You may not be a racist, but …

After a jury found former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of second degree murder, third degree murder, and manslaughter, the focus of the nation will likely move elsewhere.  Yet, the matter of race in America deserves more consideration.  

In numerous instances in the past, black Americans died under the most suspicious of circumstances and yes, sometimes at the hands of the police.  Americans understand that most police officers do their job with integrity and honor, but a pattern of behavior exists where black Americans are the victims of unjust violence.  Moreover, black citizens have been victimized by other private citizens in situations where race was likely a factor.  The acts of violence have not always yielded arrests, prosecutions, or convictions. 

When you have a moment, do a quick internet search of these men:

Trayvon Martin

Eric Garner

Walter Scott

Philando Castile 

Ahmaud Arbery

George Floyd

Daunte Wright

These black men died needlessly and their deaths were unjust.  The truly frightening aspect of these killings is that we are only aware of these injustices due to video evidence. The verdict in the case of Derek Chauvin represents an important victory for justice in America.  Citizens should see the justice system working, but the racial problems in the United States run much deeper. 

The problems many black citizens have with law enforcement are often misunderstood, and part of that comes from the politicization of their frustration and anger.  Additionally, many white Americans fail to see how discrimination has historically occurred in areas other than law enforcement which sometimes still prevent black citizens from advancing in society.  I want to examine a few of aspects of this that I have come to understand over the last few years.

Understanding and rebranding

One of the best ways to win over skeptics of the racial problems in the United States is to promote better understanding of what black Americans are asking from this nation.  The phrases and terminology of the Black Lives Matter Movement are frequently misunderstood by mainstream America. 

Let me further explain, using one of the more ridiculous phrases we have all heard at some point:  ‘defund the police.’  Taken at face value, many Americans believe this phrase means that advocates of racial justice want to eliminate police forces altogether.  This is a poor explanation of the concept, and a terrible name for it.  Even Al Sharpton noted, “… to take all policing off is something a latte liberal may go for as they sit around the Hamptons discussing this as an academic problem. But people living on the ground need proper policing.”  No one wants to eliminate the police.  

A better explanation for ‘defund the police’ is ‘rethink how we police.’  Police have a number of different tasks they must complete to enforce the law.  However, what if we took some of those tasks off their plate and gave them to other civil servants?  Does a police officer really need to be the person who cites you for having expired tags on your license plate?  No one expects police to enforce parking violations, or a number of other small matters.  So, why not allow police to focus on more important aspects of law enforcement?

The phrase ‘defund the police’ is a terrible phrase and bad PR — no sane person wants to literally defund the police.

Would we be better as a society if we performed mental wellness checks on citizens via a health care professional?  Recent studies state that nearly one-fourth of individuals killed by the police in the United States had a severe mental illness.  Maybe there’s a better way.  

Cities across the United States have changed some of their law enforcement duties to create special response teams which may include a police officer, but utilized mental health professionals, social workers, and other specially trained individuals who can deescalate a situation so people do not die unnecessarily. 

This rethinking of policing also includes how we handle interventions with drug users.  We should reduce the number of police devoted to responding of overdoses and allow other first responders to address those issues.  

Changing the way we police also means changing our funding priorities.  This does not mean eliminating the police force, but devoting more financial resources to prevention of crime.  Investing in developing the job skills of citizens would be an example of use of tax dollars.  When people have meaningful work at a living wage, they are significantly less prone to engage in criminal behavior.  Of course this doesn’t eliminate crime, but it represents one way to alleviate the problems of both citizens and the police.

Police departments rightfully spend significant time training their officers in self-defense and firearms.  These are worthwhile endeavors, but would it not be wise to increase other aspects of training that could be useful?  Provide further training to police officers on how to deescalate situations when possible.  Give them the ability to effectively work with children.  Make sure they can handle a domestic call.  

Again, it’s important to note no one wants to see police officers injured or killed in the line of duty.  Officers occasionally need to use force, and sometimes that means using lethal force.  But if an officer must use lethal force, it should be a last resort. 

Part of the political process means asking government officials to change policies which do not work or can be improved.  This should not preclude asking for better ways of policing.  I would also submit that changes in policy must include police experts who have significant experience in the field.  These individuals are important in discussing how to best serve the community, and I believe most officers want to help their neighbors and their communities.

I believe most Americans also misunderstand the phrase ‘white privilege.’  In many instances, I believe this phrase puts white Americans on the defensive, presuming that whoever uses that term automatically is levying an accusation of racism.   The phrase also bothers many Americans who happen to be white, but also had to overcome significant challenges in their own lives.  Many of these people do not feel as though they had a privileged life. 

The phrase ‘white privilege’ is not too dissimilar from ‘defund the police’ in the sense that it poorly describes the concept.  When people use the phrase white privilege, they mean that white citizens do not experience the same obstacles in life that black citizens face.

What are some examples of white privilege?

• White citizens have the ability to walk or drive wherever they please without suspicion from the police as to why they might be in that neighborhood. 

• Greater likelihood of accessing more prestigious institutions of higher education 

• Books, television, and film overrepresent white people while under representing and stereotyping minorities

•.Learning about the history of white Europeans — their ancestors

• Less likely to be incarcerated, even when they commit the same crimes — 1 in 3 black males will be locked up at some point in the United States while rates for white males is significantly lower.

• Not worrying about laws passed which specifically target them due to their race

• Greater access to wealth in terms of the housing market, personal and business loans, and inheritance 

• Less likely to face prejudicial attitudes about their culture — hairstyles, clothing, music, or even historical names.

White Americans do not understand these problems because they don’t experience them.  White privilege doesn’t mean that all white people lived a catered life of ease.  It does, however, mean that black citizens face certain obstacles white citizens do not.
No one, regardless of race, wants another individual to make blanket presumptions about their life. 

The organized movements of black Americans to achieve equality have spawned expressions which are frequently misunderstood or used too broadly:  black lives matter, micro aggressions, systemic racism, intersectionality, no justice / no peace, critical race theory, etc.  These phrases have been highly politicized into a world of liberal versus conservative where people have not investigated the concepts for themselves.  It’s the easy path to sit back and absorb the news about these issues on your preferred network, but it’s not the way forward.  

Recognize the institutional problems

The problems of racism go beyond the prejudices of people and the era of segregated society.  One of the greatest detriments to black Americans has been the inability to accumulate and pass on wealth from one generation to the next.

Men and women in the United States who receive more education make significantly more money in their lifetime than their counterparts with less education. Historically, black Americans have not had the same opportunities in education as white Americans.  The desegregation of public schools did not begin until the landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.  

Even when the Supreme Court ordered schools to integrate with “all deliberate speed,” many states stalled this process.  Several states did not integrate their schools systems until well into the 1970s, and in a few rare circumstances, some schools only recently integrated their systems (see:  Cleveland, Mississippi in 2017).  Prior to integration, black students attended schools with inferior facilities and lower quality education.  Put bluntly, America robbed them of an education.  

The denial of an education continued into post-secondary institutions.  Returning black veterans from World War II did not receive the education benefits entitled to them from the GI Bill.

Public colleges and universities discriminated in their admissions practices. Former Governor George Wallace notably stood in front of the doors at the University of Alabama in 1960 in an attempt to demonstrate his devotion to a segregated society, in the hopes of preventing four black students from enrolling in the state’s flagship university.  If you believe this to be an aberration, examine the story of James Meredith, the first black man admitted to the University of Mississippi.  Federal marshals were required to secure the campus for Meredith’s registration after a long legal back to have him admitted.  Riots broke out on campus afterwards, and Meredith faced significant challenges from over racism while a student there.

Even well into the 21st century, we see strange data that reflects a major difference between black and white Americans.  There is a significant gap in student achievement between students of different races in primary, secondary, and post-secondary schools.  Only a fool would believe that black students aren’t able to achieve at the same levels as children of other races.

Black children are more than capable of learning, but the greatest factor in determining educational achievement lies not in race, but in socioeconomic status.  Areas of high poverty have a correlation with low student achievement (regardless of race) and the reverse is also true.  Students who do not live in poverty achieve at higher levels. 

With the lack of education, black Americans faced a greater difficulty finding good paying jobs.  This was only furthered by prejudicial attitudes from white Americans who often denied jobs to individuals because of their skin color.  

The gap between income and overall wealth between black and white citizens continues to be a problem for the United States

Discriminatory practices also included the denial of bank loans to black businessman and potential homeowners.  Often referred to as ‘redlining,’ banks would outline areas of localities where black citizens lived and either refuse to offer a loan or refuse to insure the loan.  As a result, millions of black citizens lacked the ability to secure a home, one of the most significant wealth investments which Americans pass on to their children.

Even if they possessed the capital to purchase a home, black Americans were unable to secure a loan and if they did, it surely would not be permitted in a suburb.  ‘White flight’ was a phenomenon of the 1950s and 60s, where white citizens moved to newly created suburbs.  This left poor black citizens in urban areas (with less tax dollars for investment).  

Today, urban living is somewhat popular again and poor black communities fight gentrification, where businesses and wealthier white citizens buy up properties which languished for years.  Though some inhabitants in these areas appreciate seeing their community receive investment, others resent the fact that white owned businesses or homeowners reap the financial benefits.

There are individuals who will recognize that historically, black Americans were wronged.  However, these individuals will assert that America is different today and more opportunities exist for black Americans than ever before.  This is true.  There are a number of opportunities which young black men and women, and many of these individuals find a way to advance themselves in terms of their careers and wealth.  

Though many black Americans have established themselves in terms of their education, career, and overall wealth, this ignores the hardships which most Americans (regardless of race) cannot overcome on their own.  People need help, and many of them are black.  Moreover, even if the current generation’s problems are solved, what are we doing to help previous generations of black men and women who did not have opportunities which exist today?

Invest in Black America

To assist black Americans, the nation needs investment from multiple areas.  We need cooperation from governments, private institutions, and individual citizens to mitigate the problems of racism.  

Government legislation and tax dollars cannot solve this problem alone, and we would be remiss if we believed such a fallacy.  But government policies can mitigate racism and help provide a structural setting where it’s not even worth it to engage in racial discrimination.  In the past, the federal government passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination based on race, sex, or ethnicity in public accommodations.  While this didn’t rid the nation of deeply rooted prejudices, it did provide legal remedies for businesses and governments who attempted to discriminate against black Americans.

What legislation do we need?  Great question, and I can’t give a definitive answer, but I believe government leaders should sit down with various civil rights groups, law enforcement officials, education advocates, and financial institutions to determine what policies should change.  

Private businesses can make a difference as well. They have tremendous financial assets at their discretion and they can make a concerted effort to invest in black owned businesses or recruit qualified black men and women to add diversity to their company.

At the personal level, you and I can change the nation.  No, I’m not going to ask you to admit you’re a racist or anything ‘woke’ like that.  However, you can talk to your friends who are people of color and ask them about what they think might be racist about America.  You might not agree with them, nor do you have to.  

Listening to the perspective of others and developing a mutual respect will help everyone realize that when we look past skin color, we see humanity.  You may not experience the same problems as those who are black, but you don’t need to jump off a cliff to realize it wouldn’t be pleasant.  It doesn’t diminish you or I as a person to demonstrate compassion for people dealing with difficult situations in life that we will never encounter.  

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