I was out of town for the weekend when Michael Brown was shot and protests started up in Ferguson, very close to where I attended graduate school to study counseling. But when I heard on the news what was happening, it made sense to me. Something that had been brewing for a long time was clearly boiling over. At least, that’s how it seemed to me. But in the weeks that followed, it became clear to me from talking to people who don’t live in my city (and even some who do) that what was happening seemed completely surprising and incomprehensible. How could we have this much race-related conflict, in this day and age, not even in LA or New York but in a midwestern suburb?
As a white, middle class person, I could pretty easily live my life with the belief that the civil rights struggle ended a long time ago. I could assume that, apart from a few extremist types, we are largely done, as culture, with racism. I could choose to think that I, personally, don’t see race when I look at people, that I am just in my judgements and not influenced by any sort of race-based assumptions. I could make those choices because there is nothing in my life circumstance that forces me to confront some difficult truths. So, if I am really going to live my values, I have to choose to confront those truths. And let me be clear: To get to choose is a privilege. Plenty of other people are smacked in the face with difficult truths every day of their lives.
If you are also a person with the privilege to choose, I ask you to make the same choice. Remember The Matrix, when Neo is confronted with the choice of taking the blue pill, which allows him to wake up in his comfortable bed, believing what he wants to be believe, or the red pill, which will open his eyes to some harsh realities but give him a chance to fight back against an ugly and exploitative system? When you saw the movie, did you tell yourself that, of course, you would be a person who takes the red pill?
Some difficult, “red pill” truths:
1. Racism is a force that can influence any person and any institution. It’s no longer segregated buses and water fountains. It’s lurking in seemingly acceptable assumptions, beliefs, policies, and attitudes. It’s in truck commercials where “real American” is presented as young, strong white men in cowboy boots and “family values” is often a phrase associated with images of white suburban families.
I have heard people in St. Louis, my own age and younger, voice their belief that when African Americans move into a white neighborhood, property values will go down, that this is “just the way it is.” Recently a local filmmaker made a documentary about Spanish Lake, a nearby suburb that has seen better days. He talked about how real estate companies in the 1970s perpetuated fears among white residents that an influx of African Americans into their community was going to wreck their home values. This tactic allowed them to buy up homes at low cost for resale at a higher value, and it perpetuated the “white flight” into western suburbs that are, to this day, mostly white. This idea, that property values depend in part on the racial makeup of a neighborhood, that this is “just how it is,” is still very much alive and well in this city, and it is predicated on the idea that having African American residents in one’s neighborhood is not going to be a desirable thing to the majority of home buyers. People still act on this belief, thinking that they themselves are not racist, of course. But this is racism, friends. I have also encountered a lot of people here who truly value and would like more diversity in their neighborhoods, and it can be hard to come by. If racism were no longer a factor, it would not be so. Well meaning people can be and are influenced by racism, and unknowingly perpetuate the problem.
2. We cannot assume that what we’ve concluded about the world based on our own experience is universal truth. We all tend to generalize our personal experience and make conclusions about the world based on that experience. That’s human. I’ve been stopped by the police because I was speeding, because my tags had been stolen, and once by a very courteous officer who merely wanted to make sure I knew one of my brake lights was out but had no intention of citing me for anything. Based on that experience alone, it would seem reasonable for me to assume that the police are largely fair, just, and there to serve. If they stop people, it’s because they have good reason. Unfortunately, this is demonstrably untrue in plenty of cases. I know people who have been stopped, questioned and even frisked simply because they looked “out of place” in a given neighborhood. A friend’s Mexican neighbor had police come onto his property because they drove by and saw him replacing the lock on the front door of his own home. (They had assumed he was a thief breaking in.) All sorts of writers are sharing experiences, in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting, about their own experiences with racial profiling or frightening and humiliating run-ins with police officers who stopped them with no discernible cause. I doubt most of the police officers involved in these incidents consider themselves racist. Perhaps they see themselves as merely protecting the neighborhood, acting on a hunch, etc. But what role do race-based assumptions play in that “hunch?” Statistics indicate that African American drivers are five times more likely to have their car searched during an investigative traffic stop (where there is no alleged violation of the law) than white drivers. What assumptions and beliefs underlie that statistic?
There seems to be a tendency among affluent white people who have not experienced this directly to think that these accounts are not true, that they are blown out of proportion, or that there must be some other explanation. We have no reason to disbelieve these accounts other than simply because it’s uncomfortable to believe them. Terribly uncomfortable. We don’t want to think that this is going on. Yet, the evidence is clear. When we discredit people who share their stories, tell them they are jumping to conclusions or imaging things, we perpetuate the trauma and unfairness of those experiences, and we send the message that we, as white people, know more about the world and about the experiences of racial minorities, than they do. This is patently demeaning.
3. Institutional racism is real. When a significant number of people who have drawn similar conclusions about the world based on similar experiences have the power to form rules and policies, institutional racism (and/or sexism, or ageism) is a strong possibility. This is why diversity in organizations and in government is desirable. It is not about individual people being racist; it is about lack of awareness. If I have never been the subject of racial profiling, for instance, and am not aware of that possibility in my day to day life, I am not likely to be able to imagine how to enact policies that can prevent it, or even to be aware that such policies need to be enacted. I may even unknowingly enact policies that perpetuate the problem. This is how we get situations like the Mayor of Ferguson claiming that there is no race relations problem in Ferguson, even as massive protests break out on the streets. It’s why the fact that Ferguson’s police force is almost overwhelmingly white is such a problem. We need voices and influences from people of a variety of different ethnicities, genders, ages and cultural backgrounds in order to effectively govern a multicultural society.
This is scratching the surface at best, and there is so much more that can be talked about. Other people have spelled out possible actions better than I could, most notably Sarah Milstein who asks us to consider, among other things, “When did you first become aware you were white?” and Janee Woods, who suggests 12 Ways to be a White Ally to Black People.
You may notice, I have not said anything about the actual events leading up to Michael Brown’s death, or the possible culpability of the officer involved. Those things deserve to be investigated and talked about, but that is not the purpose of this post. I’m talking about looking at how race relations impact the lives of everyone rather than viewing this as a minority problem. I’m talking about understanding how and why things escalated in Ferguson in the aftermath of this incident, and what might have been under the surface long before turmoil erupted. I’m advocating for using events in Ferguson as an opportunity to take the red pill.