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Ferguson and the Insulting Paternalism of White People

November 27, 2014

First, let’s get this out of the way: I’m a white guy, about as white as they come, and I grew up almost exclusively around other white people. Even as an adult, I can’t pretend I’ve been surrounded by diversity.  I make no claims to be an expert on race relations. I’m barely a novice. As with all things, I can speak only through the microphone of my own experience.

In the months since Michael Brown was shot by Darren Wilson, and in the days since Darren Wilson escaped indictment, I’ve seen ugly racism from some white people, but let’s be honest, this is no surprise. The dyed-in-the-wool racists cannot be argued with, they cannot be placated, and they come out of the woodwork at the slightest whiff of opportunity to shove their anachronistic and vile beliefs down our throats.  “See,” they tell us, “I told you they were criminals.” “What do you expect from savages?” they ask. No amount of truth will change their minds. No “good behavior” by black people. No impassioned pleas. Our best defenses are sunshine and ridicule. Good people realize this and reject their hatefulness. They deserve no more than that.

But that’s not the end of it. What possibly disturbs me more is the veiled (and, hopefully, unknowing) paternalistic racism I’ve seen in some of those same “good people.”  Most people do not consider themselves racist, but words and deeds can be born in or fuel racism. And I’ve seen a tendency on the part of white people to take a “kindly master” tone when discussing the events in Ferguson, couched in appeals to the black community to not reinforce stereotypes and in terms like “personal responsibility” and “black-on-black crime.”  I’m sure these are usually meant with the best of intentions (although the hard-core racists use them as well), but they reveal a systemic, hidden racism. Hidden inside ourselves.

Let me give you an example. On Facebook, I’ve seen a lot of people like a post about Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn’s comments on Ferguson. So as not to misrepresent what he said, here is the quote:

80 percent of my homicide victims every year are African-American. They know all about the last three people who have been killed by the Milwaukee Police Department over the last several years, but the there’s not one of them who can name one of the last three homicide victims we’ve had in this city

I don’t doubt that Ed Flynn is concerned with the safety of all the citizens of Milwaukee: black, white, hispanic, asian, etc. He is probably a good man who does his best to serve (something I have an immense amount of respect for). However, deflecting the legitimate concern about police homicides to a statistic on black-on-black crime is a complete nonsequiter. First of all, it’s not at all odd that people remember the people killed by the police, as it is a smaller number and is publicized more widely. This may speak to how we treat black lives, but it is also a case of the “man bites dog” theory of journalism. Light is shone on the oddities. The everyday fades into the background.

You may ask why we don’t pay attention to black-on-black crime, which is common, and focus less on police brutality, which is comparatively rare? Fair enough, but let me tell you about something else that is extremely common: white-on-white crime.  Eighty-three percent of white murder victims were killed by other Caucasians.  And yet, no one talks about an epidemic of white-on-white crime. Black people are more likely to commit crimes against other black people because they are more often around other black people.  It’s not a symptom of a culture gone to seed, one that doesn’t respect itself or value life.  It is an issue of proximity (but not only proximity. There are many elements that factor into the crime rate, including poverty, but that requires a post of its own.. It’s like the oft-bandied-about statistic of 75% of accidents happening within 10 miles of home.  Yes, because that’s where people do the vast majority of their driving.

Establishing that black-on-black crime is not an epidemic or is even all that odd is not an excuse to do nothing. Regardless of whether it is an epidemic or not, shouldn’t the focus still be on it rather than the few, random police shootings.  First, I’m not so sure they are random (he says, arguing with himself), but most importantly, how do we know the black community isn’t intensely focused on crime in their community? Our ignorance of their fight does not mean the fight doesn’t exist.  Are there black people who bury their heads in the sand when it comes to crime? I’m sure there are, just like every group has members who prefer not to deal with difficult things.  But there are also innumerable black people working with their communities and neighborhoods to make changes. And don’t pretend they can’t focus on more than one thing at a time.  There is more than enough energy to go around for both police shootings and crime within your community.

OK, moving on. Let’s talk about riots and looting.  I recently saw a meme, again on Facebook, that said “Looting. Because nothing says you care about a dead kid and community more than stealing 50 pairs of Air Jordans and burning the store to the ground,” with a photo of a couple black guys with their arms full of shoeboxes (if this photo is actually from Ferguson and not just a recycled meme, I will eat my hat).  Now, even though there are also white guys in this photo, I’m pretty sure this meme is being circulated because of what is happening in Ferguson. I feel stupid for even having to say this, but as we know, the internet demands explicit statements (and even then often misinterprets them).  I am against rioting and looting.  In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the vast majority of everyone is against rioting and looting. Violence met with violence only begets more violence.  And I believe an individual’s actions are always up for criticism. However, the type of fear and anger surrounding the Ferguson riots only seems to come up when black people are doing the rioting and looting. When majority-white students rioted at Penn State because a football coach was fired, sure people thought it was stupid, people condemned it, but people didn’t fear it (I mean those watching from afar. I’m sure there were plenty of people there who were terrified), and they didn’t extrapolate it out to the entire white community. With Ferguson, a minority of protestors are rioting and looting, but this becomes indicative of the entire movement and black people in general. “They are reinforcing all the negative stereotypes,” I hear people say. “If only they’d behave.”  And this is where I see the true insidiousness of racism in America.  This is where racism is embedded in even the most liberal of liberals, even the most open-minded of conservatives.  In us all. When a black person does something wrong, the entire black community is indicted.  When a white person does something wrong, only the person is indicted (or not, depending on the circumstances).  I want you to think about how infuriating it must be to have every negative action of your neighbors reflected upon you, to be constantly told that if only those neighbors would “behave,” you’d get some respect. I want you to think about how infuriating it must be to be told to “behave,” as though you need a parent watching out for you and when the truth is your good or bad behavior has little to nothing to do with how other people see you.  Think about what it means to behave: “be like us” or “do as you’re told,” one of which is impossible and the other is degrading in the extreme.  Think about what it means to chastise others for “reinforcing negative stereotypes.” By definition, stereotypes are not absolute. They are a projection of an oversimplified belief. They live in the minds of the people who believe them, and it is the responsibility of those people to reject them.

Lastly, think about how all this started. A teenager was shot by a police officer under mysterious circumstances.  The anger and grief of a community was met with a military response, inciting a conflagration. The acknowledged killer was set free without even a trial. Think about your response if this happened to you, not just once but multiple times. And try to stow your condescension and have a little compassion for people in pain.

**UPDATE** In the year or so since I originally wrote this post, police have killed Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Samuel Dubose, and many others, and John Crawford, Eric Garner, and many others were killed prior to the original post. I just wanted to mention their names and encourage people to comment below with all the names I’ve missed.

  • Endnote 1: I am not pardoning myself of racism.  I understand that it lives inside me.  To say otherwise would be dishonest and a disservice to the ideals I hold dear and to the people who must deal with racisms, petty and horrifying, every day of their lives.
  • Endnote 2: The photo accompanying this post is not, despite what you may have heard, of a Ferguson protestor throwing a Molotov cocktail but rather of a Ferguson protestor throwing a tear gas canister back at the police.
  • Endnote 3: I understand that police officers have difficult jobs and are often forced to make split-second decisions.  This, however, does not give them carte blanche in their dealings with the public, nor does it absolve them of all sins. In fact, I’d say it means we have to hold them to an even higher standard. And the fact that there are plenty of good cops does not mean we let the bad cops do as they please.
  • Endnote 4: I realize that I have made somewhat generalized statements above, but please don’t write to me bringing up the one contradictory case.  For example, I’ll concede that there are examples of certain white communities that get painted with a broad brush (and even then it is limited to that community and doesn’t extend to all members of the white race), if you’ll concede that it is more common among the non-white races.
  • Endnote 5: That said, I welcome all respectful comments whether you agree or disagree.
  • Endnote 6: I worry that this piece itself comes across as paternalistic.  The truth is we white people have a tendency to be paternal even when we are trying to do good.  It is its own form of insidious racism, one that I try to combat but often fail.
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