In my social circles (mostly white and millennial), perhaps the most common reaction to the grand jury’s decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson on charges related to the killing of unarmed, black teenager Michael Brown is to denounce Darren Wilson, the verdict, the jury and our justice system as a whole. I see my friends express disbelief in the fact that “those people” could be so racist and prejudiced. They paint Darren Wilson, the police state, the jury, etc. as villains – as if they themselves are the singular face of American racism.
But in such removed and isolated denunciation, we see the cycle of oppression and racism being subtly perpetuated and recycled yet again. If you are a young white person denouncing seemingly distant systems and events, I urge you to question how distant those systems truly are and examine how you yourself are involved in them as well as what benefits and privileges you enjoy as a result of their perpetuation. If we want to truly eradicate racism, we need to acknowledge that we are involved in and benefit from these structures. Expressions of discontent independent of a greater understanding of our own social context are worth nothing besides a scrambling effort at self-absolution.
When I see the classic, hasty, and emphatic white denunciation of Wilson, the jury, and the verdict, I see a reactionary attempt to either consciously or subconsciously prove that we are in fact not racist, that we are not responsible for the behavior reinforced by broken systems, and that we played and continue to play no role in the perpetuation of oppression. In making these claims, we are applauded and congratulated by both fellow white people and people of other races for being so sympathetic, so caring, so empathetic. In receiving these laudatory remarks, we have successfully accomplished the task at hand – we have received a free pass, a stamp that says “I am not a racist” while coming decisively short of acknowledging our own privilege, our own participation in oppression, and our own benefit from inherently racist institutions. What on the surface seems like solidarity with the oppressed effectively translates into complacency with systems that are already in place and a perpetuation of such oppression. It is complacency and a recycling of the status quo disguised as an eagerness to change.
We must not attempt to distance ourselves from Darren Wilson. We cannot distance ourselves from the verdict and the jurors. As far as we live in and benefit from broken institutions, we might as well be Darren Wilson. It goes unregistered in the minds of many that the system is far more responsible than any single officer – and we are all components of and participants in that system.
Without a recognition of our involvement in larger systems at hand, we allow ourselves to project our own behavior and privilege onto obscure entities like “the police” and “the jury” and “the justice system” without coming to terms with our own participation in the same systems we are denouncing. We can present the image that we are “down with the cause” by turning Wilson into a cold blooded racist killer while absolving ourselves of any responsibility and any participation – thus perpetuating the cycle of unearned privilege and supporting the inherently racist systems we benefit from with a clean conscience. We seek to distance ourselves from the realities that permeate not just Ferguson but our own communities and our own minds.
It is with this thought that, at least for white people, any response and protest must be directed not simply to this decision and this officer but to the larger systems at hand, to our own personal race relations, dialogue, communities, and faulty prejudiced heuristics. Genuine change requires an acknowledgement of our own prejudices and our own participation in racist systems built long ago but perpetuated in present day.
Here is my charge – refrain from tweets and Facebook statuses that limit the conversation to a disagreement with the verdict and swift condemnation of Wilson. Realize that the protests taking root across the nation are not simply in protest of this particular decision – they are in protest of the history of marginalization and continuation of oppression that made it possible for such a disparity in the demographics of a police force and the citizens they are called to protect to exist in the first place. Borrowing an eloquent and important statement from my friend and colleague Kinjal Dave, “You may be my friends and my family and the loves of my life but if you are not compelled to talk, to move, to understand, to share the pain of those who are not free to express it, then I am ashamed and disappointed in you. If you are silent, you are part of the problem. You are complicit. There is no neutrality. If you opt out of caring, that is your privilege which allows you to do so… I believe you can do better. Do you?”
Maybe the jury made the wrong call on this one. Maybe the jury made the right call on this one. Maybe Darren Wilson genuinely believed that he was in a life threatening situation which required lethal force. We do not have the power to judge their decision. But we do have the power to question what factors played into Wilson’s belief that he was in life threatening danger. We are smart enough to know that this entire situation is an extremely minor component of a larger historical narrative and perpetuation of oppression, institutionalized racism, marginalization, and silencing of voices. Learn the history, grasp the realities of our current racial context, and use your privilege in a way that seeks to dismantle and rebuild our nation’s broken systems. Let’s stop building up scarecrows of racism like Darren Wilson only to condemn them with ease and maintain untroubled consciences. The individual and systemic exist together and reinforce one another. Regardless of you position on this particular case, it is important to recognize that America is not a post-racial society.
Over this Thanksgiving holiday, let us be unconditionally grateful for all that we have, and let’s ask ourselves why it may be that others are not in the same fortunate situation. There is much left to be explored in this ever critical discussion – and it starts with you.