[This was a column I wrote in my hometown paper, aiming to speak to a largely white, small-town, middle class, moderate audience.]
I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” —James Baldwin
I struggled with whether to write this. Who am I to speak up? Then again, who am I to be silent? Black people shouldn’t have to lead all of these conversations - especially in a town that’s 96% white. So let’s talk about it.
I think there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of Black Lives Matter. It’s become a charged term. “ALL lives matter,” people say in response. Which is true. But it’s sort of like you’re sitting around the dinner table with your family and everyone gets a meal except you. You say “I’m hungry too,” and your brother, crumbs on his face, responds, “We’re ALL hungry.” It’s like, right, but you already have a meal. You’re not saying that the rest of your family shouldn’t get a meal, only that you should also get one. In other words, we, as a society, already value white lives.
Regardless of skin color, I know life isn’t easy for anyone. We’re all fighting a hard battle. So when someone tries to put something else on our metaphorical plate - something big, messy and uncomfortable, something new for us to think about - we may have a snap reaction to dig in our heels and cling to our old ideas. But this problem demands fresh consideration.
George Floyd’s murder isn’t just about “a few bad cops.” It would be simpler if it was, or at least easier to address. Instead, we’re dealing with a complex web of issues (all of which, in one way or another, trace back to America’s original sin.) Here are just three examples:
‒Structural problems with how we’re policed. (“A study of stop and frisk incidents in Boston between 2007 and 2010 that did not result in a citation or arrest found that 63 percent of such stops were of black people. Blacks made up 24 percent of the city’s population. Incredibly, 97.5 percent of these encounters resulted in no arrest or seizure of contraband,” the Washington Post reported.)
‒A judicial system that discriminates based on skin color. (“Black men who commit the same crimes as white men receive federal prison sentences that are, on average, nearly 20 percent longer...” according to a 2017 study from the United States Sentencing Commission, and that’s even when controlling for other factors.)
‒Insane incarceration rates as a country, but especially among Black men. (According to research cited by the NAACP, our country represents about 5 percent of the world’s population, but houses around 21 percent of the world’s prisoners. Our enforcement of drug laws, in particular, is broken. “African Americans and whites use drugs at similar rates, but the imprisonment rate of African Americans for drug charges is almost 6 times that of whites.”)
And, by the way: to call this the “tip of the iceberg” would be an understatement. Institutional racism has affected wealth and income, housing, education, and beyond, and has produced devastating compounding effects for Black families over generations.
Systemic racism does not mean that everyone working within that system is willfully racist, but that the system itself treats people differently. Unfortunately, this holds true even when individual actors within the system, like police officers, are doing a good job. That’s what we’re grappling with here.
If you’ve been in an American classroom over the last few decades, slavery and racism were probably glossed over. The Underground Railroad. Black-and-white pictures of the KKK. A few lynchings across the south. Harriet Tubman. Rosa Parks. Martin Luther King Jr. And then February would end. Time for the next unit. It was history. It was bad, and now it’s good, we thought.
Far from the almost-mystical, ever-patient leader we imagine him to be today, however, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote the following in a Birmingham jail cell in 1963:
“First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a more convenient season.
“Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
Today, this larger context is lost on many. Instead, sanitized MLK quotes float into our Facebook feeds and nestle in nicely with what we remember from our history lessons in school, giving us, as MLK himself said, a “shallow understanding.” We hit “like” and continue scrolling.
There’s a subtext to some of our friends’ MLK posts on social media, too: HE was respectable. HE was peaceful.
The truth is that while he was alive, white Americans largely disapproved of Dr. King’s work. And what about Colin Kaepernick? Did you know that when Kaepernick began his own peaceful protest, he stayed seated on the bench while the national anthem played, and only changed to the more respectful kneel after consulting with a Green Beret? He was vilified for it. Still is. When a few Patriots took a knee in 2017, boos echoed throughout Gillette Stadium. This quiet demonstration, done not with disrespect towards the flag nor our veterans, but with the intention of bringing our nation’s attention to an urgent issue, was met with fans burning their season tickets and threatening to never watch the sport again.
Today, protesters are protesting. And yes, looters are looting. Let’s not conflate them. There are many subgroups operating during these demonstrations, and it’s a trap to look at the most extreme, the most ill-intentioned, and color everyone who’s making their voice heard by our impression of the worst examples.
I’m not asking for you to march. I’m not asking for you to donate. I’m not asking you to read every book in the library.
My hope in writing this is that you find yourself like me, at a jumping off point, ready to dig into these issues on your own, and in earnest.
When we’re born, we’re spongy, both physically and mentally. We’re open to new ideas. When we get older, we become brittle. Don’t be brittle on this issue. Evolve. Participate however you can. Changing your mind is a sign of strength, not weakness.
I’m just beginning my education here. If you haven’t already, I really hope you’ll do the same.
Thanks for reading.
Adam O’Kane is a resident of Hampton.