Where the White People At? On Empty Activism and Absent Allies
Oscar Grant was killed on New Year’s Day in 2009 by ex-BART police officer, Johannes Mehserle, while lying unarmed flat on the ground at the Fruitvale BART station platform. Consequently, Mehserle, a young white male, was released from prison after serving only 11 months of a minimum two year sentence after being convicted of involuntary manslaughter for the murder. When the verdict came down, black folks all over the country protested in the streets. Where were the white people at? Rallying for Mehserle. Activating for a murderer, white folks (you know, potential allies) proved that skin folk are the only in folk. And, the choking death of Eric Garner by a New York City cop is just another opportunity for white activists to feign alliances with blacks at large.
We have heard it before, seen the song and dance, “Black people, we aren’t against you. Let us in. We can be your best friends.” Steve Friess wrote that almost verbatim last week in TIME magazine of all places. Sadly though, the countless number of injustices against blacks that barely draw a modicum of attention from the white mainstream is baffling, almost deliberate.
Why? Well, partly because white folks always find a reasonable justification for violence against black people. In an effort to be “objective” – code for “black people are biased cause they’re black and I’m never biased cause I’m white” – whites continue to deny black folks’ innate humanity. Garner was slaughtered on the street because police officers suspected he was selling cigarettes unlawfully. He had just broken up a fight and asked them to leave him alone. As they took him down in the illegal choking position, he laid his hands out flat and said “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” He repeated this at least five times. Then, he laid there seizing and dying as they used their knees to smash his head into the concrete and stood around chatting instead of attempting to resuscitate him or save his life.
I guarantee, had he been a helpless cat or dog, whites would have issued a rallying cry to punish his assailants. His blackness made him inherently bad, unworthy, and criminal. Many whites watched his death on candid viral video while knighting themselves judge and jury. They likely found him guilty of…something. And said something was punishable by death. Yet, they want us to consider them allies in our constant struggle for justice. It is a highly flawed circular fallacy.
Overwhelmingly, when black people are harmed, criminalized, and murdered by whites – cops or otherwise – white folks are first in line to justify those actions. In the case of Trayvon Martin, it was Martin’s hoodie not George Zimmerman’s apparent obsession with pretend scary black people that was the problem. In the case of Renisha McBride, it was the fact that she may or may not have been under the influence of a controlling substance when a white homeowner shot her in the face through his front door. For Jonathan Ferrell, it was his hysterics after witnessing a car crash that incited deadly gun shots from police officers.
What will it be for Eric Garner? Unsurprisingly, we have already seen stories fixated on his weight and height in an effort to justify an illegal choke-hold from police. For these whites, it’s as if cops had no other options than choking him to death in front of a corner store. Again, inherently wrong.
But, these whites aren’t even the ones I am taking issue with here. They will never change. They’re racist, bigoted, and ignorant. My central contention is with well-meaning whites who probably did find Garner’s death horrifying. They may have even shared the story on social media or mentioned it to their co-workers. Then what? They forgot. They returned to their well-to-do lives and excused themselves from the allyship they’d expect universally had the victim been white.
While white folks typically phone-in their activism (in the case of Oscar Grant’s murder, they just went and saw Fruitvale Station, because, you know, solidarity), they had a prime opportunity to stand with Garner’s family at his rally on Saturday. Where were the white people at? Not there.
Mayor De Blasio is a supposed ally, right? He has publicly cancelled his “much-discussed” family vacation to Italy due to the homicide. But, as soon as this story passes through the news cycle, he will go back to his privileged life away from the brutality and violence black folks like Grant, Martin, McBride, Ferrell, and Garner face every single day. He wasn’t present. Instead, he sent two representatives. Therein lies the problem.
For the most part, white people aren’t present in social movements, reparations conversations, and rallies of activism for racial minorities because they just don’t have to be. Frankly, they don’t really give a shit. Their privilege insulates them from the consequences of interpersonal racial violence on the whole. So, the thought of investing personal time in social policy which reduces violence in the lives people of color is not only foreign to them, it’s unnecessary. Their absence, though never shocking, says so much about race relations in this country.
In a country committed to equality, liberty, and justice, one would expect to see universal outrage at a man’s choking death on the streets. Or, a shooting death of an unarmed young man. Or, the shooting deaths of countless men and women every day.
White folks’ tacit bigotry – even when they deem themselves allies – is the true face of the racial divide in this country. We know where the white people are. They are as far away from blackness as humanly possible. And, their conditional allyship is increasingly becoming a silent killer in our communities. That’s the God’s honest truth folks.
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