A friend of mine, a woman a little younger than I am and also white, is reading The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander. This week, in the wake of the indictment of six Baltimore cops for murder or manslaughter in the death Freddie Gray, she asked me, “What should we do?”
She meant ‘we’, ‘white people’, and, I think, when she said, ‘What should we do?’, she didn’t just mean, ‘How can we help?’ – she also intended the harder, subtler question, ‘What am I supposed to do with my anger about this? How do I understand and cope with how desperate this makes me feel, especially in light of my own complicity?’
During the winter, I go to the gym most days after work. The TVs over the treadmills are usually set to CNN, and this is pretty much the only the network television I watch. During the past few months, I have run while, each week, it seems, CNN covers another murder of a black man by the police. Lately, as we all know, there have been videos of these deaths, and I watch while these men are killed over and over and over, and all I can think, ‘We should all have known that this was happening.’
There are a number of systems failing in these videos, many policies indicted in the facts of these deaths: the expansion of police powers, the war on drugs, entrenched, multi-generational poverty. There are more evils at work here than simple racism.
But simple racism is there: there are fewer consequences for killing blacks than there are for killing whites, and police across the country have been exploiting that difference for a long time. Black lives matter, but they matter less than white lives. This is an empirical truth and a moral catastrophe.
This problem has not gotten worse recently: the police did not just start killing black men this year. The national media did not finally develop a racial conscience; white people are not more aware, more sensitive, than we were in 2005. So what changed – why are we talking about this now?
Because now there’s video.
Everyone has a camera now, smartphones which feel like an extension of their arms, and their own personal social media platforms. The situation is exactly the same, but now there’s proof.
I feel crushed by this fact: black Americans have, for decades, insisted that they were the victims of police brutality. Most white people didn’t believe them, and even those of us who did, who believed that, yes, stop-and-frisk was racist, that blacks were systematically harassed by police, we didn’t imagine, didn’t really understand, that they were being routinely murdered by the police.
At least, I hope we didn’t. Because the other possibility is that we did, and we just didn’t care.
But they were – they were being killed by the police, and we might have done something about it much sooner if only we had believed what we were told. Unfortunately, and indisputably, the word of the black community is insufficient: they must have video corroboration, even in cases of their own deaths.
Truly, we had no good excuse for not believing the charges of racial violence made against the police. In the entire history of black-white relations in America, every single time a system could victimize or disadvantage blacks, it has. After slavery, after Jim Crow, after civil rights, when the black community said, ‘We’re scared of the police,’ where on earth did white people find the gall to disregard them?
It’s well past time to accept this: black Americans and white Americans occupy different countries. Our experience does not delimit theirs, and the fact of the difference in their experience is not grounds for us to dismiss it. It’s time for the white community to treat the testimony of black Americans as equal to their own.
If we had, perhaps we would not still live in a country where racist drug laws provide a thin cover behind which cops arbitrarily torture and execute an unknown number of black men. If we had had a little moral imagination, we might have stopped this a long time ago – instead, we needed to wait for it to come out on video before we would even start talking about it.
So what should we do?
Here’s what we can do, for a start: the next time a black person tells us, ‘I can’t ever get a cab’, ‘They won’t lease us apartments’, ‘They treat me like I’m only there to shoplift’, ‘I was going the speed limit’, ‘I wasn’t resisting arrest’, ‘They kill us for no reason’, we can believe them.
Image taken from the New York Times