The Dream,Treyvon, and Institution Racism

Re-posted from my old blog 7/21/13

This is not a subject I bring up a lot. I support equality and see the modern racism in our country but I don’t live it. I’m just a white man who has seen and experienced a lot of hate and intolerance. This article contains my thoughts and insight in the hope expanding the conversation.

One generation removed Racism

The 50th anniversary of the march on Washington D.C. and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech is this summer. We, as Americans, have come a long way in struggle towards racial equality. But the 50 year anniversary reminds me of something else important. There are millions of people alive now who lived during that time.

My parents were kids during the height of the civil rights movement. When they were kids there were separate bathrooms for ‘Coloreds’. If they lived in the south, my white mom as a 5 year old could have kicked a 60 year old black woman out of her seat on the bus and my dad would have been in an all-white school taught by white teachers.

We are not as far removed from communities being forcefully integrated, or people being denied the right to vote because of their skin color. Many people who grew up then are now business owners, elected officials, and media figures. As the people of that generation will tell you, black or white, the civil rights movement wasn’t easy.

White People did not just wake up one day and say, “I was wrong in thinking the Black man’s brain is inferior to mine and he is not more inclined to sexual violence. Here is a desk for your kid in my school. I do apologize.” It took National Guard troops to integrate some schools.  Many communities pooled resources to create private schools to put their white kids in and then defunded the public schools. Many whites felt they were screwed by the special protection given to blacks, that they were being forced to pay extra so that those people can educate their inferior kids.

On the other side; there were some blacks who were against the civil rights movement; who believed that there should be a separation of the races. Changing deeply held traditions is never fast or easy.

I could see people of my parents’ generation telling their kids how the federal government came and forced them to serve people they didn‘t want to at their lunch counter. My parents could have taught me racist values. It makes me think. “Would my life experience be enough to overcome taught racial prejudice?”

Then I look at my young nieces and nephew. They are growing up with parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents who will not burden them with the racial prejudices. Not all kids are that lucky.

Obama’s talk

President Obama talked beautifully this past Friday about his experiences. What struck me was the getting into an elevator with and old lady and she clutches her purse. That old lady could have grown up in a time and place where no black man would have ever gotten into an elevator, period.

I, in my long haired youth, used to be followed in stores. It means something to hear the leader of the free world has had the same experience. It means something even more to those who have been profiled not by choice of clothes and hair but by skin color.

Slavery and the civil rights movement

The civil war less than 150 years ago. That’s two 75 year old ladies. That’s your grandmother hearing from her grandmother about owning slaves or being a slave. Maybe the heart of the civil rights movement couldn’t happen until the last generation of civil war survivors was gone. If that holds true in another 20 years when my generation’s kids are in charge they can bound forward in racial equality.

Racism is still institutionalized in America.

While no longer written into law, in practice we still have racism. Blacks make up 13% of the population and 37% of those in prison. 14% of drug users are black but are 37% of those arrested for drug offenses. The stop and frisk law in New York targets are 53% black but only 25% of the population. Only 13% of non- black, non-Hispanics are stopped and frisked and that make up 56% of the population.

If you are black you are over twice as likely to be targeted by police. Is there any wonder why more prisoners are black? You find crime where you look for crime.

We all treat people differently.

It is true that we treat people differently depending on haircut, clothes, style, etc. Things we can control. That is always going to happen. If you are wearing a cowboy hat and boots gives me a different first impression, everything else being equal, than a baseball cap and army boots. Not to judge a book by its cover is nearly impossible.

What we should not do is judge a person on what they can’t choose, like their skin color. I will assume I will not like a person’s taste in music if he is wearing a cowboy hat no matter what race he is.

Treyvon Martin and George Zimmerman

If I was Treyvon Martin walking home from the store, what would I have done? I Notice a car creeping up behind me. It pulls ahead of me and parks. The man in the car is on the phone watching me. Is he a molester? A cop? A kidnapper? I keep walking past the car and turn the corner. A minute later the same car is behind me. I’m close to home but I don’t want this guy to know where I’m staying. I turn around and confront him. “What’s your problem?” I say while doing my best ‘tough man’ hoping he’ll back off. Then start walking back towards home again.

The guy gets out of the car and follows me! Shits getting real now. Do I turn the corner and run from this guy. I take some cover to see what this guy does. He is still following me up here. Do I confront him one on one or do I flee? I’ll confront him…

I can see myself doing everything Treyvon did. I cannot do the same with George Zimmerman. I can see following someone who met the description of a robber in the neighborhood and calling the cops. I can’t see me following him after the cops tell me to stop. Or after I know he knows I’m following him. Or, after the kid does his best thug impression, to get out of the car and following him. I can’t see myself bringing a gun with me on a neighborhood watch when the rules say not to. Zimmerman actively chose to go against what I consider logical to bring the gun and to get out of the car. What drove him to do so? I cannot say.

Then the police don’t start a full investigation after a kid is shot. Just takes one person’s word for it thus delaying the investigation and losing any useful forensic information. How mad would that make me as the parent? If my kid was shot dead, the killer admits to it, and nothing gets investigated I’d be mad as hell. If Treyvon was my brother or neighbor, or friend, or a part of my community I’d be upset too.

The media hype

I was reluctant to actually talk about my feelings on Trayvon Martin situation because of how big it has become. When we focus on one event and attempt to extrapolate it out over bigger issues it becomes polluted by what everyone has already said on it. There are cases of racism everywhere. All one need to do is look. Trayvon is now just a rallying cry for people on both sides.

Everyone in the media coverage of the ‘argument’ has been saying “Put yourself in Treyvon or George’s shoes.” I say “Put yourself in Treyvon’s parents shoes or the police’s shoes.” The incident that resulted in Treyvon’s death is a tragedy. The cops’ response is the travesty. The perceived personal racism of Zimmerman is less important than the perceived institutional racism of the police force.

All issues are local

The Minneapolis/St. Paul area is dealing with the death of Terrance Franklin being shot 7 times in the back by police. At a rally this past week I talked to people about a black baby doll being “lynched” in a local public school; And a black kid being hung on a clothes line; and a video of a black man being kicked by a cop then being pulled by his hair into the back of a squad car, and, and, and…

I wish we lived in a “Post-Racial Society” but we don’t. There are still patterns of racism on the streets and by the police. It is the duty of everyone to do something about injustice no matter what type of injustice it is.

Closing thoughts

I have written here about where racism may come from. Not to justify but to enlighten. Understanding where others come from informs why things happen and helps find solutions for the future.

I cannot know what it is like to be a black man today. What I can do is to call for justice; to support others in their struggles as I call for support in mine. What I can do judge a person on their character not on the color of their skin and call out others when they don’t.

Please share your thoughts with me and others. This is a conversation that must be had.


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