By Tasha Sanders, Intern 2015
I’m staring bleary-eyed at my television, listening to the news anchor tell me that yet another police officer will not be charged in the death of another person of color. I slump in my chair, emotionally fatigued by the injustice, horror, and blatant racism at play. Racism is so interwoven into our justice system that breaking free of it seems almost impossible sometimes. I see emotional protesters erupt onto the streets, their anguish written all over their faces. I have to turn the TV off.
The idea of racial profiling seems like something pulled right from the 60s, yet it happens all the time in our modern–day America. In fact, people of color accounted for a whopping 70% of stops under New York’s Stop and Frisk law (even though nine times out of ten, they were found innocent). They are 4.2 times more likely than white people to be shot by police. POC account for 58% of all prisoners in America, even though they only make up a quarter of our population. What’s that, you say? Perhaps they commit more crimes than white people? It turns out, if POC were incarcerated at the same rate as white people, prison populations would decrease by 50%.
There is an enormous gap between the situations of white people and POC, but our society is so steeped in white privilege that you might overlook it unless it harms you directly. From education to employment to even buying a house, people of color can count on experiencing exclusion or prejudice based on the color of their skin. And while overt racism is frowned upon, subtle racism plagues our country. Many people claim to be “colorblind” or refuse to acknowledge their own bias, but study after study shows that having a black friend doesn’t make you exempt from that aforementioned systemic racism.
Don’t tell me you are “colorblind” when the GoFundMe account set up for Officer Wilson is infested with racist comments referring to POC as “savages” and “animals,” or when certain news stations are quick to mention drug use among black people hurt at the hands of police, as if marijuana usage is grounds for death. And seriously, don’t tell me you are “colorblind” when an overwhelming number of Americans view black people as “mystical” or “superhuman.”
Police officers who use excessive force or kill walk free habitually from indictment, leaving many of us ready to throw our remotes at the TV screen. Failure to indict Officer Wilson and Pantaleo are not isolated incidents; they are part of a serious epidemic. What continues to happen over and over is due to racism, but racial profiling is difficult to prove. Not only does racial bias have to be shown, but there has to be evidence that willful excessive force was used. In addition, police officers are given authority to make split-second decisions since they are sometimes put in unsafe situations. According to CBS’s Eboni Williams,
“This all goes back to the wide latitude that officers — particularly — enjoy when it comes to the use of force in these cases … Officers’ jobs are inherently very dangerous, so the law does afford them this wide latitude and space to make decisions about what’s necessary.”
That’s why we see so many cops walk free, usually without even a slap on the wrist, leaving them open to patrol and terrorize innocent victims again. It should be noted that not all cops are racist or irresponsible (see: #NotAllCops). But the failure to hold bad cops accountable creates a feeling of mistrust and apprehension across the board.
While it is easy for me to flip my TV off when I am feeling drained, millions of black Americans live and breathe these levels of stress every day. As a white person, I can’t know what it’s like to get the side-eye when I shop because I’m constantly suspected of shoplifting. I haven’t experienced it. Ever. That’s white privilege. So is being able to do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race, and being easily able to buy greeting cards, dolls, and other toys featuring my race. (For these examples and more of everyday white privilege, check out this essay by Peggy McIntosh.)
Some people think that the events that have unfolded shouldn’t be a “race” problem, but a “human” problem. But the thing is, it is a race problem. It’s a race problem when POC are two times less likely than white people to abuse drugs, yet are 10 times more likely to be arrested for the crime. It is a race problem when POC are twice as likely to be unemployed as white people (with the same skill sets), yet there are still affirmative action naysayers. (Guys. Affirmative action won’t take away your job or “hurt” white folks. I promise.) It is a race problem we have had for far too long, because our system is fixed to benefit one race and squash others.
Protesters aren’t “against” white people. They want equality and justice, things society is demonstrating they don’t deserve. Part of the solution is a revamp of the system, a total deconstruction and rewrite. But the conversations that are happening around the country are a great first step. We have turned a blind eye for far too long, but I believe in us. Keep the conversation going and demand change. Here are some petitions you can sign right now. Create your own petition. Write your representative. Join a protest. Start a conversation. If you are a white person, acknowledge your privilege — no need for guilt — and be an ally.
To call yourself an ally, you must actively listen to POC and talk with them, not at them. You are not educating them on anything new, because they already know firsthand, and better than you do. Speaking for them undermines their ability to speak out and take action, on their own behalf and in their own words. They aren’t your “pet project.”
You should seek to educate yourself continually, but you must rely on yourself, not POC, to teach you. Spread what you know. Educate others. Get your people. As a white person, I don’t need to preach to POC. It is my responsibility to bring white people into this conversation. That means calling out racism when you see it, even when it’s coming from friends and family. You can even use Facebook as a platform.
Things need to change. We can’t lose any more brothers or sisters.