You can also check out my piece “White fear” from June 1, 2020.
On February 28, 1990, I was a 13-year-old 8th-grader living in suburban Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a shy, quiet kid – small for my age. I enjoyed school and usually earned good grades. I had close friends and was coming to terms with missing them. I had been accepted to attend a Catholic high school in Milwaukee starting that coming fall, while most of them would attend our nearby public high school.
Michaell McGee was a Black community leader in Milwaukee, the alderman of the 10th district. After becoming frustrated with the slow pace of change in the city, McGee advocated for dramatic social and economic reform and became vocal about the segregation and discrimination affecting Milwaukee’s Black residents. On February 28th, McGee announced the formation of the Black Panther Militia, an organization that would engage in “urban guerrilla warfare” on the white citizens of Milwaukee if the city did not invest $100 million into an inner city jobs program. If conditions for Black residents didn’t improve, McGee promised that the militia would disrupt the general functioning of city life, attack public events in Milwaukee, and begin sniper attacks against white motorists traveling on the freeways.
This caused a frenzy among white residents of Milwaukee and its suburbs, and I distinctly remember my own reaction. I was terrified to get in a car and travel to the city. I was terrified of McGee’s threat of snipers: I could not get it out of my mind that the next autumn, I would be traveling via highway to Milwaukee every day for school.
These attacks never materialized. McGee made further threats over the next several years and eventually lost his race for reelection as alderman. But the truth is that these threats of sniper attacks on white people not only did not happen at this time in Milwaukee, they have not happened in any sustained way in the whole course of American history. And yet they caused terror for a white teenager growing up in suburban Milwaukee and for many other white people who lived nearby.
If threats had that effect on white people. what would be the effect of real, sustained attacks on Black people? What if police killed Black people far out of proportion to their numbers in the population? What if there were regular mass shootings carried out against Black people specifically because of their race? But the truth is: we do live in that world. The white supremacist killing of 10 Black residents in Buffalo, New York is just the latest in a long line of actual, violent attacks on Black people in this country.
So if race-based threats cause terror for white teenagers, what effect might actual race-based violence have on Black teenagers around the United States? As in so many cases, the fears of white people are enacted in reality on Black people. In fact, the fears of white people actually cause violence against Black people.
White people’s fears of racial violence by Black people against themselves inspire some white people to attack Black people. White people’s fears that Black people’s presence in their children’s classrooms will worsen their quality inspire white people to lobby for Honors and gifted programs that largely keep Black students out. White people’s fears of Black people in their community inspire those white people to call the police on Black people for next to nothing, ensuring that police will harass Black people and make them less safe. When a police officer shoots an unarmed (or armed) Black person, they always cite fear as their reason, and judges and juries most often find that fear justified: the police officer’s fear of a Black man becomes justification for their killing of that Black man, regardless of the danger the police officer actually faced. And in fact, these fears often rebound on the white people who hold them. Gun violence, although it disproportionately affects people of color, also impacts white people. Police violence also impacts white people. White parents withdrawing their students into separate classes or even schools impacts their children’s actual learning about the real world and how it operates.
And one of the roots of so many of these issues is fear of Black people. It was my fear as a 13-year-old. It is the police officer’s fear. It is the white parent’s fear. Fear is a natural, human reaction. We white people can’t stop feeling fear, no more than any other human can. But we can soothe ourselves. We can calm our fears and try to determine what real danger we actually face.
The heavy work of racial justice often falls on Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color. We white people must take on our work. And we must start by working with and through our own fears. Not ignoring them, but embracing them, and distinguishing between our felt experience of fear and the actual reality of danger. As we white people understand what puts us in genuine danger and what causes fear that feels like danger, we realize that punitive policing, punitive school discipline, selective schools and programs among other policies will not genuinely make us safer – that those policies hurt people of color, and they actually hurt us as well. As a result, we become more effective accomplices for antiracism and more effective advocates for policies that will actually benefit all of us.
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