The Real Problem is You – White People

As a trial lawyer, my vocation is one of seeking justice, and finding justice seems to be the issue of this moment in history. How do we do justice for Mr. Aubrey, Mr. Floyd, Mr. Brooks, Ms. Taylor, and literally hundreds of thousands of African-Americans in America targeted and killed because they were black? Some white people think the killers should be prosecuted, but I can tell you from my experience in many trials that justice is often cheated by judges who have granted the police virtual immunity for killing.

That’s not an exaggeration. In criminal trials, judges have ruled that the law is different for police officers and it requires juries to believe the officer who claims they thought their life was in danger no matter what the objective evidence may be. Killer Cops cannot even be held responsible civilly for their actions because, again, the courts have ruled that as long as the officer claims they were acting as a police officer then they are immunized from any actions and consequences. That’s the “systemic” racism that compounds the injustice that African-Americans have suffered, and eliminating these racist legal standards is an essential part of any real justice. Anything short of those reforms will only be window dressing. However, systemic racism in the law is not the fundamental problem.

The real obstacle to justice is you (me, us). The work of recognizing and rooting out racism in white Americans is a life-long labor, in part because the malignancy of racism has been encoded in our psyche over hundreds of years. Sometimes the racism is open, such as when we hear people respond to the phrase “black lives matter” with “all lives matter” or “blue lives matter” in an obvious rejection of the problem of police violence against black Americans.

More frequent and subtle is the racism of people acknowledging that what happened to Mr. Floyd was “terrible” but then wandering off to “but, I wonder what he did to set them off?” Our president provided a prime example when he said that what happened to Mr. Brooks was “terrible” then added that “people” should not resist officers, thereby justifying shooting a man in the back who was no danger to anyone.

No doubt, some readers will ask what’s wrong with saying that “all lives matter” or “don’t resist officers”? What is racist about those thoughts is in their context. It’s asking questions as a white person who has never had the experience of being targeted by the police, threatened and then abused (or killed) because offering any objection constitutes “resistance.” Mr. Floyd followed the unwritten rule of offering no resistance, physical or verbal, and even politely pleading with the cop who was killing him (“please, sir”) and his killing was still justified as a response to “resistance.”  

Mr. Brooks talked calmly and cooperated for many minutes before he “resisted” when cuffs were being forcibly placed on and while he was being taken down. After he “resisted” he was shot in the back twice trying to run away when he posed no danger to anyone. If you asked why he “resisted” and ran from the police instead of “I wonder what the cops did to provoke such a panic in him?” then there’s work you need to do on your own racism.

Racism is perspective and fear above all else. White people look at these incidents from their own experience and reject the reality, let alone the perspective of African-Americans. White people look at the issue of systemic racism from the perspective of their own life (e.g. “I never did anything wrong to a black person, or “my grandparents were immigrants and never owned a slave”) and not the lives of a people who still suffer the economic and civil rights violations of generations. James Baldwin put the issue out in the ’60’s during that period of social unrest when he said that if you are considering the “black problem” you can never find a solution, because the real problem is you – white people.           

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