Peace is not the absence of violence alone.
Many Whites seem to define peace as not only being free of violence but being able to safely ignore violence elsewhere in the world. But the price of guaranteeing that type of peace for middle- and upperclass White populations has always been violence against those without that magical combination of skin color and economic fortune. The price of that peace has largely been borne on the backs of our Black, Native, Asian, and Hispanic neighbors (and, yes, our poor White neighbors too).
In the past five years alone, at least 1,252 Black men and women have been killed by police. Those of us demanding change today in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd are not asking for the tables to be turned, for Whites to be subject to the same police brutality that has so long been meted out to Blacks.
We are not asking that Whites, too, be denied mortgages, business loans, and the other institutional forms of assistance needed to achieve the “American Dream.” We are not asking that businesses start refusing to serve Whites or for mobs of minorities to terrorize White communities. We are not asking for whiteness to be redefined as pathology, for the capacity of Whites to learn, invent, discover, and lead to be dismissed out-of-hand, for White skin to become shorthand for evil, for people to recoil and clutch their belongings when White people pass them on the street. We do not believe in an “eye for an eye.”
What we are asking for is change that any self-proclaimed “Greatest Country in the World” should be able to deliver with ease. We are asking that all people be secure in their persons, free of government-sanctioned violence.
But violence takes many forms, and police reform will not curb all of them. To ensure true peace, we must also ensure that the basic needs of all people are met. Food, shelter, medicine, education, and the opportunity for meaningful employment. Take care of the basics, and the rest will follow.
To my White neighbors and friends:
Turning our Facebook profile pictures black for a day is not enough. Liking progressive posts and tweets is not enough. Even simply acknowledging the humanity of our Black, Native, Hispanic, and Asian neighbors (or any group that doesn’t look like “us,” however that is defined) is not enough. Such will not secure the peace. That much should be obvious. We have much more work to do.
Many of you are already involved in that work. Thank you. Continue to organize for change. Continue to speak out, continue to demand that our leaders do better. Continue to run for office, especially at the local level.
Many would like to be involved (or be more involved) but feel constrained by obligations to family and employers or by limitations of health and finance. Many more have never given the matter much thought or seen a clear reason to become involved. As our mutual experience with Covid-19 has hopefully revealed, none of us are an island, none are exempted from the moral obligation to care for our fellow human beings. And surely our duty of care extends to ensuring that none of us lacks for food, shelter, medicine, education, and opportunities for meaningful employment!
Change must be both structural and personal, and it must begin with each of us, individually, acknowledging that we cannot see the world in full, that how we see the world is largely a product of our upbringing and present circumstances, and that willingly staying beholden to our limitations, our biases, is a servitude that damages not only those in the world we miss-see but ourselves.
Ask yourself: How old were you when you first had a Black teacher (or any nonwhite teacher)? When was the last time you read a book or watched a TV show focused on a nonwhite family or the experiences of nonwhite characters? Have you ever been in a situation where you were conscious of the color of your skin? Who do you see when you imagine a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, a scientist or engineer? Be honest. Is the image that comes unbidden to your mind colored with white skin?
How we see the world is the result of how we have been taught to see the world. We interpret cues according to precepts we have imbibed from our parents, from our schools, from the media we’ve consumed. That can make empathy challenging. This is hard work.
But what freedom do we have if all that we see around us, if all the ways we respond to the world, are simply the spooling out of scripts and protocols we are unaware we are reading from and acting on? True freedom begins when we acknowledge that gauze before our eyes. We might never remove it completely. But in acknowledging its presence—in acknowledging our own biases—we can begin to recognize how that nearly invisible scrim crops and focuses and subtly recolors all that we perceive. In attempting to see with, we can begin to see through, to see in new ways, less constrained by the past, by society.
So, look for all the ways that whiteness is reinforced as the default in our society (and throughout Western culture).
Consider all the ways the whiteness of our skin is unthought, the neutral ground against which so much else is measured. Consider, too, how this can be twisted, with a shift in perspective, into an insurmountable height against which all other races pale in comparison. The latter we probably recognize as overt white supremacism, easily discredited and disdained. The wretchedness of white supremacy, however, is easy to knock down. The neutrality of whiteness is far more insidious, far harder to root out.
Look for books and movies and TV shows that present the world beyond the white, Western experience of it. (Myriad upon myriad of examples are just a Google search away.)
Support and help cultivate leaders who will value people as human beings rather than as cogs in the grand machines of capitalism.
Donate time and money to organizations working to improve the world.
But don’t pick and choose. Do all of these and more, to the best of your ability.
To my Republican neighbors and friends:
You seem to want change too. You’ve largely celebrated Trump’s every attempt to overturn existing norms of presidential behavior and national governance. You’ve cheered his promises to “drain the swamp.” Clearly you want something to be different.
Are you certain you know what, though? Or are you simply echoing the list of grievances that seem to pour daily from Republican leaders and media figures?
If we dug deeper, would we perhaps find you and I hold similar complaints rooted in economics? Fears of not being able to provide food and shelter for our families, fears of bankruptcy should illness strike, feelings of being trapped in a job because of a dependence on the health insurance it provides, fears that the “American dream” of upward mobility, already a long shot for so many, will be only further narrowed if more people (largely nonwhite) are in the mix; relatedly, fears that we are all competing for an ever-dwindling supply of crumbs and scraps from the table of American capitalism?
Do you fear that your ability to secure the basics for yourselves and your children is ending, that the long march to prosperity begun after World War II (but largely concentrated among America’s White populations) has come to a close?
I have known too many of you as family and friends to think you welcome the police killing of George Floyd or that you believe Blacks are inferior to Whites or that you would willingly associate your good names with those who do welcome and believe such things. I believe you want to be good people, that you don’t want to secure only for yourselves or your race the blessings of peace.
And that is why it has been so painful these past four years to watch you stand silent as your party’s leaders have praised and encouraged white supremacists, have advocated and celebrated violence against people carrying out their Constitutionally guaranteed right to protest, have said and done nothing to check behaviors in President Trump that would invite strong censure, investigations, and impeachments in any Democratic president (and any previous Republican president, for that matter). You have stood by as scientific evidence is tossed aside because it reaches conclusions the president dislikes, as briefings meant to calm and educate the public were turned into campaign rallies and hours-long gripe sessions about the president’s perceived enemies. You have shrugged as the president praised dictators, alienated allies. You remained silent when he retweeted a video of a supporter saying, “The only good Democrat is a dead Democrat,” and days later called for the US military to be deployed against protestors.
Now, more than ever, we need to hear your voice, your reassurance that you do not, with the president, believe this country would be better if all Democrats were dead. We need to hear your voice, your reassurance that you value Black lives just as much as White lives. We need to hear your voice, your reassurance that you value life more than property. We need reassurance that there is a common ground on which we can build a future of peace for all.
I believe it is there. I am not ready to give up on the great democratic experiment that is the United States. But I am also no longer willing to allow our Black, Native, Hispanic, and Asian neighbors to be left behind—or worse.
—Christopher Davey, chair of the Bolton Democratic Town Committee