“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
-Martin Luther King, Jr.
It’s still shocking to me that so many white people seem to think civil rights are just a black issue.
As if they’re something that only concerns people of color.
Of course we can! And many of us are. But we are rarely discriminated against on the basis of our race. And somehow accepting that fact seems to turn us against the very idea of civil rights.
We act as if talking about civil rights is code for black issues. Many of us refuse to even admit that black people have legitimate grievances in this area, that they’re just needlessly complaining and looking for sympathy, that they’re trying to get something for free or get one over on us.
It’s pure bullshit. Black people are authentically aggrieved. They are the victims of a systemic racism that rarely even becomes visible to white eyes. And that same system either ignores whiteness or even privileges it.
The criminal justice system, alone, is rife with examples including racial profiling, stop-and-frisk policies, police brutality and the failed War on Drugs. Add to that voter ID laws, redlining, and credit scores. Add to that the use of bigoted and prejudiced textbooks, punishing non-white students more harshly than white students, underfunding public schools, and closing them down if they’re attended mostly by students of color.
Yet that doesn’t mean white people are impervious to civil rights violations. It just means that people of color are targeted much more often and are in much greater need of help than we are.
Yet many of us refuse to admit it. We refuse even though doing so actually puts ourselves at greater risk.
Think about it. If we ignore the civil rights concerns of those most victimized, who will be there for us when we’re targeted?
Take police brutality.
According to the Guardian’s The Counted, 1,092 Americans were killed by police in 2016. If we look at it proportionately, a much higher percentage of minorities were killed than white people. Specifically, Native Americans were killed at 10.13 per million, black people at 6.66 per million, while Hispanics and Latinos were killed at 3.23 per million. By comparison, white people were only killed at 2.9 per million.
So minorities were killed at much higher rates than whites given their smaller percentages of the population. However, if we look at the raw numbers, more white people were killed than any other group. Specifically, the police killed 574 whites, 266 blacks, 183 Hispanics/Latinos and 24 Native Americans.
So, yes, the African American community is right to be angry that they’re being disproportionately targeted by police. However, more than 500 white people were killed by law enforcement, too. That’s a troubling figure all by itself. Why are American police killing so many of us? Why is law enforcement so trigger happy in the USA?
It’s a problem for everyone. Police should not be killing such high numbers of civilians. In fact, in other countries, they don’t. Police kill more people in the U.S. in days than they do in other countries in years. Yet very few police officers actually serve jail time. Several officers went to trial in 2016, but only a handful were convicted.
This is a real problem, yet many white people dismiss it as a black issue – and an illegitimate one at that. As a country, we have a real concern with the way police are trained, protocol for when deadly force is allowed and how officers are held accountable. But we’re letting this issue fall through the cracks because it’s being delegitimized as a “mere” civil rights complaint.
Things have really changed in this country.
In 1963, when the all black 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, was bombed by four members of the Ku Klux Klan, the entire society took notice. Even whites who had been unsympathetic to the civil rights struggles of African Americans up to this point were disturbed at the murder of four children and the injury of 22 others. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called it “one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity,” and it marked a turning point in our history. The fight for civil rights became a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, American struggle to secure equality for our brother and sister African Americans.
However, just two years ago when Dylann Roof was inspired by white supremacist Websites to kill nine people at all black Charleston Church in South Carolina, the response was… meh. Though it has been categorized as a hate crime, it has done nothing to wake up the society at large to the realities of modern day American racism. At most, it’s dismissed as an isolated event.
However, it’s not. White supremacists have long targeted African American churches as objects of their hatred. In 1991 it took a series of 154 suspicious church burnings for Congress five year later to pass the Church Arson Prevention Act, making it a federal crime to damage religious property because of its “racial or ethnic character.” More recently, a black church in Massachusetts was burned down the day after President Barack Obama was inaugurated in 2009.
For some reason, these continuing hate crimes fail to rouse the public at large. Perhaps the Internet culture and the perpetuation of so-called news sources that only support partisan confirmation bias has something to do with it. But it’s harmful to all of us.
When white people ignore the legitimate claims of black people, they make it easier for everyone to be mistreated. Often white people have acted as if prejudice could never be perpetrated against them, and when it’s cropped up, we’ve defined it narrowly to fit only the immediate group targeted. That’s an LGBT issue. That’s a Jewish issue. That’s an issue for people with disabilities. We rarely see them as they are – human issues.
In the age of Trump, violations of individual rights are popping up every day: journalists receiving felony charges for covering unrest at the inauguration, a Louisiana bill that makes resisting arrest a hate crime punishable by 10 years in prison, proposed laws in 10 states to criminalize peaceful protects – and on and on.
Nor is it partisan. Here are a list of human rights violations under Obama: drone strikes outside active war zones, ongoing use of massive civilian surveillance programs, failure to close Guantanamo Bay, harsh penalties for whistle blowers and no accountability for those they expose.
We live in an age where our rights are being eroded by ignorance, indifference, and the uncritical acceptance of prepacked political narratives. The powers that be use racism and prejudice to keep us divided so we’ll never mount an effective opposition.
Today as ever we need each other. We need to be there for our brothers and sisters in humanity. That starts with white people waking up to the harsh realities of black life in America.