Saturday, November 29, 2014

Are white people morally obligated to "say something" about Ferguson?

First, read this article. Next, read my response letter below.

Dear “Race ya” blogger,

I agreed wholeheartedly with the first 75% of your post, and want to commend you for spreading insightful truths about such an important topic. That said, the last bit about Ferguson did not follow from the observations you made in the majority of the post. As a fellow white person, you asked me to consider an awful lot in that section that I’d already considered, without satisfactorily explaining how those considerations led to your conclusion. I’m now returning the favor with the same rhetorical device – not under the illusion that I’m introducing you to ideas you’ve not yet encountered, but with the intent to prompt a respectful and productive exchange of ideas from which participants and observers alike can benefit.

I’m asking you to consider how racism exists in degrees, not absolute binaries, such that pointing out how “America is a racist place to live,” without specifying just how racist of a place it is, is somewhat meaningless. Furthermore, I’m asking you to consider the possibility that, just as some white people may unknowingly underestimate the extent of that racism due to their privilege, other people may unknowingly exaggerate it, for a variety of complex social, psychological and political reasons. I’m asking you to consider whether constant suspicion of racism can lead people to attribute normal, everyday events that happen to people of all races – like being unsuccessful in their attempts to hail a cab – as proof of something that was not actually in play.

I’m asking you to consider that the existence of a degree of racism pervasive enough to warrant our attention and concern does not preclude people from simultaneously “playing the race card” in certain situations. While it’s absolutely true that “just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it is not there,” it is not always there in all cases. I agree that racism exists in many places where it is especially difficult for white people to detect, and that this is the most important message to spread; but, I’m asking you to admit that it is not “everywhere.”

I’m asking you consider the socioeconomic and cultural disparities which underlie statistics like “schools suspend black students at triple the rate of their white peers,” and, based on those disparities, consider how likely it is that black and white students commit equally many offenses worthy of suspension.

I’m asking you to consider that many defenders of Officer Wilson, and supporters of the decision not to indict him, truly sympathize with the justifiable anger bubbling over in Ferguson and elsewhere. And then I’m asking you to consider how even people with good cause to be angry can misdirect that anger towards innocent people. I’m asking you to consider that being unarmed does not render you incapable of doing serious damage to another person, especially when you are 6’5” and 290 pounds. Consequently, I’m asking you to consider whether killing an unarmed black teenager is truly incompatible with a claim of self-defense. I’m asking everyone involved to research the actual facts of the case before passing judgment about who is guilty of what, so that the due process rights in our constitution are not overruled by mob anger.

I’m asking you to consider whether all words can have racist and not-racist applications, including the word “thug”. I’m asking you to remember that very many people use that word and others to decry the violence and destruction at sports riots or rallies – especially for the particularly thuggish fans of Philadelphia sports teams.

I too am angry, upset, and striving to understand. I too consider myself an ally, and seek to be compassionate and empathetic. But I’m asking you to consider whether empathy requires you to put your life on hold for every racial saga that makes the nightly news; whether compassion is really incompatible with concurrent excitement over a great sale, or frustration at FedEx, or disseminating weight loss advice, or Instagramming photos of other topics.

I’m asking you to consider how there is more injustice in the world than any one individual can possibly pause to reflect upon, and how productive it is to mire oneself in perpetual woe because of this. I’m asking you to remember that at any given time, many parts of the world face injustices which exceed those faced by the residents of Ferguson, Missouri, making them at least as worthy of our attention, but that going about our own lives is not ordinarily seen as an indication that we don’t care about those places.

I’m asking you to question just how “particularly concerned” I would be over an incident of questionable police violence even if the bodies in the street did look like mine – as they often do. I’m asking you to consider whether terrorist attacks killing thousands of people are perhaps more of a “national fucking tragedy,” than the death of one kid in Missouri, especially when it is entirely possible that kid had it coming. I wonder whether the deaths of 4,000 civilians on 9/11 are perhaps more worthy of commemoration for reasons that have more to do with absolute death tolls than they do with racial bias. I wonder if the particular thing we ought never to forget is that the criminal justice system in this country is biased against blacks, not the murky circumstances of this particular story.

I’m asking you to realize that very often, our voice is NOT welcome in the conversation. I’m asking you to acknowledge that people can disagree with you without being immoral or afraid.

I am sad that such hatred and tension as Ferguson showcased exists in the world. I am sorry that Michael Brown is dead. I am not grieving, because I didn’t know the kid, but the people of Ferguson are in my thoughts. I am thinking about what all this means, grappling with challenging issues, and often unsure what to think.

But I feel no obligation to say any of that publicly, because the particular anecdote around which these people are rallying is not noteworthy enough of an injustice to require comment. Because if I want people to listen to me when I speak, I have to reserve my words for occasions that warrant it. Because I pick my battles, and when it comes to calling out people for the timing of their OK Cupid posts, you should consider doing the same.

(PS – 1030 of my 1278 Facebook friends are white, for a rate of 80.6%. I don’t think that matters, but to the extent that we do not see things alike, it’s not because my “number is closer to 99% than 91%.”)

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