Not safely, anyway.
As a black man, as the son and grandson and great grandson of black men, as a father of a black teenager, I’ve known the fear I can trigger among white people. I know that, for many, when they see my skin they can see a loaded, cocked weapon. For black people, our melanin is probable cause.
This is our truth. And there’s not a thing we can do about that. But white people can.
For most white people, the violence that happens to blacks in America has too often been a headline on Facebook to scroll past, a Twitter video to watch, a morning show news clip sandwiched between a cooking segment and the weather. It is something they know exists but rarely affects their day-to-day lives.
Watching the white police officer in that city press his knee against the neck of George Floyd for 8 minutes and 46 seconds until he died was just too much for many white Americans to handle. And seeing the three other cops stand by during the killing — that was just too much to handle. White people across America and around the world were disgusted. As they should have been.
But, just a short while earlier, we had learned about Ahmaud Arbery
, allegedly hunted down by three white men — one a former law enforcement officer. He was first hit with a truck
and then shot dead as he was jogging in Georgia, according to a Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent testifying Thursday at a preliminary hearing. Prosecutors say he was “executed.”
There was also the case of Breonna Taylor
, a 26-year-old medical worker — a black woman — shot at least eight times and killed in an attempted drug sting by plainclothes officers who burst in while she was asleep in her bed in Kentucky. And Christian Cooper
, a Harvard-trained biomedical editor, had the New York City police called on him while bird watching by a frightened white woman in Central Park after he asked her to follow the law and put her dog on a leash.
Black people have lived with this kind of treatment every day for years. For centuries. But now more white people are paying attention. As Will Smith said: “Racism is not getting worse. It’s getting filmed.”
White people, this one is on y’all.
Between the coronavirus pandemic and the lethal police violence, this has been a rough few weeks for Black America. It has set in stark relief how little of this is within our control. We, mostly, are not the cops on the street. We, mostly, are not the CEOs in the board rooms. We, mostly, aren’t the voters electing the prosecutors and judges. We’re not sitting at the dinner tables with the mildly racist cousins and uncles and in-laws who are snickered at or just tolerated.
This week has shown how much of what has been happening — and how many of the things that must change — are on the white majority. You have the real power. You are in the positions of authority. If this has really affected you at your core, you can actually change white culture. From the inside. We can’t.
I hope this moment is a real wake-up call for white people, for our allies. And that they stay awake. Because that’s where the only real change can come from. There’s just not much more we — black and brown people — can do except try not to get shot each day. And hope…
I had to tell my then-15-year-old son, as a white female Maryland-National Capital Park Police officer was pulling us over when we took our exit off the 495 Beltway, to keep his hands in plain sight and his mouth shut while I tried to figure out why we were being stopped.
“Oh, no, you weren’t speeding,” the officer told me while shining her flashlight in my face with her left hand as her right hand hovered over her holster. “You just looked out of place, so I ran your plates, and your smog certificate just expired. You’d better get that fixed.” Smog certificate? Really?
Turns out our only crime was that we were two black men driving in a Mercedes-Benz S430 in suburban D.C. And that was not worth getting shot over.
But I am hopeful. Millions and millions of white people in America were — at their core — disgusted and embarrassed by the George Floyd murder. They knew, in their gut, that it was wrong and not the America they want to live in. Many also know, at least intellectually, that these kinds of episodes happen frequently to people of color, even if most are not shown TV and social media. And some have taken to the streets this week to join — and in some cases lead — the protests. They are there, on the front lines, doing something about it. That gives me hope. But it’s not enough.
This is the time for white people to actively challenge their uncles, their co-workers, their drinking buddies — those they know who are either actively racist or passively indifferent to what happens in their communities (and often on their behalf) every day. It is time to make them uncomfortable.
They need to accept that there are thousands of George Floyd episodes that happen all the time across this country that don’t get captured on someone’s cell phone, episodes that end up as an afterthought on a doctored police report, “The suspect resisted arrest…” or “Responding officers believed the suspect was reaching for a weapon…”
The good cops — and yes, many ARE good cops — need to actively check, call out and turn in their colleagues in the precinct or the locker room (and they know exactly who they are) who they know should never be allowed to use deadly force to satisfy their power trips. And the police unions need to take a leadership role in purging their ranks of those officers (and they know exactly who they are) they know have no business wielding a gun and a badge in today’s society.
We have seen scores of public companies
— from Uber to Peloton
— release statements of support, proclaiming they, too, believe “Black Lives Matter.” While that support is appreciated, the next question is, “What else are you going to do about it?” If you look at companies’ top management, their senior leadership, their boards of directors, do you see many people of color? No? Well, what are you going to do about it? When you look at who your top vendors are, who you hire as outside counsel, as your accountants, as your consultants, are you doing business with black-and-brown owned companies?
So, right now, what can you do about it? As a start, you can open yourself up to our daily reality. Listen — with your mouths closed and your hearts open — as your black friends talk about what they deal with every day. Yes, we can help you become aware, but we can’t help you understand. Read great works like “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism” by anti-racist educator Robin DiAngelo or Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Or just do a Twitter search for the hashtag #WhitePeoplesHomework.
White people, this one is on you. You are in the positions of power. You are the ones who can be the change.
Don’t let this opportunity slip by. America needs you to step up.