“But you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know. Indeed, you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which, somehow, will always be assigned to you. And you must be responsible for the bodies of the powerful—the policeman who cracks you with a nightstick will quickly find his excuse in your furtive movements.”
Ta Nehisi-Coates from his book Between the World and Me
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness…” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:26-27)
George Floyd (Minneapolis), Breonna Taylor (Kentucky), Mike Brown (Missouri), Freddie Gray (Baltimore), Philando Castile (Minnesota), Eric Garner (New York), Tamir Rice (Ohio), Dontre Hamilton (Milwaukee), Atatiana Jefferson (Texas)
These are just a few of the African-American men and women killed by police in recent years.
And then there was the recent incident of Christian Cooper, the African American bird watcher in Central Park, New York, who after asking a white woman to leash her dog, was told by her she would call the police and tell them an African American man was threatening her life. She was clearly well aware of the history of this country of white women calling the police on African-American men who often suffered brutally and sometimes fatally.
Beyond the loss of life, African American and other people of color face racial profiling on a daily basis-from being stopped “Driving while Black”, followed around in stores, questioned why they are knocking on doors (State Representative Sheila Stubbs campaigning for office) steered away from white neighborhoods when purchasing homes, provided less pain medication than white people, receiving fewer responses to job applications than white people and on and on.
These are daily indignities that white people never have to think about.
While white people may have been shocked and reacted with horror to the killing of George Floyd, for people of color, this was just one more killing that has never stopped in 400 years, and adds to collective trauma and simmering anger. There is growing research on how racism affects the health and mental health of African-Americans in our country.
The institutional racism and societal neglect in our country leads to African Americans and other people of color suffering from many serious health issues resulting in premature death. This has been particularly evident with the deaths from Covid-19, which disproportionately touched communities of color.
One of the things I have learned over the years, is that we are often oblivious to how the world is experienced and perceived by people coming from a different race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or sex than ourselves. None of us really know what it is like to walk in the shoes of people different than ourselves.
For those of us who are not from communities of color, what is our responsibility with the police killings and the overall racism in our society?
First, we need to educate ourselves about the history and experiences of people of color in our society. There are many excellent trainings on racism and white privilege, including trainings we provide every year at our annual conference.
Secondly, I think it is important for all of us to get out of our comfort zones and get to know individuals with a different racial, ethnic or religious background than ourselves. There are many ways of accomplishing this objective, including going to services at houses of worship (churches, synagogues, mosques etc.), going to community festivals, participating in community dialogue groups, or simply reaching out to neighbors and acquaintances with diverse backgrounds. As I have mentioned in a previous article, my wife and I are part of a Jewish-African American friendship group in Madison, which has been a great learning and enriching experience for all of us. Those of you in Milwaukee might want to connect with the Hours against Hate organization, which is housed at the Milwaukee Jewish Federation. Hours against Hate was founded on the idea that one-to-one interactions between individuals who are different from each other can promote respect and dismantle bigotry.
Third, do not tolerate racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, islamophobia or other hatred. Speak up against it when you hear it.
Fourth, get involved in your community through your human relations council, your church or synagogue’s social action/justice committee, by serving on a non-profit organization or other organization to promote racial justice and equality.
Fifth, work and march in solidarity with groups impacted by racism, anti-Semitism and other hatreds. As a Jewish-American it was very heartening to see the support from other religious groups around Madison after the massacre at the Pittsburgh Synagogue.
Sixth, work to support local, state and national legislation that addresses institutional racism and social inequities in our society.
Finally, vote and get involved politically. As we have seen all too well, the power of the President’s bully pulpit can be used to bring us together or promote hatred and discord nationally. Who is in power on our city or village council, county board, state legislature, as Governor or on the national level can have a big impact on policies affecting communities of color and setting the tone for how people treat each other.
We can all make a difference in fighting racism in our country. It is up to each one of us to be a change maker in our community.
By Marc Herstand, MSW, CISW