After all the protests and riots, what will it take to seriously tackle a problem white people know little about?
This past Wednesday night, there were protests in eight cities across the country. In Manhattan, I could hear the ‘copters overhead and the streets downtown were crawling with scooter cops, squad cars, a big police presence. I saw a news flash that three demonstrators in Ferguson, MO were shot in some street violence.
I’m trying to sort out my feelings about the Baltimore protests (or riots, depending on your point of view). Also about President Obama’s comments on Tuesday in reaction to the events in Baltimore, Ferguson, Staten Island and many other places.
Obama urged us to “do some soul-searching” so that’s where I’ll start. In my soul, I don’t give nearly enough weight and menace to the use of deadly force by cops, whether the cops are white or black, or the alleged perpetrators. How could I? I’m white, cops are my friends. I grew up in the exurbs and suburbs, or in stable middle-class urban neighborhoods. It never happened where I lived. When it did happen (in the movies and on TV) it was antiseptic, justified and thrilling. I learned the simple formula: cops=good, their targets=bad. My story doesn’t include any encounters with cops, other than the occasional speeding ticket.
Race has something (everything?) to do with the story we are hearing now. In Salon, a writer named Julia Blount addresses white people with this message: “If you are not listening, not exposing yourself to unfamiliar perspectives, not watching videos, not engaging in conversation, then you are perpetuating white privilege and white supremacy. It is exactly your ability to not hear, to ignore the situation, that is a mark of your privilege.”
I’m not sure if I’m guilty as charged, but I am guilty of assuming the best and being weary of confronting the worst. My contacts with black people have been scarce, rarely going deeper than cordiality. I’ve done some professional work on issues like redlining and affirmative action and such, but that’s been nine to five stuff. I also find (when I soul-search) a knot of despair that after six or seven decades of “social programs” and hundreds of billions of dollars we haven’t substantially improved the prospects for people who live in troubled black communities. Has nothing changed since Soul on Ice (1965)? Was all that wrongheaded? Did we listen to the “right” community leadership when we crafted all those programs?
The Gordian knot of all this has strands of personal antipathy, institutional racism, blame-placing, cultural gulfs and chasms, economic injustices, policies that impede progress, so many strands that no wonder we reach for a sword. Marches, protests, demonstrations are a part of that sword. I remember the feeling of having the power to change things when I marched against the Vietnam war. I remember the feeling of standing in a line, arms locked, to defend a clinic against anti-abortionists who spat on us and screamed in our faces. So the soul-searching and Ms. Blount’s words remind me that I have been engaged in some similar conversations.
But maybe not so much in this one. I am finding not much hope or promise of change from these actions. This is predictable theatre, demonstrators do their thing, cops do their thing, there will be arrests and speeches and cries of “revolution.” The riots will push the issues to the front section of the paper where they will compete for attention with the Supreme Court’s work on gay marriage and the deliberations about the sentencing of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
I’m afraid that we are stuck with government as the primary engine of change. The marketplace can bring about change, no doubt, but that’s a slog. Until and unless we improve the composition of our government, that engine will sputter and wheeze. I’ve been interested in the responses from the leading Presidential candidates to see if any of them have anything other than calls for soul-searching.
Is there any chance that any candidate can make real change in the economic imbalances and opportunities that continue to plague us? Is there any plan that can begin to dismantle the epidemic of drug arrests and incarceration of hundreds of thousands of black men? Do all of then assume that if we “just” change the rules then blacks and whites can play well together?
My soul feels complicated on this matter and I don’t find much solace in the slogans of candidates. Bernie Sanders just announced he’s in the race. What are his action plans for the things he has been railing about for years? And where and how do we as white people begin to grapple honestly and collectively with our alienation from the black community?