Black Americans, Indigenous peoples and immigrants who are standing up to highlight the injustices they suffer on a daily basis are creating a long overdue teachable moment for whites in the United States. Whites who believe in equality, an end to prejudice and equal justice for all are standing with them; together we can make transformational change on racism and prejudice.
A term like “white privilege” is becoming understood by more whites, not as a slur but as a description of reality, and is being more easily used in conversation by people of color. Whites who get the reality of racism are standing up when other Euro-Americans behave in racist ways and speaking out. This is just one way we move toward awareness and transformation.
Throughout most of the long history of bigotry against blacks in the United States – 400 years of slavery, 100 years of Jim Crow, followed by mass incarceration, red line segregation and economic unfairness that continues through today – communities of color have been mostly silent, out of need for survival. (Of course, the history and reality for Indigenous peoples has had the same impact.) As Chauncey de Vega wrote this week:
“White supremacy has forced black Americans, as a historic matter of survival, to wear a mask that is used to hide the full range of our emotions. In many ways, to publicly deny a full range of our emotion is a profoundly unnatural and unhealthy behavior. The mask also means that all too often, black justice claims are compromised, massaged, and repackaged as to avoid making white folks too uncomfortable. This is an act of surrender to white racial fragility and white privilege—moves that in the long-term accomplish little as power concedes nothing without a demand.”
The angry black man or woman risks an abusive response, but thankfully more have summoned the courage to refuse to accept racism. Why do whites not want to hear anger from communities of color? Our sense is it comes out of fear that white America will pay a price for its historic, ongoing and systemic racism. While polling show most whites deny racism, those results may simply be a denial of reality – a reality they do not want to acknowledge.
Individuals Standing Up Make a Difference
This week activists from #BlackLivesMatter stood up and interrupted the presidential town hall of Netroots Nation. They captured the national spotlight and forced Martin O’Malley, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton (even though she wasn’t there) to face-up to racism in the United States.
O’Malley has a terrible history from his time as mayor of Baltimore when his administration arrested tens of thousands of black youth without any cause, held them overnight in jail and released them the next morning without any charges. The abusive police behavior in Baltimore during his tenure is at the roots of the police culture that killed Freddie Gray. For us, this abuse of power makes him unacceptable as a candidate for any office.
Tia Oso, the black woman who took to the stage and demanded a microphone at Netroots Nation, explained her actions:
“I did this to focus the attention of the nation’s largest gathering of progressive leaders and presidential hopefuls on the death of Sandra Bland and other black women killed while in police custody, because the most important and urgent issue of our day is structural violence and systemic racism that is oppressing and killing black women, men and children. This is an emergency.”
Tia and her colleagues put the issue of racism at the front of the progressive agenda with their action. When Bernie Sanders was interrupted he responded, saying “of course, black lives matter;” he also showed discomfort with the protest and began to walk off stage. Later at another event, he admitted he did not know the answers and asked for help for ways we can stem structural racism. He has added comments on racism to his stump speech and spoken out on the abuse and death of Sandra Bland.
Protest makes a difference, as climate justice activist Tim DeChristopher said on his website. While DeChristopher’s initial reaction was discomfort with the protest, as he saw events unfold and looked within himself at the issue of white privilege, he acknowledged how the power of the protest had opened him up to look within himself on issues around race.
The same emotions were the motivating force at the root of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. When “activists Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi first hashtagged the phrase #BlackLivesMatter on social media in 2013, it was an emotional response to the news of George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the Trayvon Martin case.” Now, the movement that uses the slogan is permanently altering the consciousness of the nation when it comes to racial injustice.
Another #BlackLivesMatter leader getting deserved attention is 28-year-old Jasmine Richards, a powerful activist in Pasadena, California. She has stood up to police in her neighborhood, faced serious charges (a trumped up terrorism charge for a nonviolent protest) and continues to fight racism. This weekend many leaders are meeting in Cleveland.
This week was the anniversary of Eric Garner’s death and the week where the police violence against Sandra Bland came to light. The response of the power structure to protests on these issues shows the insecurity of the state on the issue of racism. Garner’s death was met with a week of protests in New York resulting in scores of arrests as protesters took the street, sat-in, laid flowers on the Garner Memorial, went inside Grand Central Station, shouted “I can’t breathe” and held a moment of silence. Police in New York and other cities like Denver this week sometimes made random arrests and at other times focused on organizers and journalists.
The death of Sandra Bland led to protests demanding answers about her death while in custody. As information about the abusive police behavior in her traffic stop became public, protests escalated. In New York, a dozen people were arrested. A sign at the scene of Bland’s police encounter warned “Signal lane change or sheriff may kill you.” Each ugly story of an abusive police encounter seems to top the last. African Americans describe their fear of driving as they worry about a police encounter, parents discuss their worry for their children whenever they are going out – and more white Americans understand these unacceptable realities.
Indigenous Peoples Standing Up
A smaller abused group that gets less attention are Indigenous peoples. The group is small, even though tens of millions lived in North America when the colonizers arrived, because they have been subjected to centuries of ethnic cleansing. That ethnic cleansing continues to this day. In fact, the only group with comparable abuse from police violence is the Indigenous. In the 25 to 44 age range, the Indigenous are the group most likely to be killed. They are also subjected to many other forms of abuse, one that shortens their lives and results in chronic illness is being subjected to the toxicity of uranium from more than ten thousand mines mostly on Indian territory that continue to pollute the air, water and land. See our campaign, Clean Up the Mines, for more on this.
The Indigenous also face constant attacks on their land, very often on sacred sites. One of those sites is Oak Flat in Arizona where Senator John McCain snuck in a small provision to the Defense Authorization Act, literally at the 11 ½ hour (11:30 PM) the night before the vote in December 2014, that gave sacred land to Rio Tinto of the UK and BHP Billiton of Australia, so they can excavate copper. The Apache have been fighting to stop this corporate give-away of federal and Indian land. They just completed a journey across the nation. They visited numerous sites including stops at the graves of children who never came home and in large population areas like Times Square. Wendsler Nosie Sr. and his granddaughter, 16-year-old Naelyn Pike were on our radio show this week and they described the journey as an emotional one that raised their hopes as they saw people of all races coming to hear their story and empathize with their struggle. They were particularly moved by the young people that showed up to support them.
The Apache Stronghold journey ended in Washington, DC where they held two days of events to repeal the give away. They explained how this is not only an Apache issue but also an American issue, environmental concern and a corrupt corporate giveaway. The provision requires the land be given to Rio Tinto no matter what the environmental impact report finds.
The Apache rallied at the Capitol on Monday and Tuesday this week. They held events with “speeches, prayers and songs, vowing to save land that is holy to them.” They were joined by over 200 supporters. The Apache and their allies came to “make themselves visible to those of us for whom they are too often invisible” to build support for Grijalva’s repeal bill H.R. 2811 the “Save Oak Flat Act” which has 17 bipartisan co-sponsors in the House.
A month ago the campaign got some useful support when the National Trust for Historic Preservation included Oak Flat on its 2015 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. Of course, this is not enough; it is going to take people coming to the side of the Apache and joining them to reverse the corrupt land giveaway.
As with #BlackLivesMatter, the issue comes down to race and privilege. As a New York Times op-ed pointed out:
“If Oak Flat were a Christian holy site, or for that matter Jewish or Muslim, no senator who wished to remain in office would dare to sneak a backdoor deal for its destruction into a spending bill — no matter what mining-company profits or jobs might result. But this is Indian religion. Clearly the Arizona congressional delegation isn’t afraid of a couple of million conquered natives.”
The give-away of an Apache sacred site is an example of White Christian privilege.
The Complexities of Race, Prejudice and Privilege and What We can Do About It
Starhawk, a widely respected author, global justice activist and organizer, recently described the complexities of these issues in an article entitled 50 Shades of Racism. She differentiates prejudice, which is personal, from racism, which is structural, writing: “Prejudice is Darren Wilson shooting Mike Brown in Ferguson and leaving him on the sidewalk to die. Racism is that he gets away with it, unindicted.” She also discusses why it is difficult to admit racism exists in the United States and how the issue of privilege is hard for people to acknowledge writing:
“To admit the racist underpinnings of U.S. society calls into question many of the foundational myths of the dominant American culture—the myth of equality, of a fair society where anyone can rise. Moreover, for white people, it pushes us smack up against our privilege.”
Some people find these issues very difficult to accept, privilege in particular. Starhawk explains, “Privilege is hard to see when you have it, because a lot of it consists of what doesn’t happen to you.” Whites do not face police harassment for driving or walking, African Americans and other people of color do these simple things often in fear of the police. Having privilege is not the fault of most European-Americans, and once it is acknowledged that the playing field is not level then they can do something about it.
Like what? She suggests lots of steps among them: share resources, share the spotlight, give recognition, share opportunities to speak, step back to make room for others, educate other white people, join people of color in raising consciousness and recognize you will make mistakes as these issues are deep and not easy. Apologize, forgive yourself and move on with an intention to confront these issues.
Why does this matter? It matters because for a movement for social, economic and environmental justice to succeed it must have solidarity across races, ethnic groups and class divides. We know the powers that be want us divided and race is a dividing issue – if we let it be one. Let us recognize that “Angry black people have steadfastly improved American democracy.” Let us listen to the anger of communities of color, understand its’ roots and recognize it will take all of us together to achieve the kind of nation and world we want to see.