They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. This is best depicted by the picture of a white police officer with his knee on the neck of a black man who is shackled, begging to be allowed to breathe. The officer is seen with a smug look of accomplishment and entitlement. For Black people, this is not an unusual incident. Unfortunately, it is far too familiar and happens so often, it is easy to dismiss. Every African American man over 12 years of age can attest to at least one time that he was stopped by the police for simply being black and in the wrong place at the wrong time. As a child I was taught to avoid certain parts of Chicago because I would not be welcomed and could get assaulted. I remember passing that message to my sons and grandsons as they grew up.
It is unfortunate that this and other incidents of police abuse against black men have often resulted in violence. What is so unfortunate, besides the death and destruction, is that we blame the victims and lose track of the underlying conditions that fuel the violence. I certainly don't condone violence under any conditions, but neither can I accept consistent violence against black men. There have been many times in my life when I've had to deal with demeaning and difficult situations simply based on the color of kin. Often, it took all my will power to not resort to violence in response. As a result, I developed a "tough shell" to protect myself. I can understand how individuals with less "will power" could easily take violent actions.
I am sometimes asked what can be done to make a difference in confronting racism. However, I think that it is important to first consider what shouldn't be done. I would propose the following:
Be careful to not blame the victims. Ask yourself how you would react in a situation where you feel demeaned and threatened based upon some perceived differences (e.g. racial, gender, sexual, etc.)
Avoid using denial and rationalizations to justify doing nothing.
Avoid thinking that racism doesn't affect your life and therefore requires no response on your part.
Avoid minimizing the impact of racism on the communities, institutions (including police) and public policies within the community.
But what can be done to confront racism and develop a strategic plan to make positive changes? I don't have the answers but I've got some thoughts.
First of all, I think that change begins at home. That is, each individual must honestly identify and acknowledge their prejudices. I know this is not an easy process but it can be liberating. I'm reminded of the time I was at a conference. I was returning to my room when I was approached by a friend, who happened to be a minister. As we were walking he said to me, "Jim, I don't think of you as black". I'm sure he meant it as a compliment and was dumbfounded when I simply responded, "Why not?" I told him that his comment was a denial of who I was. He later thanked me and acknowledged how my response forced him to confront his biases.
Also, as a part of this self-examination we all need to aggressively confront and challenge racist statements, actions, attitudes and jokes. This usually occurs in formal and informal social situations, which makes challenging responses difficult and uncomfortable.
Secondly, I think any changes will result from an honest examination and discussion of the impact of racism. This will require a great deal of courage. I think that people are afraid to discuss issues related to race because of the fear of being called a racist. We can have honest differences of opinion without being racist. In addition, such discussions must be conducted in an environment where participants feel safe with appropriate "ground rules".
Another aspect of moving forward involves defining a vision of "success". In other words, how will we know we have succeeded? What are our goals? What are the specific indications that we have achieved our goals? What resources will be necessary and over what period of time?
I think it would be important to provide opportunities for children to voice their feelings and concerns. Children are not born racist, it is a learned response. They are frequently negatively influenced by their peers and need support and direction from their parents and the broader community. Ideally, it would be great if they could be involved in developing and carrying out anti-racism actions.
Finally, I would suggest that there may be opportunities to collaborate with other civil rights organizations, churches, nonprofits, etc. to provide training, educational, strategic planning and other resources. This collaborative effort, could begin the process of building a "village".