The sun was setting on the August night my husband and I tuned our television to an empty courtroom in Ferguson, Missouri. Along with thousands of other Americans, we awaited the verdict of the grand jury’s review of police officer Darren Wilson’s actions in the death of Michael Brown. Finally, Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch read for several minutes from a statement that acquitted Officer Wilson.
I found the jury’s decision hard to believe, despite McCulloch’s detailed account of the facts it considered.
Then, just three months later, another grand jury acquitted another police officer, this time Daniel Pantaleo, in the death of Eric Garner. I didn’t hear the jury’s verdict that time, but I read the words, and I watched the video of the scene the day that Garner was arrested. This acquittal was even more unbelievable.
I felt grief and anger that neither of these police officers were charged for their actions, but I was at a loss about what to say or do that would matter in the cause to end what I perceive as a racist justice system. New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow offered some hope in his op ed column, A New Age of Activism.
“If there is a unifying theme, it is at least in part that more people are frustrated, aching for a better America and a better world, waking to the reality of the incredible fragility of our freedoms, our democracy and our planet…And it is a collective expression of moral outrage over systemic bias.” And yet, Blow recognizes that this kind of “people power” doesn’t necessarily translate into political power.
In the early days following the grand jury decisions in both cases, my grief might have been an important first step. Blow suggested, “…maybe in this moment, the exhaling of pain must come before the shaping of policy.”
It’s been thirty-five years since I’ve lived in a racially diverse community. Throughout my life, I’ve had the privilege of not experiencing racism’s effects personally, although I believe that racism burdens all of us, regardless of our race or ethnicity. But, after this moment of “the exhaling of pain,” what can I do from my homogeneous, bucolic rural community in the far Northwest corner of the U.S.?
Lately, I’ve decided to follow the urgings of former attorney Janee Woods: “White people who are sick and tired of racism should work hard to become white allies.” She offered twelve helpful suggestions in Twelve Things White People Can Do Now. I’ve been working on two of them.
#4. Understand the modern forms of race oppression and slavery and how they are intertwined with policing, the courts and the prison industrial complex.
Lopez Bookshop co-owner Karen Barringer recently recommended Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. In a recent interview on Fresh Air, Stevenson talked of what he hoped for with this book:
“One of the things I just wanted people to understand is we can’t continue to have a system of justice defined by error and unfairness and tolerate racial bias and bias against the poor and not confront what we are doing to individuals and to families and to communities and to neighborhoods.”
Stevenson puts names and faces on the reality of bias in our legal system as he describes his work with death row inmates, wrongly accused. He also relates his own story of being harassed by police officers while listening to music on his car radio outside his own apartment one night. Somehow, despite his decades of work (and no small number of failures at winning the release of people on death row) he hasn’t given up his quest for the ideal of compassion in the U.S. justice system.
I no sooner finished Just Mercy and wrapped it up for Christmas for my son and daughter-in-law (sorry guys, hope you don’t mind a lightly used copy) than I started on Brown Girl Dreaming, this year’s winner of a National Book Award. Jacqueline Woodson tells her story, in poetry, of growing up in South Carolina and Brooklyn, NY in the 1960s and 1970s. Woodson talked about her book earlier this month on Fresh Air, too.
Another step I’m working on to be a white ally is:
#6. Diversify your media.
I readily admit that I’m an avid fan of National Public Radio; I’ve blogged about it more than once (This is NPR and Wait Wait ). It’s also one of my primary sources for news and analysis, and most of the time I think it’s balanced and objective. But I know it has a particular perspective and culture that likely don’t fully reflect the diverse voices of color today. Janee Woods led me to a subscription to Colorlines, a daily news site, “where race matters.”
I’m also paying more attention to information available from some sources I already know and trust such as this piece by the American Friends Service Committee: “Addressing Racism in the U.S. Justice System: An Analysis”.
I have much more work to do on just these two actions. I’m embarrassed at how ignorant and poorly read I am on U. S. history of racism. I could remain embarrassed and judgmental of myself. Instead, I’m going to keep reading and studying. These titles are next on my reading list:
- Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship by Donna McDaniel and Vanessa Julye documents the spiritual and practical impacts of discrimination in the Religious Society of Friends.
- A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn who wrote, “There is an underside to every age about which history does not often speak, because history is written from records left by the privileged.”
- James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, an essay collection published in 1955 about Baldwin’s search for identity as an artist, as a black man, and as an American.
- Maya Angelou’s 1969 memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
I know there’s much more for me to read and to learn, and many more ways to act. I welcome your ideas about ways to become a white ally.