The tension in the air in the US right now is so thick you can cut it with a knife. Fear is rampant, but not everyone is afraid of the same thing. We are afraid of each other.
The phrase “divide and conquer” comes to my mind as I feel Americans become more and more divided, and I fear how we might be conquered.
But I also see so many uniting, which gives me incredible hope. I have been a part of some conversations where people are really listening to each other’s differing perspectives and experiences and trying to learn from each other. I see people struggling through the discomfort of hearing a different opinion that scares them and being patient and trying to understand it.
But I also have been in many spaces where different opinions and perspectives are not something that people can discuss civilly. Where conversations aren’t seen as a way to better understand each other and the world; rather they lead to defensiveness and cause people to shut down and/or to start slinging insults. And I see a lot of people only having conversations within groups with similar opinions and not branching out to try to understand the opinions of people outside their comfort zone.
It’s as if we never learned those basic lessons of dialogue. We are all Americans, we are all humans that want to live in a safer America, and yet somehow we lost the ability to listen to each other about what a safer world for everyone would look like.
I’m hoping this can be a bridging tool to help us take a step closer to having some productive difficult conversations.
Simplifying the complex issues brought up by the recent protests, I see two predominate perspectives – contradictory, though equally valid and true to those who hold them.
Perspective 1: The police keep our communities safe. If we feel threatened, we can call the police. Only guilty people have reason to be afraid of the police. Defunding the police would be a disaster in public safety.
For people whose experience with the police has mostly been positive, (other than traffic tickets or mild offenses,) this perspective will probably resonate. The recent protests often make these people feel threatened because it seems like the institution that keeps them safe – the police and the criminal justice system – is being threatened, by the protests and by calls for defunding the police.
Perspective 2: Many police officers abuse their power, and the string of police brutality incidents against black people are blatant indicators that racism is still very alive in America, especially in the criminal justice system. Police officers and the entire criminal justice system need to be held accountable, reformed, even defunded, and structural racism must be addressed.
For people of color who have experienced racism by police officers or in other areas of their life, this statement will ring true, and the sight of a police officer will often incite fear rather than a sense of security. For them, the George Floyd-inspired protests give them hope for a safer, more just America, despite the fear they feel as unarmed citizens when they see the armed officers policing the protests and the white men with guns, counter-protesting.
Both of these perspectives are real and valid and varied (as I said, I simplified a complex issue into a binary issue to be able to take a first step in talking about it.) Though they seem contradictory, many people are starting to be able to hold both perspectives in their mind at one time. And this, to me is the first step forward.
To be clear, I’m not saying that each perspective deserves equal weight.
The majority of people who identify with Perspective 1 are white, and the majority of black people identify Perspective 2. Yes, there are exceptions, but speaking in terms of majorities, there is a clear race line between these perspectives.
Yep, I brought up race and made a generalization about different experiences based on the color of our skin. I’m such a racist, some will say.
“Equality means we’re all equal and so we shouldn’t even see black and white, and we should have equal standards for everyone; the best way to achieve equality is to be colorblind.” I used to believe that.
And then I spoke to people of color and learned about their personal experiences of racism that I had never in my life experienced or witnessed outside of books and movies; I wasn’t aware of how prevalent the experience of discrimination still is today for many people of color.
If racism didn’t exist, sure we could all be colorblind. But since racism DOES still exist, saying we are colorblind is turning a blind eye to an injustice that we are living with, here in the nation where we strive for Justice and Liberty For All. Turning a blind eye to racism is turning a blind eye to our American principles.
So if people actually have different experiences based on the color of their skin, we need to talk about these differences to understand each other. And one important question would be why does race have anything to do with whether someone feels threatened or hopeful by the current protests? Why does race have anything to do with whether cops make us feel safe or not?
Understanding the difference between these two perspectives is crucial to finding a solution that will help people of the both perspectives feel safe and secure.
As we have known for decades (but it seems to only recently be getting a lot of attention and hasn’t made it into basic education), there is plenty of proof 1 that racism is alive and well in the criminal justice system, keeping alive the Jim Crow laws, but in a more subtle way. It’s often not that blacks are more likely to commit crimes, it’s that they are more likely to get caught and punished, indicating an underlying racism in both law enforcement personnel and the criminal justice system.
People of color are disproportionately stopped without cause by police officers, and they are also searched at a much higher rate than whites. Despite the fact that blacks were searched more often than whites, contraband was more often found on whites.2
Studies also showed blacks being spoken to in a more degrading manner than whites by the same officers.1
And despite the fact that rates of drug use are equal among races, blacks are charged for drug offenses at much higher rates than whites.3
While more whites are killed by police officers annually, blacks are killed at a disproportionate rate – nearly 3 times as often, compared to their share of the population – and those blacks killed were more likely to be unarmed than the whites killed.4
I have been afraid of getting a ticket or getting a fine when I’m pulled over by a cop, but I have never feared for my life, like my black friend, who is an upstanding citizen and serves in the military. I also have never been pulled over for no reason, whereas it has happened to him twice.
These experiences of discrimination are not only different from the majority of white experiences, they are negative, frustrating, dehumanizing, even life-threatening, and unfair.
The history of this country has been dominated by white people talking and a vast majority of black people having to be submissive, deferring to the white voice, having to be more patient and humble because they could be killed or jailed or lose their job if they didn’t.
And it still happens today. I have had multiple black friends tell me stories of how they are held to a higher standard than their white counterparts in their jobs; they have witnessed harsh repercussions for black people who lose their cool, compared to white people that don’t even get reprimanded for the same or worse responses to stress or unjust personal attacks.
So, it’s time for whites to switch the centuries-old race role and defer to black voices. It’s white people’s turns to be held to the higher standard of being more patient, empathetic, and understanding, as our fellow Americans tell us about their experiences being people of color.4
White people (including me!) are not the experts on racism because we haven’t had the same experiences due to the color of our skin. (Maybe we’ve had similar experiences for other reasons – for our gender or sexual orientation, etc, and that can help us be more empathetic, but it is still a different experience with a different history.)
So I would argue that even if you identify with Perspective 1, we as a nation and as individuals need to invest more of our time listening to and trying to understand Perspective 2.
For example, someone with Perspective 1 will be incredibly scared of the idea “defund the police force” because it will be seen as taking critical resources away from a fundamental part of one’s safety. But if we can actually converse on a deeper level about this hot-button topic, the validity of both sides can be seen. For example, imagine 911 calls related to a person experiencing homeless being routed to professionals in organizations that are funded and prepared to work specifically with the homeless community instead of being routed to the police. It could be a burden taken off of police and instead given to experts in that area.
As we are having important conversations about the protests, about police, and about racism in the US, let’s remember that we all want to feel safe and secure in our communities, and we want all our children to grow up in an America that is safe for them. To do that, we need to listen especially hard to those that currently don’t feel safe and have a history of not having their voices heard.
There are obviously many issues underlying the protests spurred by the death of George Floyd, but let’s take them one at a time and give them the response they deserve. When the reality of racism that still exists is highlighted by those affected by it, don’t change the subject to the other issues faced by our nation. Listen. Empathize. Learn. Recognize the problem and think of ways that we can make real changes.
It is a long and difficult road, but we need to have those hard conversations with those with differing perspectives. This is how we create a more perfect union, a free world, where there is truly liberty and justice for all.
Listen: 1619 Podcast
Watch a video: Systemic Racism
Watch a series: 13th (Netflix)
Look (Instagram): An Explanation “Defunding Police” in 10 Photos
Read articles: Reflections from a Token Black Friend
Read books: Anti-racist reading list
Do: From donating to volunteering to activism
(1) This article is a compilation of studies demonstrating that racism in policing is not confined to certain isolated incidents that make the news, but rather it is the predominant trend in the instituation. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/opinions/wp/2018/09/18/theres-overwhelming-evidence-that-the-criminal-justice-system-is-racist-heres-the-proof/
(2) https://arxiv.org/pdf/1607.05376.pdf, https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/opa/press-releases/attachments/2015/03/04/ferguson_police_department_report.pdf
(5) If the majority of your conversations about race are with other white people or the handful of black people that are against the protests, are you really getting enough information to really be able to understand both sides of the issue? Are you truly trying to understand racism on a deeper level?
In the ideal world, a white person that truly wants to understand racism would be listening to many voices of the black protesters and trying to understand their perspective. They would seek out multiple perspectives and read as much as possible about black history – how Reconstruction after the Civil War was interrupted by a political deal over an election contest, sending millions of recently freed slaves to be subjected to a century more of injustice. How the civil rights movement of the 1960’s stalled out when it tried to address the problems of systemic racism that still persist today.
That is not to say that white people conversing with white people is not also a valuable conversation. In fact, many of my black friends have expressed how incredibly tired they are trying to explain their experiences, only to have their experiences invalidated, to have them fall on deaf ears, to hear unfounded excuses for the racism they have experienced, or tell them that they are playing the victim and that white people experience those things too. That is why it is also time to step out of our comfort zones and be advocates (without pretending to be experts) in white-white conversations.