Dear White People: Which Side Are You On?

Stop racism
Stop racism

Hey white folks. It's time we had a talk.

Last week was a mess. First we saw the police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, so graphic in their disregard for black humanity. There's a degree of self-flagellation in watching the videos. Who wants to see what can't be unseen? No one can unhear a four-year-old comforting her mother in the back of a police cruiser after witnessing her mother's boyfriend being killed.

This was of course followed by the deaths of five police officers in Dallas by a lone gunman at the end of a peaceful Black Lives Matter march. Events are happening so fast that it's difficult to process them.

Since Trayvon Martin's death in 2012, and especially since the 2014 uprising in Ferguson, MO, we as white people have been increasingly confronted with an undeniable reality. Black people are vulnerable to police brutality far and away beyond our own experience. Thanks to cellphone videos, what our black neighbors have known for generations has become unavoidable for the rest of us in our de facto segregated cities.

The ubiquity of these videos has the benefit of forcing us to catch a glimpse of the ugly underbelly of what oppression against black people looks like. For us white folks, that's a good thing. On the flip side, what is new for some of us is re-traumatizing for those communities that are all-too-familiar with the incessant carnage. As others have said, the violence isn't new; it's the videos that are new.

The statistics are all there for anyone to look up. There are dozens of studies showing the perverse incentives that lead to over-policing in poorer communities of color. The same goes for implicit bias studies revealing subconscious associations of blackness and criminality among almost all white Americans. Even so, barely one out of three white Americans believe that black Americans are treated worse by police than we are. All I can make of this is that we are desperately trying to maintain a dangerous state of plausible deniability. If we don't see the problem, we aren't forced to confront it. We can go about our business.

I've observed a spectrum of responses in conversations and social media among white friends and colleagues. I see shock and outrage at yet another preventable death. There's of course the standard pictures of summer fun in contradistinction to what's happening around us. I read excuses and demands to "wait for all the facts."

It all comes down to the "r" word. Since the 1960s, it has become socially unacceptable to be associated with racism. We've defined it in such a way that practically no one self-identifies with it. We pretend that racism is about how we feel towards people of color. But that misses the point. The problem with slavery wasn't that white people didn't like black people. An entire system worked to benefit whites at the expense of blacks. We're so afraid of being labeled racist that we refuse to see the systemic disparities right in front of our face.

It was ignorant, but perhaps understandable, to ask in 2014, "Don't all lives matter?" Metaphors abound on this misdirection, like all homes being doused in water when only one in a neighborhood is aflame. By 2015, the #AllLivesMatter shtick was already old. Today, it seems like little more than willful ignorance.

We white people are going to be the last domino to fall for real change to happen. #BlackLivesMatter has already succeeded in raising awareness and organizing far beyond what anyone could have expected just four years ago. Pillars of music and entertainment have taken stands. Political officials are beginning to say the obvious. The Dallas police department itself and several black police unions have been leaders for increased transparency concerning officer-related shootings and use of force.

There is of course the inevitable backlash of claims of "reverse racism" and post-factual assertions that whites face greater discrimination in our society than people of color. There's nothing much that can be done to disabuse people of such illusions. We will never get all of us white people to be on the same page on racism in America. But we don't need everyone, just enough people to force significant change. I've been inspired to see an increasing number of white people wake up and get active to demand an end to police brutality and over-incarceration. Sometimes you see that first relevant Facebook post where only silence had previously been.

It's better to pick a side than to passively accept whatever comes. Are you with the increasingly shrill voices that say to every incident of black death, "They had it coming"? Or will you be part of the solution? At some point, we all have to choose, like the old union song asks, "Which Side Are You On?" Do black lives matter, or don't they?

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