COVID CHRONICLES 06/04/20
Dear White People: Why We All Need to Say “Black Lives Matter”
Dealing with Heartbreak
The CHRONICLES has taken a pause for the past week. I’ve been engaging in self-care, researching a story, mourning our friend and working to process and absorb the range of emotions I’ve felt over the death of George Floyd and the resulting protests, looting and violence.
Our society has cracked wide open. As someone who is naturally heart-based — indeed has lived in my emotions much of my life — I feel these events on multiple levels. Rage, grief, confusion, collective outrage and guilt, the sheer magnitude of the problem; all these combine into a powerful cocktail that can be overwhelming and debilitating. Put that on top of the challenges of my wife Lisa still recovering from the effects of COVID-19, and it’s no wonder that every once in a while, everything catches up.
Personally, I’ve had no choice but to respond by doubling-down on my daily gratitude, prayer and meditation practices, and recommit to restarting the physical ones. Some days it takes multiple sessions through the day to keep me going. Most recently that’s because I’ve been dealing with my rage. Other days the light shines through and I’m able to stay present for a good portion of the day.
As I realized several years ago, when I am able to take action on the small number of things in the Universe actually within my control and accept the rest as being out of my control, I am both happier and more effective operating in the world. And that requires a level of surrender. I thought doing it once would be sufficient. Then I woke up the next day and realized it needed to be a daily occurrence.
I realize that one of the things I CAN do right now is to use my voice to amplify others. The basic message is simple and directed at my fellow human beings with White skin:
It is time.
None of us is responsible for creating racism. None of us participated directly in the institution of slavery. None of us set up the system of privilege based on skin color from which we have benefitted.
At the same time, we have simply failed to take collective responsibility for the sins of our forebearers. We are being told loudly and clearly that we no longer have a choice. Woulda, shoulda, coulda — there are no more excuses.
This is not only for the benefit of Black people, though that should be enough. It is for our benefit too. We not only need to heal our society. We need to heal ourselves. Despite our best intentions, far too many of us are unaware of the hidden biases that help drive our reactions and decisions. Many places remain, have returned to, or become segregated by race. We are segregated by educational opportunities and outcomes; health prevention, treatment and outcomes; community services and public safety.
Where does hope lie? It is in our ability to self-examine, take responsibility, and follow through until change becomes a reality. Change always involves giving up some of the “good things” of the past. What we desperately need right now is a vision of a world in which we have overcome our history of slavery and racism. These things never happen overnight. They may not happen in our lifetime. But we are being called to action. How will we respond? How will you respond?
The Problem with “All Lives Matter’
The following expands on a recent post I made on Facebook. It bears repeating until everyone understands.
I’ve seen a lot of very well-meaning White people promoting “All Lives Matter” in response to the events of the past week and as an alternative to Black Lives Matter. I hope you will take a moment to read why it’s so problematic for White people to be doing this.
When I say to you “Save the Whales” or “Save the Polar Bears” do you respond with “NO, Save ALL Animals,” or “Save ALL Mammals?” Of course not. I’ve literally never heard a single person respond that way. Why? Because everyone understands that some species are threatened more than others, and anyone wanting to save one type of animal is extremely likely to support saving others too.
In the same way, when we say “Black Lives Matter” we are not devaluing other lives or saying they DON’T matter. We’re saying that some lives are more threatened than others based entirely on the color of their skin.
So I ask those of you doing this a serious and heartfelt question. Why when you hear “Black Lives Matter” do you insist on responding with “All Lives Matter?” If you are White, no one is threatening YOUR life based on your skin color. If you’re in law enforcement, the entire system is designed to protect you.
I believe one reason is that many White people don’t understand what racism actually IS, and the difference between racism and bias.
Regardless of what you may find in a dictionary somewhere, the accepted definition of racism includes personal AND institutional characteristics. And that is different from bias. This means that people can be biased against others for a whole range of reasons that have nothing to do with who they are as a person. Bias is a common human trait that transcends race, gender and culture.
However, ONLY White people can be racist. Why? Because only White people have their biases reinforced by society’s dominant institutions and systems. People of Color can be biased, but they can’t be racist, because they don’t benefit from systemic unequal treatment.
We need to start the healing by acknowledging and accepting this basic fact.
So, if you’ve chosen “All Lives Matter” over Black Lives Matter in the past, I invite you to reconsider. Try making clear publicly that you believe Black Lives Matter without equivocating. It may make you uncomfortable. But that’s exactly the reason to do it. Turn into your discomfort, explore it, be honest about it.
We as White people are responsible for healing racism and reforming racist institutions in our country. And that can’t happen if we can’t even say strongly and loudly BLACK LIVES MATTER without any if, ands or buts.
Cops are People First
Let me follow up on the last item by saying something that may raise some hackles. It’s a response to the other alternative I’ve seen to Black Lives Matter, though admittedly not in the past week (though you may have). It’s “Blue Lives Matter.”
Let me say this just as clearly as I can: THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A BLUE LIFE.
Police are people first and foremost, with values and biases, strengths and weaknesses like any other person. When you say “Blue Lives Matter” what you are actually doing is speaking out in favor of the racist institution of Policing and supporting the “Blue Wall of Silence.” Not what you’re trying to say? Then stop using the phrase. There are many other ways of showing your support for the majority of good cops.
Concerned About the Looting? Listen to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Many of the White people I talk to — especially men — are deeply conflicted between their horror at the murder of George Floyd and sympathy for those facing injustice on one hand, and their belief in right and wrong, law and order on the other.
In a clear-eyed, truth-telling Los Angeles Times Op-Ed, Don’t understand the protests? What you’re seeing is people pushed to the edge, Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, long-time activist, published author and the N.B.A.’s all-time leading scorer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar explains. The entire piece is a must read. A few excerpts.
“What was your first reaction when you saw the video of the white cop kneeling on George Floyd’s neck while Floyd croaked, “I can’t breathe”?
“If you’re white, you probably muttered a horrified, “Oh, my God” while shaking your head at the cruel injustice. If you’re black, you probably leapt to your feet, cursed, maybe threw something (certainly wanted to throw something), while shouting, “Not @#$%! again!” Then you remember the two white vigilantes accused of murdering Ahmaud Arbery as he jogged through their neighborhood in February, and how if it wasn’t for that video emerging a few weeks ago, they would have gotten away with it. And how those Minneapolis cops claimed Floyd was resisting arrest but a store’s video showed he wasn’t. And how the cop on Floyd’s neck wasn’t an enraged redneck stereotype, but a sworn officer who looked calm and entitled and devoid of pity: the banality of evil incarnate…
“What do you see when you see angry black protesters amassing outside police stations with raised fists? If you’re white, you may be thinking, “They certainly aren’t social distancing.” Then you notice the black faces looting Target and you think, “Well, that just hurts their cause.” Then you see the police station on fire and you wag a finger saying, “That’s putting the cause backward.”
“You’re not wrong — but you’re not right, either…
“COVID-19 has been slamming the consequences of [everything] home as we die at a significantly higher rate than whites, are the first to lose our jobs, and watch helplessly as Republicans try to keep us from voting. Just as the slimy underbelly of institutional racism is being exposed, it feels like hunting season is open on blacks. If there was any doubt, President Trump’s recent tweets confirm the national zeitgeist as he calls protesters “thugs” and looters fair game to be shot…
“So, maybe the black community’s main concern right now isn’t whether protesters are standing three or six feet apart or whether a few desperate souls steal some T-shirts or even set a police station on fire, but whether their sons, husbands, brothers and fathers will be murdered by cops or wannabe cops just for going on a walk, a jog, a drive. Or whether being black means sheltering at home for the rest of their lives because the racism virus infecting the country is more deadly than COVID-19…
“(W)hat you see when you see black protesters depends on whether you’re living in that burning building or watching it on TV with a bowl of corn chips in your lap waiting for “NCIS” to start.
“What I want to see is not a rush to judgment, but a rush to justice.”
Again, please read the entire thing.
My Experience of Cops and Policing as a White Person
Let me close by speaking about my personal experience with people in law enforcement. To be honest, it has been mixed.
Over the past several years I’ve had the opportunity to meet and get to know a number of cops and their families. Clear-headed and compassionate, values steeped in public service, these are some of the finest people I’ve ever known. I believe they represent not only the best of police, but much closer to the majority of cops than those we are seeing and reading about. What I am seeing and hearing now that seems different than ever before is police standing up and speaking out against the injustices within their own system, and against the cops who perpetuate racist acts. That’s not easy, necessary as it is.
My paternal grandfather was a cop. I’m sad to say he was also a racist and bigot. It took me a while when I was a child to figure out what he meant when he described the “Jungle Bunnies” taking over the New York streets. By the time he was complaining about the “Kikes taking over the neighborhood” I was old enough to get it. My biggest fear when I went over to their house to introduce my grandparents to my first girlfriend who was Jewish — and later my future wife who was also Jewish — was that my grandfather would say something antisemitic. He and my grandmother were both dead by the time my kids were born and I converted to Judaism. I can just imagine them at the brit…
At the same time my grandfather was offering his opinion on race relations in the mid-sixties through the late seventies, my other experience with cops was through the television set. Whether shots of Bull Conner and others in the south, the assassination of Martin Luther King or the 1968 Democratic National Convention, I became appalled by how these men were turning on their fellow citizens. These images are part of eventually propelled me toward social justice.
This was a rather rude awakening for a child with one foot in the fifties even though only my birth year was spent there. I grew up with very traditional (read White) Christian (read Conservative) values and a firm and patriotic belief in our country and its institutions. While my parent’s racial views evolved and as a result so did mine, it wasn’t until adulthood that I began to examine my own biases closely.
When I arrived in California for graduate school, I got a job as a bar back, and soon bartender, for what I describe as the “quintessential 1980’s fern bar. It was the place where the off-duty cops came to drink. There were some good guys there who walked a delicate line. On the other hand, there were a couple of ugly drunks. I would not wanted to have met them outside the bar when they were drunk.
The thing that tipped the balance into action was the Rodney King incident. I committed to getting more directly involved. I joined a leadership group and the next year was appointed to my city’s Human Relations Commission. When the issue of black people being stopped by police for “Driving While Black,” we were able to get the police department to start collecting stop data proving the bias. And policy was changed.
Along the way, I got to know a couple of police chiefs personally along with some of the beat cops. They were dedicated and open to addressing problems and making changes. I ended up on a childcare board with one of them and we had an excellent working relationship.
This is all to repeat what I said above. Cops are people first. There are good and bad, competent and incompetent. The issue is that they carry lethal weapons. This attracts people who are in the profession for reasons other than serving the public. Just as it is up to White people to address racism, cops must address police brutality and racism within their own institution.
This will not be the last time we discuss race in this space.
[Ed: Revised section order 06/06/20]