admit that you have a stake in ongoing injustice. No one wants to be the bad guy. How do you look in the mirror, how do you revise the stories you tell about yourself and your family? How do you revise the view of your country itself? It’s life-shaking.
White people mean well. They really do. They’re scared of people of color; they’re scared of being called racist. White people truly believe that if you’re not wearing a Klan hood, you’re not racist. They believe in “colorblindness”: a philosophy that amounts to “we don’t see race.” Which translates to “we ignore race”, which means “we ignore the authentic stories and experiences of people of color.”
But most white people don’t get that far. They don’t understand that ignoring race means ignoring people, means ignoring their real lives, means ignoring the facts and figures of what’s happening in Baltimore until it’s shoved in their faces. Maybe the Freddie Gray issue is about police brutality itself of race. But the protests it’s sparked, the outward spiral of discontent, is highly racialized. And White America is scared to look.
And looking is all people ask. This tangle of issues is impossible for one protest to fix – it’s impossible for one commission to fix. It requires a concerted effort of all of America to repair the brokenness of our inner cities and our black communities. No one expects to solve every problem right now. But they do expect a witness.
They expect someone to notice. They need someone to notice.
The protesters were chanting, “We love Baltimore! We want peace!” Around the corner, a National Guard tank.
Was anybody listening? Did anybody see?