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If you’re reading this, then you’ve gotten involved in a discussion about race. During this discussion, you may have uttered one of the following phrases:
- “All Lives Matter”
- “What about reverse racism?”
- “There’s no such thing as white privilege, because I’m white and I’ve suffered through hardship.”
- “More white people are killed by the police than black people”
- “What about black-on-black crime?”
- “He was no angel.”
- “She should have just obeyed the officer. She was rude.”
- “We don’t know the full story”
- “The police have difficult jobs. They’re only human. Accidents happen.”
- “I feel like I’m not allowed to have an opinion on race because I’m white.”
- “Not all white people are racist and bad.”
- “So what do you want me to do about it?”
Because these arguments are used really often and the person you’re arguing with is tired of hearing/answering them, here are some handy responses. Now let us never speak of them again.
“All Lives Matter”
The purpose of the #BlackLivesMatter movement isn’t to devalue other lives. On the Tonight Show, actress Uzo Aduba (famous for playing “Crazy Eyes” on Orange is the New Black), explained:
I think what happens is that, people think when saying Black Lives Matter they think of it as being exclusionary some how, when it’s not really meant to be that. It’s not excluding people. On Earth Day we don’t include Jupiter we just have Earth, we just celebrate Earth on that day.
The idea behind #BlackLivesMatter is that society currently devalues the lives of black people.
Up until about 150 years ago, America officially valued each black life at three-fifths of a white life. Racism today is more subtle than that, but it still exists. The Black Lives Matter movement asserts that the nation still treats a black person’s life as less valuable than that of a white person.
This devaluation isn’t encoded into the law as blatantly as the Three-Fifths Compromise or Jim Crow laws were, but it is pervasive in big and small ways. It’s in our unequal, racially-segregated school system, in which black students are penalized more harshly than white students for similar disciplinary offenses. It’s in our justice system, which kills and imprisons black men at a much higher rate than it does white men for committing similar crimes, while imposing lighter sentences on criminals who harm black people than on criminals who harm white people. It’s in the workplace. It’s in our health care system.
The reason that Civil Rights activists shout, “Black lives matter,” is because American society tends to insist that they don’t.
All lives matter, but in America, some lives matter more than others.
“What about reverse racism?”
You may have brought up “reverse racism” (i.e. prejudice against white people), only to hear in response that it doesn’t exist. This might not make sense to you — you’ve definitely been insulted for being white, so you know that reverse racism is real.
Well, not exactly. What’s happening here is that the person talking to you is using a different definition of racism — the definition used by sociologists. In sociology, racism is more than just prejudice based on race: it’s a system of behaviors and beliefs that creates a social hierarchy that puts some races above others in terms of power and influence. In other words, racism is more than prejudice: it’s prejudice with power behind it.
Hence, according to the sociological definition of racism, there might be prejudice against white people but there is no such thing as “reverse racism” or racism against white people.
There are definitely people who hate white people, but the United States doesn’t have a power structure that puts white people beneath people of other races. Being hated for your race hurts no matter what race you are, but being white probably won’t hurt your ability to get a job or adequate medical care, while being black very well might. The stereotypes leveled against white people (bad at dancing, fond of bland food) are benign, unlikely to lead to serious consequences. The stereotypes held against people of color (lazy, dishonest, ignorant, thieving) can and do cause real harm.
That’s why there isn’t a major civil rights movement devoted to combating prejudice against white people: because, overall, white people don’t need it. Insisting on a movement to address prejudice against white people is like insisting on setting up a charity for rich people, or demanding chemotherapy for people who don’t have cancer.
“There’s no such thing as white privilege, because I’m white and I’ve suffered through hardship.”
So you’re white, and you’ve had a rough life. Maybe you’ve been unemployed, or poor, or even homeless. You’ve known lots of white people who have suffered through poverty or other kinds of adversity. So how can such a thing as “white privilege” exist?
First of all, white privilege doesn’t mean that your life will be amazing all the time. Nobody is that lucky. What it does mean is that you won’t have to suffer through certain disadvantages because of your race.
Compare whiteness to another form of privilege: wealth. Wealthy people have certain advantages, but their lives aren’t completely free of misery. They still get their hearts broken; they still have to endure violence; they still suffer from mental illness; they still get sick and die like everybody else. Elizabeth I, for example, lost her mother to an executioner’s ax, was imprisoned by her own sister, and reportedly never got laid, though she was literally the queen.
Yet wealth still offers many privileges: it protects people from problems like hunger or homelessness, and it gives a person access to better resources for any problems they might have. A rich woman might still get breast cancer, but her wealth will allow her to purchase superior medical care; a rich man might still get injured, but his wealth will allow him to get a good cosmetic surgeon to minimize the scars and a therapist to help him cope with the trauma.
White privilege works in a similar way: it diminishes the risk of some problems as it grants access to help for other problems. For instance, a mentally ill white person is more likely to get an accurate diagnosis and proper treatment than a mentally ill black person, a sick white person will probably receive better medical care than a sick person of color, and a white job applicant is more likely to get a callback than a black job applicant.
“More white people are killed by the police than black people”
Overall, the police in the United States kill more white people than black people. This is true. According to a report by The Guardian, out of 710 people killed by the police so far this year, 341 were white, while 184 were black. The police killed nearly twice as many white people as they did black people.
One would expect to see that the majority of people killed by police would be white simply because the majority of Americans (and the majority of criminals) are white. However, the demographics of people killed by the police don’t quite line up with the demographics of the population at large. Seventy-seven percent of Americans are white, but only 48 percent of people killed by police so far this year are white. Thirteen percent of Americans are black, but 25 percent of the people killed by police so far this year are black. In other words, the percentage of black people killed by American police is disproportionately high.
This isn’t because of a difference in crime rates between races, either. According to the FBI, 69.3 percent of people arrested by the police are white, yet the percentage of white people killed by the police is significantly lower than that number.
While the police kill more white people overall, an individual black person is significantly more likely to be killed by the police than an individual white person — over twice as likely, according to statistics listed by the Guardian.
The rate is even worse for black teens. Between 2010 and 2012, black males aged 15-19 were 21 times more likely to be shot dead by police than white males of the same age.
“What about black-on-black crime?”
The argument goes like this: black people face racial discrimination, but racism isn’t solely responsible for the problems in the black community. Black people commit violence against each other all the time. Black community leaders should address this problem before criticizing the police.
Now, it is true that the majority of black murder victims are killed by other black people. It’s also true that the majority of white murder victims are killed by other white people. In 2013, 83 percent of white homicide victims were killed by white offenders. Violent crime generally occurs between members of the same race.
Still, black community leaders are well aware of the problem of black-on-black crime and are taking steps to address it. Just the other day, 300 men marched from Baltimore to Washington, D.C. to raise awareness about violence in the black community. The march’s organizer, Munir Bahar, told WUSA 9,
“We need men specifically to get off the couch, to get involved in these young peoples’ lives in the community and really take it as a personal thing,” says Bahar. “Take ownership of the violence. Take responsibility for your own community and step into these young folks’ lives, be the intervention that is needed to really guide them away from making these life altering decisions.”
In 2014, President Obama launched the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, which called upon community leaders to focus on helping young men of color stay out of trouble and develop into productive members of society. Last June, East Harlem residents held a rally against gun violence, while black filmmaker Spike Lee spoke at a similar rally against gun violence in Chicago. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson have also spoken on the issue.
Homicide rates among black people have declined over the past few decades since its peak in the early 1990s.
In sum, the black community is fully aware of black-on-black crime. They’re working on it. But black-on-black crime should not excuse police brutality any more than white-on-white crime does. Most serial killers and mass murderers are white men, yet the police are not uniquely suspicious of white men.
“He was no angel”
The police have shot and killed someone who turned out to be unarmed. There’s a massive public outcry. You’ve learned that the “victim” wasn’t that innocent: he shoplifted one time, or she smoked pot, or he owed child support, or he had been suspended from school in the past, or he had a prior conviction for assault. Everyone is talking about the dead person as though he were pure as new-fallen snow, but the reality is that he was no angel.
This is true. It is also true that literally no one is an angel. I’m not. You, the reader, are not: you’ve almost certainly done something regrettable in the past, yet you’re alive to read this article.
My teenage friends shoplifted, but they were white girls so the worst thing that happened to them was that mall security called their parents and banned them from Old Navy. They didn’t get shot, like Michael Brown did.
I grew up around Woodstock, a famous small town populated largely by well-to-do white people. When the police catch a Woodstock resident smoking marijuana in public, they don’t arrest the offender; they just take the stoner’s stash and go smoke it behind the Sunflower Natural Foods Market. If the police were as strict with white drug users as they are with black drug users, our nation’s college campuses would be empty.
The “no angel” offenses listed are not capital crimes. No judge will sentence a convicted criminal to death for marijuana possession, or for snatching a box of cigarillos, or for getting sent to detention in school. This is the United States, where a legal punishment is supposed to fit a crime; we don’t chop off people’s hands for stealing, or stone people to death for public immodesty. Death is an unreasonable punishment for shoplifting. Pointing a gun at a motorist for speeding is a disproportionate response to a very minor offense.
“He looked like a thug”
The man shot by police might have been unarmed, but he looked dangerous. He was dressed like a thug: hoodie, saggy pants, backwards baseball cap. He flashed gang signs in Facebook photos. He scowled. He swaggered around with an intimidating gait. He dressed like a criminal and acted like a criminal; how can we blame the police for treating him like a criminal?
Quick question: should the police shoot the Fonz?
Should the police stop and frisk James Dean?
What about Elvis? Here he is, dressed as a convicted felon while expressing a cavalier attitude toward the American penal system.
It sounds like a ridiculous question, but think about it: that cool 1950s Greaser aesthetic was based on the fashion and mannerisms of felons, juvenile delinquents and motorcycle gangs. America celebrates Greasers, forgetting that kids with black pompadours did occasionally commit muggings or steal cars or take part in illegal street races that put pedestrians’ lives at risk. Denim jeans, at the time, were wildly inappropriate for daily wear outside of blue-collar work; T-shirts were informal as well; those big leather jackets were great for hiding switchblades and brass knuckles. America’s youths didn’t wear that style just because it looked good: they wore it because it represented rebellion against the social order, because it made them look tough.
Teens, especially boys, like to look tough. They like to bother authority figures; it’s all a part of the rocky transition from childhood’s obedience to adulthood’s independence. Young people wear saggy pants and hoodies today for the same reason they wore leather jackets in the 1950s; they swagger and slouch today for the same reason James Dean sneered in Rebel Without a Cause; they borrow slang from criminals (or fictional depictions of them) just as America’s teens did in the 1950s.
Greasers aren’t the only outlaws our society has idolized, by far. Think of how many Western films turn Billy the Kid into a hero. Think of how many movies and novels offer flattering depictions of pirates, who were murderous thieves in real life. Think of how many college bros have a poster of Scarface on their walls. Think of the Minnesota Vikings, a sports team that celebrates group of criminals who raped and pillaged and burned English villages without provocation.
If the police have a right to shoot any black youth in a hoodie, then they also have the right to arrest every Italian youth in a leather jacket, the right to keel-haul every kid in a pirate costume, and the right to slay every Goth with a wooden stake through the heart.
“She should have just obeyed the officer. She was rude.”
Last month, a black woman named Sandra Bland was found dead in her jail cell after being arrested during a Texas traffic stop. Bland did not appear to have committed any traffic offense that would normally justify an arrest; the officer stopped her for failing to signal a lane change. Video of the initial stop suggests that the officer arrested her for angering him by refusing to put out her cigarette.
Smoking a tobacco cigarette in the vicinity of one’s car is not a crime. Refusing to put out that cigarette might be a breach of etiquette, but it is not a crime. Talking back to a police officer is not a great idea, but it is not a crime. Bland’s conduct did not warrant her arrest; at the absolute worst, it warranted no more than a traffic ticket (and even that’s questionable).
A police officer can issue certain orders like “Pull over,” or “Show me your license”, but there are limits to that authority. There must be limits to that authority, or else it would be abused. A police offer can’t legally arrest somebody for being rude; rudeness is not a literal crime.
“We don’t know the full story”
A police officer shot an unarmed man, but we don’t know all the details of the incident for sure. Maybe there is no video footage. Maybe there weren’t any witnesses, or there were witnesses but their stories don’t match up. Only two people know for sure what happened, and one of them is dead. So, until we truly know what happened, we shouldn’t get upset. We shouldn’t raise a public outcry. We should wait quietly for the truth to come out.
But how will the truth come out? Through an investigation. And who will perform that investigation? The police: the colleagues of the shooter. And the police don’t like to investigate each other; they routinely cover for each other, overlooking offenses like bribery, unnecessary use of force in arrests, or even domestic violence. If a police officer does break the “blue wall of silence” by reporting on the misconduct of another officer, he’s liable to end up with a bullet in his head. Snitches get stitches.
So what would compel the local government to push law enforcement to investigate a police shooting? A massive public outcry. Outrage. Protests. Political pressure. Patiently waiting for the police to do the right thing probably won’t get results.
But sometimes we do know what happened. Sometimes, a witness takes a video of the incident. In response, the police respond by slandering, assaulting or jailing the witness, perhaps to try to ensure that no one will know the whole story the next time the police shoot an unarmed man.
“The police have difficult jobs. They’re only human. Accidents happen.”
No one is disputing that being a police officer is difficult and dangerous. Police officers put themselves in danger every day and deal with the worst of humanity in order to keep society stable. That’s why we hold police officers to a higher standard than we would hold an ordinary citizen. That’s why people who sign up to become police officers need to be able to handle themselves well in stressful situations. That’s why we train police officers before we give them the badge and the uniform and the legal authority to arrest people.
If a police officer’s immediate response to the slightest movement is to panic, whip out his gun and spray bullets in every direction (like in the horrifying footage below), then he should never have been allowed to become a police officer.
A man with a hair-trigger temper should not become a police officer, just as a man with shaky hands should not become a surgeon, or a man with bad eyesight and vertigo should not be allowed to join the Air Force.
Being a police officer is a difficult job. Anyone who can’t handle it shouldn’t have a badge, and if he does, the rest of us shouldn’t make excuses for his incompetence.
“I feel like I’m not allowed to have an opinion on race because I’m white”
Nobody is preventing you from having an opinion about race. You are allowed to hold your beliefs and you are legally permitted to express them. However, other people, including people who disagree with you, are also free to disagree with your beliefs. Black Lives Matter activists are not going to open up your skull and scoop the opinions out, but they might argue with you, as is their constitutional right.
Being white does not automatically disqualify you from having a valid opinion about race. However, it does mean your opinion is not as well-informed as that of a person of color, simply because of life experience. A white person doesn’t really know how it feels to be a person of color. You can try to imagine it or empathize with it, but you haven’t truly experienced it.
A mother probably knows more about parenting than a childless person, a soldier probably knows more about war than a civilian, and a black person probably knows more about the black experience than a white person does. A white person arguing with a black person about race is a little bit like a childless person arguing with a mother of triplets about parenting: inexperienced and liable to receive a healthy dose of eye-rolling.
“Not all white people are racist and bad”
Not all white people are racist and bad, but all white people are part of a society that places white people above people of color. All white people benefit from that unfair social hierarchy, in big ways or small ways (see the entry about white privilege above), and all people of color suffer from it at least a little.
Many, many white people passively tolerate this system, allowing it to continue. That might not be malicious, but it is immoral. As the saying goes, “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing.”
“So what do you want me to do about it?”
Black Youth Project 100’s national director Charlene Carruthers, quoted in the Washington Post, suggests that white people work to make other white people less racist;
White liberals and progressives have a responsibility to organize their communities for social justice using an explicitly anti-black racism frame. There is no need to hide behind black or people of color organizations. Commit yourself to organizing poor and working class white folks. We are capable of organizing our communities. Our children need everyday white folks to work harder to ensure that black women don’t have to worry about dying after failing to signal properly, walking while transgender or trying to protect their children.
The Root advises white allies to be proactive in their own communities, speaking out against racial discrimination and racial violence and taking non-violent action.
Call other white people out on racist behavior. You don’t have to start a moral crusade or chain yourself to a public building, but a simple, “Dude. Not cool,” or even a look of disgust goes a long way. White people with racist attitudes are a lot more likely to listen to other white people than they are to listen to people of color.
If you are white, society has granted you a little bit of extra power. Use it for good.
Previously Published August 20, 2015.