This essay is also published in the local Oak Park newspaper, Wednesday Journal.
Every action has an equal, opposite reaction. It is a law of physics, and we have taken it as a law of racial progress in this nation. Whenever Black people have won some small advancement, we white people have lashed back against it. After Emancipation and Reconstruction, we had Redemption and Jim Crow of the 1890s and beyond. After the Civil Rights Movement, we had the conservative revolution of the 1980s. Now, before the Black Lives Matter movement has even had the chance to gain ground, we see the white reaction, nationally and locally.
Protests across the nation after the police killing of George Floyd have gained momentum in their demands to defund the police, but they have not had the chance to achieve much concrete change. Most recently, protests erupted in Kenosha, Wisconsin after a police officer shot Jacob Blake. These protests, like those across the nation, were largely peaceful, but there was some violence, theft, and property destruction. And many white people across this nation, most notably of course Trump and the Republican Party, have used this violence as an excuse to condemn the movement and its demands.
In our village of Oak Park, Illinois, young activists have also begun pressing a demand to defund the local police department. During a recent Village Board meeting — held online due to the pandemic — protestors gathered outside the Village President’s house as he participated in that meeting. Again, the protests were largely peaceful, but someone threw an egg at the house and others in the crowd broke plant pots and caused damage in the yard. And again white people have used this property violation and damage to condemn this local movement and its demands.
We white people want to ignore the real, lasting harm that white supremacy has caused over the past 500 years, as well as the harm it continues to cause. This continued harm includes incarcerating Black men at almost six times the rate of white men across this nation when both groups commit drug crimes at the same rate. This includes the police shooting yet another unarmed Black man. This includes Black youth being 97% of youth stopped by Oak Park Police in the past 5 years when Black people are only about 20% of the Village’s population.
As we white people continue to support the policies that lead to these outcomes, we blame Black people for their anger and frustration. And when some of the people affected act out that anger and frustration, we white people always focus on the property damage and how it makes us feel unsafe. “They have no right to damage other people’s property!” we proclaim in outrage. But what about the rights of Black people that our nation has never felt bound to respect?
What will it take, my fellow white people, for us to step outside of our narrow self-interest for just one moment? To set aside our outrage? To understand that rights denied will lead to anger? And instead, to focus on the first cause of all of this…the policies that continue to result in disproportionately negative outcomes for Black people today? As Dr. Ibram Kendi teaches us so clearly, if we believe that all racial groups have equal stores of intelligence, kindness, strength, and every other quality — if we believe that skin color does not determine those qualities — than the only factor left to explain disparities between the races is the policy we implement that treats those racial groups differently.
Let’s stop reacting and start righting the wrongs of our misguided policies. Let’s turn away from the policy of always increasing the budget for policing and cutting the budget for social services. Let’s turn toward our young people — especially our Black young people — to see what they need. We can end this cycle of reaction — we just need the self-awareness and strength to do it.
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