Last night I made the mistake of watching the cellphone video of Alton Sterling getting murdered by the Baton Rouge police. I wish I hadn’t, because it made me sick to my stomach, but I think it’s something all of us need to see.
Especially white people.
As a culture we’re desensitized. As a white culture even more so. The list of names is piling up and I have a hard time remembering them all. Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin…I would have to google a list to find more. And the problem with that is that there are a handful of people who have made the national news or trended on Twitter but they are quickly lost to the next thing in the 24 hour news cycle. A check on Twitter right now shows that Alton Sterling is not even trending right now.
Over the weekend, my hometown of South Haven, Michigan made the news for closing the North Beach an hour before the annual fireworks celebration. Apparently there were multiple acts of violence on the North Beach throughout the day and police felt that for everyone’s safety they needed to close the beach and evacuate it. Bottles flew through the air injuring multiple people and at least one police officer. I wasn’t there, but the pictures show it was both white and black people on the beach – but I can tell you who the town blames – black people. A short time later that night nearly 400 people at the bowling alley were exposed to tear gas and mace reportedly because of fights and violence. The cellphone video I saw of that altercation was nearly all black people.
Though I went to a moderately racially diverse high school and have multiple friends who are black, my hometown has always had racial issues. White people blame black people. Black people blame white people. White people feel threatened. Black people feel threatened. It goes back and forth and escalates.
While all this was happening, I was sitting in a theater with my family watching a Weird Al Yankovich concert and while culturally his following like one of his famous parody songs – “white and nerdy” – I was highly aware that I only saw a few people of any other color attending. I don’t think everyone needs to have the same taste in songs, but I am highly aware of racially homogenous situations these days.
The very next day on our way to visit family for the 4th of July we were stopping at the McDonald’s in my wife’s hometown and were suddenly aware of black people in the parking lot and inside. It was such a shock to our typical view of this town as being (to borrow a line from Weird Al) “whiter than sour cream.” The busses outside had something about gymnastics on the outside and most of the people inside also had t-shirts on matching the bus. It was so out of the ordinary to see 30 black people in this town that it was a shock. Why is this?
I’m hyper aware of my racial bias these days. As much as I don’t think I have it, sometimes I catch myself describing a person first by the color of their skin or their ethnic heritage. I would never say, “Did you see that white guy with that really cool dog?” But as a white person, a person who has not been racially profiled by police, I am privileged and those of us who don’t think that need to think again.
It’s becoming an epidemic – it already is. Yes, there is plenty of violence against people of all skin colors by other people of all skin colors. Yes, there are instances where police are just doing their job and have been unfairly ostracized. We need to be ultra-careful about stereotypes and too much generalization. But let’s be honest, let’s turn the situation around. Reportedly the police were called to this convenience store in Baton Rouge because somebody felt threatened by Alton Sterling and the gun he had on him. If I’m there as a 40 year old white male and I have a gun on me and feel threatened by the police and have possibly been bullied by law enforcement in the past and have the cultural history of racial profiling and police brutality that has existing in cities like Baton Rouge and I am belligerent enough to get a taser fired at me and in a pumped up adrenaline situation like this I struggle and a police officer pins me down and feels a gun in my pocket – I’d put money on the fact that the other officer is not bringing out his gun and shooting me in the back and the chest. With little doubt, Alton Sterling was killed – murdered – because he was black. Yes, it sounds like he had a gun; yes, it sounds like he was resisting arrest; yes he had some marks on his record; but he was killed because he was black and the racial temperature in our country is very high right now.
Just like I think that when there are 400 young black people at a bowling alley in a small resort town, police are on higher alert and are more apt to use force than if there were 400 white people there. This is part of our shameful history in this country and especially as white people we need to be vigilant in weeding out our own racial biases. Honestly, we’re part of the problem. How does this stop?
How does this stop?
I don’t have the answers, but I think we have to keep asking this question. And I think we all need to be brutally honest about our own cultural/racial biases. I think we need to talk to together. If there are protests white people need to join them. If there are town hall meetings white people need to stand with their black brothers and sisters. If there are times we become very aware of our own prejudice we need to own that and figure out where it comes from. If there are times that we feel sick to our stomach because of violence like that video shows against Alton Sterling – I think that’s needed. If there are times that we start to get desensitized to the racial violence in our country or forget the names of those that have died because of it, we need to start reminding ourselves.
Maybe others have better answers – good. But let’s start doing something. This has got to stop.