Black Lives Matter 101 for white people

The following is an email I wrote to my (white) extended family and friends in July 2016. Unfortunately, the points I made nearly a year ago are still far too relevant

By now you have all heard of two incidents in as many days in which black men (Alton Sterling and Philando Castile) were fatally shot by police officers.  Yet Alton Sterling and Philando Castile are only the latest in a long line of black men, women, and children who were killed by police officers.  Tamir Rice. Sandra Bland. Eric Garner. Alexia Christian. Michael Brown. Trayvon Martin. Mya Hall.  Freddie Gray. Meagan Hockaday. And so many more.

In the cases of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, horribly graphic videos have surfaced.  These include multiple videos of the incident in which Alton Sterling was tackled, pinned to the ground, and shot at close range, as well as one video of the aftermath of the shooting of Philando Castile in his car, in which his girlfriend narrates what happened, watches him die, and is arrested along with her four-year old daughter.  I am not going to link to those videos here.  They are brutal and graphic and to watch them solely for the purpose of emotional reaction is voyeuristic and disrespectful to the victims.  That said, if you need to see them in order to believe what happened, then by all means go watch them.  The videos won’t be hard to find; they’re everywhere. Find them. Watch them. Understand.

 

Because we as white people need to understand what is happening. Our police officers are killing black people and this trend is not going away.
A study reveals that in 2015, police killed at least 346 black people in the United States.  (Click on “About the Data” at the top of the page to find detailed descriptions of their sources and how they defined their terms.)  From January 2013 to April 2016, police officers killed between 12 and 43 black people each month. Black people were three times more likely to be killed by police officers than white people were.  30% of black victims were unarmed, compared to 19% of white victims.  Importantly: when data was analyzed by city, numbers of black people killed by police officers showed no correlation to rates of violent crime.

 

So, the “Ferguson effect” (in which police killings are supposedly linked to increases in crime) is demonstrably false.
According to another study, police fatally shoot black civilians most frequently in cities where the black and white populations are close to equal but the police forces are primarily white.  By contrast, in cities where racial diversity in the police force accurately represents civilian demographics, these incidents are significantly less common. These factors influenced what the researchers labeled “(perceived) group threat.” Parentheses are theirs.
Perceived group threat.  Police in certain cities – in which black people are residents but not police officers – are considering black civilians to be a collective threat.  As a result, police in these cities are killing black civilians in greater numbers.  I should note again, these killings are not correlated with rates of violent crime.  Need more proof?  A writer for the Washington Post summarizes this finding from the FBI:

 

“In 2014, the suspects were black in only about 15 percent of homicides in which the victim was white, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  Yet in cities where more such crimes were committed, killings of black civilians by police were also more common – although less so in cities where the make-up of the police force was similar to the population’s.

By contrast, there appeared to be no connection between killing of black civilians by police and the rates of homicides involving black suspects and black victims.

Uncomfortable yet?  There’s more.

 

A study conducted in November 2015 revealed “evidence of a significant bias in the killing of unarmed black Americans relative to unarmed white Americans” from 2011-2014. Specifically, “the probability of being {black, unarmed, and shot by police} is about 3.49 times the probability of being {white, unarmed, and shot by police} on average.”  This racial bias was found to vary significantly by county, “with some counties showing relative risk ratios of 20 to 1 or more.”  This relative risk was greatest in large cities with “low median incomes, large populations of black residents, and significant income inequality.”  Again: “There is no relationship between county-level racial bias in police shootings and crime rates (even race-specific crime rates) meaning that the racial bias observed in police shootings in this data set is not explainable as a response to local-level crime rates.” (Emphasis mine.)
With that out of the way, we need to talk some more about Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.
By now you know the stories: Alton Sterling was selling CDs outside a convenience store in Baton Rouge when he was shot in the chest and back by a Louisiana Police Officer.  Philando Castile was pulled over for a broken tail light and then fatally shot – with his girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter in the car to witness the whole thing.
Maybe you’ve witnessed the heartbroken friends and family: videos of Sterling’s 15-year-old son breaking down on national television, Castile’s mother reporting that she was not allowed to identify his body and she did not know where his girlfriend – who had livestreamed the aftermath of the shooting, including her own arrest – was (she was not released from police custody until the next morning).  I’m not linking to those videos here.  Again, it’s voyeuristic to watch them simply for the emotional reaction; again, if you need to see them to believe them, you can find them easily.
The anger and grief and shock that these people are experiencing cannot be understated and should not be ignored by anyone with a modicum of compassion. These people are furious, I’m furious, and you should be too.  If you’re not, it’s long past time to start asking yourself why.
We’ve already started to learn about the backgrounds of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.  Alton Sterling has a mugshot and a criminal history. As Justin Cohen says in his article:

“…the media will outline the various ways in which the victim behaved inappropriately in the past.  None of this matters, and it certainly does not change the fact that the police killed the person outside of any legal process. I smoked pot when I was in high school, for example, and if the police used that as justification to murder me, that would be ludicrous.”

Whatever you want to say about Alton Sterling’s criminal history, it has nothing to do with the specific incident in which he was shot and killed by police. Using his criminal history to justify not feeling bad about his death implies that he deserved to die because of his past crimes.  That is not usually our intention when we refer to these criminal backgrounds, but we use excuses to make ourselves “feel better” about what happened, and the implication is the same.  This is not okay.
Tom Winter of NBC News has already pointed out, via Twitter, that Philando Castile had been pulled over by police 31 times since 2002 for traffic violations. Think about this one for a moment.  Traffic violations. If you are going to argue that traffic violations – even a high volume of them – can ever justify killing someone, then it is definitely time to stop and think.  Examine where that comes from.  Ask yourself if you would feel that way about a white victim with a similar traffic record, and be honest about your answer.
We as white people can ignore racial injustice because it doesn’t directly affect us.  If I’m pulled over for speeding, I do not worry that I’m going to be shot.  Nor does police violence feel like a particular danger to me when I’m walking down the street.  If I want to, I can ignore what’s happening to black people in our country because it doesn’t impact my life.  Meanwhile, acknowledging it – understanding that the institution which is supposed to serve and protect me is committing constant system-wide injustice against people whose skin is different from mine – is deeply uncomfortable.
I am not suggesting that white people honestly believe that a black person deserves to die because he (or she) is frequently pulled over for speeding.  I’m saying that we frequently use whatever excuses we can to justify these deaths.  Michael Brown was “a thug,” Sandra Bland shouldn’t have talked back, and Tamir Rice should not have been allowed alone in public with a BB gun.  We are smarter than this, and I sincerely hope we have more empathy and compassion than this, but thinking critically about these situations reveals truths that are deeply unsettling.  If this system has been so biased for so long, who are we for allowing that to happen?  Who are we for being complicit with and benefitting from a system that disproportionately kills people based on race?
The answer is uncomfortable, and on some level I understand why we want to avoid it.  But this is happening, and it will keep happening if we don’t allow ourselves to be uncomfortable with it.  After admitting to ourselves what is truly going on, we will feel guilt, rage, grief, shame.  We’ll feel uncomfortable, unsettled, less secure in our country.  We may feel frustrated and helpless.  All of that is okay.  If we don’t let ourselves feel these things, our system will never change.  We will continue to be complicit, and these deaths will keep happening.

 Philando Castile spent 10+ years working for St. Paul Public Schools, the most recent two years as a supervisor in their cafeteria.  One coworker is quoted in this article as saying:

“Kids loved him. He was smart, over qualified. He was quiet, respectful, and kind. I knew him as warm and funny; he called me his ‘wing man.’ He wore a shirt and tie to his supervisor interview and said his goal was to one day ‘sit on the other side of this table.”

He’s gone now.  His students, the ones who are old enough to understand, are mourning.  A four year old black girl learned firsthand that this is what police officers do to black men.  Friends and family and coworkers are grieving just as friends and family and witnesses are grieving for Alton Sterling. They are shouting that enough is enough.  As white people, it is long past time for us to listen.

Don’t just take my word for it.  Read, watch, educate yourself in whatever way you can.  Open your eyes to what’s happening and understand.  As white people, we have a choice to look the other way, and as long as we keep making that choice, the racism in our system will not change. Black people – men, women, adults, children, LGBTQ+, straight – will continue to be killed by the system that is supposed to afford them the same protections that it affords us.
Another email I wrote, to the same group, a few days later.  The first part is a response to comments about the Dallas Police shootings that took place shortly after Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were killed.
The Dallas Police shooting is also an important story and definitely needs to be included in the conversation.  We need to condemn these attacks and feel sorrow and compassion for the families and friends of Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarippa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, and Lorne Ahrens just as we feel for the family and friends of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.  We are human. We have space to mourn all of them and condemn violence in all its forms.

That said, we need to be very careful that we do not allow our outrage and grief at the Dallas shootings to overshadow our reaction to police brutality against black people across the country.  Obviously, the Dallas Police were not involved in the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling any more than those two men were involved in incidents of black people killing cops.  As I said, we have space to be angry for both, and we should not attempt to diminish or simplify our anger by using one tragic incident to justify another.

 

The difference is that people who kill police officers are severely punished, while historically the reverse has not been true.  This should not affect our emotional response to the tragedy of either situation, but it should color our desire to get involved in the outcome.  If nothing else, the violence of this past week shows us that this cycle will keep happening unless something drastically changes.
Another point I want to address: the conversation about Philando Castile’s traffic record is relevant outside of the context of his shooting, because black drivers are pulled over far more frequently than white drivers.  Even something as silly and innocent as playing the game Pokemon Go is more dangerous for black people or other people of color.  So while Philando Castile’s laundry list of traffic violations has no place in discussions about his death, it does need to be included in the conversation about injustices that black people face every day in America.  All of it needs to be addressed if we want to see change.
This is still relevant.  In a recent entry, I suggested some ideas for fighting oppression and injustice in a post-Trump America. I won’t repost them all here, but I will include this one: the homepage of Black Lives Matter movement, which outlines their mission and aims.  Read about BLM directly from the women who started it instead of the myriad of politicians who are framing them in different ways to suit their own agendas.

In conclusion, as I stated in my original email to my family:

 

Think. Listen. Acknowledge. Be uncomfortable.  Maybe then we can find a way to put an end to this.

 

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