It’s easy to stay silent. It’s easy to ignore systematic injustices, if you’re not directly affected by them. But what if everyone remained silent? What if we allowed injustices to continue because we view them as “not my problem.”
As a white woman, it’s somewhat uncomfortable for me to discuss the Black Lives Matter movement, (and the recent shooting in my home state of MN), but I feel that it is important for me to do so. Why? Because I am a citizen of this world, and so are my children and grandchildren. And because I am part of the privileged majority who walk through life without having to think much about the color of our skin.
I’m also driven to write about the Black Lives Matter movement in light of recent events related to white male privilege. This past month, a Caucasian college student named Brock Turner was given a very gentle punishment after sexually assaulting an unconscious woman. His case is not unusual and probably would have slid under the radar if the victim of his attack hadn’t written a scathing 12-page letter, detailing her trauma and Turner’s lack of consequences.
Turner serves as just one more example of how our criminal justice system favors white males. By comparison, minority youths are 2.8 times more likely to be arrested for a violent crime (including rape) than their white counterparts, 6.2 times more likely to wind up in adult court, and 7 times more likely to be sent to prison by adult court (The Color of Justice study, via PBS.org). As Valerie Castile, mother of yesterday’s shooting victim in Falcon Heights, MN said in an interview, “We’re … hunted every day. It’s a sign of war against African-American people as a whole.”
Despite the obvious systematic racism that exists in the criminal justice arena, I do understand and empathize with the U.S. police force, as well as the African-American community. I understand how difficult it must be to be a police officer who is faced with a tension-filled situation and is forced to make a split-second decision. I can imagine how challenging it is to decide when to act—if a police officer is confronted by a person who means them harm and waits too long to act, the officer could die; however, if the police officer acts too soon and misjudges the situation, the officer could end up harming needlessly. On the other side of the coin, I understand the outrage and sadness the black community feels every time an African-American is brutalized by an officer and every time a jury votes to let that officer walk free. Maybe it’s because I’m trained as a conflict mediator, but I find myself empathizing with both sides of the struggle and believe that they both have justifiable viewpoints.
When I started digging into this issue, I came across a set of interesting statistics from the Washington Post. The Post compiled a database of national deaths by police shooting for 2015. I looked at the information for a long time and the thing I kept coming back to was the number of unarmed people killed:
- 990 people were shot and killed by police in 2015.[i]
- 258 (26%) were black. 38 (15%) of which were unarmed.[ii]
- 494 (50%) were white. 32 (7%) of which were unarmed.
Of the 93 unarmed people shot and killed by police, 38 (41%) were black. I’m not sure if this qualifies as systematic and intentional targeting, but it’s definitely disproportionate.
Yesterday’s shooting in Falcon Heights is just one of a long line of high-profile cases that have occurred over the past few years in which a police officer fatally shot an African-American man. While the circumstances were complicated in each case, it’s difficult to justify killing an unarmed person, even if he is acting irrationally or violently (although, in yesterday’s incident, the victim may have been simply reaching for his wallet).
Even more troubling is the fact that almost all the officers in recent high-profile shootings—Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Jamar Clark—were white and all of them were given either light punishment or none at all from the jury.
And yet, unless you’ve been a police officer in a life-threatening situation, you will never know what thoughts go through your mind when you’re faced with a potentially perilous situation and only have moments to respond. Police officers have to act in the moment to ensure the safety of others and themselves, and they may not always get it right.
So what can we do with all this gray area? How can we respect the dignity and safety of both the black community and police officers? There is no easy answer, but one step we can all take is to open ourselves to opposite or conflicting viewpoints. There are reasonable voices on both sides of this issue and they deserve to be heard. There are also, of course, extreme points of view on either side that are divisive and hurtful. The group White Lives Matter, for instance, arose as a white supremacist response to Black Lives Matter and claims that white Americans are currently undergoing a “white genocide.” On the other side of the coin, a group called Cop Block posts hateful messages on social media aimed at police officers, while claiming to be a police “watchdog group.”
I am troubled by the extreme voices I hear on either side of the debates, blaming entire groups for huge societal issues that have accumulated in our culture over the centuries. Instead of passing judgment or pointing fingers, I believe the only way to move forward is to begin a dialogue. We need to ask good questions and truly listen to the answers.
It is my belief that if we strive, in earnest, to treat each other with dignity and respect, no matter our skin color or choice of occupation, we can build bridges instead of widening the gulf.
[i] Since the U.S. government does not track how many people are killed in police encounters, there is some variation in the statistics. The Washington Post gives a conservative tally at 990 deaths, while the Guardian counts 1,125 deaths and the website KilledByPolice.com tallies 1,206.
[ii] These statistics vary slightly between sources (Washington Post, Guardian, KilledByPolice), but only by a few percentage points.