It’s Time for White People to Speak Up

More specifically: white, middle class people, from outside urban areas…and especially those that consider themselves Republicans or conservatives.

Because what happened with black men getting shot recently in Louisiana and Minnesota is not ok.

The subsequent violence against police officers — especially the horrific murders in Dallas — is equally not ok.

Here’s the problem: lots of people like me, middle class, white, not-urban…and conservative…had comparatively little to say about what happened to Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, but much more to say when innocent cops started dying in Dallas .

That has to change.

Both were terribly wrong. Scenes like people lining up to hug cops in Dallas are a sign there is hope. But, real hope won’t come from hugs. It will come when white people who have heretofore been silent about such issues start speaking up to demand change.

Newt Gingrich was right (yes, I said that…and may not say it again for quite a while) in his Facebook Live chat with Van Jones. Most white people don’t understand what it’s like to grow up black. Especially grow up a black male.

We middle class whites have many reasons to not identify or empathize with the black experience. We, especially outside the South or major urban areas, didn’t grow up exposed to black communities, including the experience with economic want that pervades too many black families. Our opportunity at a high quality education is often dramatically different. And we didn’t experience the direct and indirect racism they’ve encountered throughout their lives, often on the daily.

A perfect example of that difference in experience: Ron Sims tale of  living and driving in Seattle while black. Ron is a former King County Councilman, King County Executive, and Deputy Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. He’s an upstanding, leading citizen in our society. Ron’s been stopped by police eight times in Seattle, with the consistent theme that he’s guilty of driving while black. There is no other conclusion when he is never cited but always asked where he’s going and does he live in the neighborhood.

Not. Acceptable.

Ron’s tale via words on Facebook is helpful, but it is the combination of video and social media that will likely truly change our understanding. Conservative political pundit Matt Lewis nailed it in describing how social media and video has transformed how we understand and think about this issue, by increasing access to images we wouldn’t otherwise experience in our lives, and images that dramatically expand our understanding of the issue.

Newt said many whites “instinctively under-estimate the level of discrimination” black people face in America. Lewis says why the under-estimation is starting to change. Correct. Because watching Alton Sterling and Philando Castile bleed out on video doesn’t leave you a lot of options if you’re intellectually honest about the horror unfolding.

I stand guilty as charged throughout much of my life of that critique of middle class whites. I’m white, grew up in an upper-middle class home in a suburb of Seattle, and went to private high school as well as a highly selective liberal arts college back East. I’m also a Republican — though far, far from the stereotype (and virulently anti-Trump) — who has worked for Republican elected officials and knows many conservatives because of my past professional life and political experience. For years, I consistently underestimated the discrimination black people experience.

What changed for me on this issue? Increased exposure to video of police misbehavior is a contributing factor. So to was a recent diversity & inclusion training I took that led me to re-think a number of my assumptions and beliefs. And I think moving to New Orleans soon plays a big role too.

I went to college in Virginia and have traveled through parts of the South. I’m a history and political science major who knows quite well our national past on the issue of race. I know things are different from the Pacific Northwest I grew up in (above and beyond Ron’s troubling experience in Seattle). But visiting New Orleans several times in advance of our final move gave me a new and deeper perspective on race issues.

New Orleans is in the Deep South. For all the welcoming and funky vibe of the Big Easy, racial tension is palpable. I’ve observed it in white people. I’ve observed  it in black people. I’ve been on the receiving end of it when it was loudly and visibly clear my white family wasn’t welcome where we were at in one neighborhood (conversely, we feel delightfully welcome in the predominantly black neighborhood we choose as our home).

Talking with others from New Orleans about that topic and thinking about it further led me to the same conclusion as Newt Gingrich. I have in the past “instinctively under-estimated” the discrimination black people have experienced, especially when that experience spans generations of white-black racial tension that is embedded into some communities.

At the same time, I have friends and others I know, love, and respect who are currently or formerly in law enforcement. I trust and respect them for all the reasons the police are traditionally respected in our country. They’re good people, risking their safety to serve our communities.

Yet for all the good cops out there, there are also bad and indifferent ones too. And those bad or indifferent cops need to  be held accountable, learn some empathy and compassion, or find new employment.

What can white people do about all this? Demand that empathy and accountability from law enforcement and the elected officials who oversee them.  We should want more of this cop who brought food to a woman caught stealing eggs to feed her kids and less of incidents like this past week that spark further violence and rage.

The officers responsible for those murders in Minnesota and Louisiana need to be held accountable. They could also learn some basic empathy. You know what was missing from each situation after shots were fired? Any serious attempt to treat the now disabled “suspect” who is bleeding to death in front of them. What the actual fuck is that?

One gets the impression from such videos that cops are taught empathy at the police academy about as much as doctors are taught in medical school about how to have a serious conversation — rather than just prescribing some pills — with a patient whose diabetes and heart disease is a result of their grossly unhealthy lifestyle. Meaning: precious little.

That has to change. We can’t really on the empathy police cadets enter the academy with, because humanity is too imperfect.

Where does that change start? I wish I knew exactly, but for all of us it probably starts by showing a little more compassion, a little more love, a little more empathy, a little more effort to think about what the shoe is like on the other foot.

Beyond that, when the opportunity comes, it’s on us to speak up for police accountability and empathy. By us, I mean middle class whites, especially conservatives. We’re the critical mass that can have an impact on this issue. Liberals and other activists have already been having their say, with modest effect on some of these topics . We don’t need to have the exact same policy goals at this point. Just a shared commitment to a decent society with a little bit of compassion. It’s gotten that fucking basic right now.

It’s time.