For Whites (Like Me), Who Are Pissed. We Are Not Ignorant.

I debated the “pissed” of this title. I realize it’s not nice. And I didn’t want to alienate readers who might be put off by it. (Like my mom. Sorry, Mom.)

But “mad,” “angry,” even “outraged” just don’t capture it. So it’s “pissed.”

We get “pissed” at someone or something. It is (or, at least, feels to me) targeted and specific. It’s directed. It’s sharp.

And I’m pissed today about the death of Jonathan Ferrell.

Tragedies upset us. Life is hard and people suffer, sometimes cruelly. And as a parent now, when children or young people die by illness or accident my “the universe can be so brutal and unfair” antennae tunes in so hard it hurts.

But this is worse. This worse than hurts, because it is not that kind of tragedy. This is not an accident.

And we are not ignorant.

In case you didn’t hear, here’s the story. Farrell (age 24) was in a horrific car accident, had to climb out of his back window to escape his vehicle, walked a half-mile for help, only to have the woman behind the door he knocked on call 911. When the police showed up, one of them shot him dead.

I don’t know the woman’s race. (I could speculate.)

I don’t know the police officer’s race. (I could speculate.)

I know Jonathan Ferrell’s race. (He was Black.)

I also know that police reports already include language almost always found when unarmed Black and Latino men are killed by police officers. When police kill such men predictable, repeating lines in a prewritten script are inevitably recited. The predictability only adds to how suspicious the lines already are just on their own accord. Like the lines in Scene 1 where for some reason (so the script goes) an innocent, unarmed young man “charged at officers,” somehow able to do so even “after being tasered.” Scene 2 includes botched evidence, Scene 3 a case usually thrown out on legal technicalities by the grand jury. If we get a Scene 4 it’s officer(s) “innocent” with apologies to his family for their ordeal.

Curtain closes. (I’ve written about this script elsewhere. A group I was once part of discerned it by reading hundreds and hundreds of pages related to such cases.)

Maybe we’ll get a different result this time. Unusually, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department has actually stated that the use of force here was unwarranted. Maybe.

But even if we do, Ferrell is still dead.

And here’s the point: We know that this keeps happening, over and over and over again. Even we white folks know it.

We are not ignorant.

Many of us white folks get pissed when we open up Facebook and see another preventable tragedy (the “preventable” moving it from tragedy to injustice) has happened again. But how many of us pissed after Trayvon Martin was murdered and Zimmerman set free moved our bodies in response?

Because, here we are again.

This is not an accusation. I swear it’s not. (I haven’t done anything active on this since I moved to my city in 2004. No self-righteousness here.)

It’s a plea.

I know we white folks feel helpless about what to do about it. I get that.

But this helplessness is learned. It’s chosen. And if we know it’s going to happen again (which we do) we’ve go to unchoose it!

This weekend I facilitated a workshop on white antiracism. When I asked people why they came, one of the white participants explained that for a long time she thought things were hunky dory in our post-Civil Rights world and then at some point realized this was a lie. After that, she said, she spent a lot of time angry and in despair.

Recently she told us, she made a decision: “I’ve decided to start acting like there’s something I can do about it.”

This was one of the best things I’ve heard a white person say in a long, long time.

There are organizations in endless neighborhoods, towns, cities in which Black communities are at work actively trying to end this kind of violence. Trying desperately to protect their children. They are doing so in most cases without the active, allied, solidarity of those of us who are white and who claim to care about this.

I went to a meeting of one such organization yesterday. (In this case, there were actually a lot of white people there, which was awesome, though it was nothing close to representative of the racial demographic of our city.)

There I heard Black citizens describe a city that I simultaneously live in, but have never lived in.

The same police department that will send an officer to my house to make sure I have my car seat installed correctly for my babies causes these families to live in fear for the lives of their babies. The same department that sponsors “Safety Town” so my kids will know how to safely ride their bikes causes these families to teach their 16 year-olds how to more safely drive their cars: by knowing ahead of time they will be pulled over and how to comport themselves when it happens (the Black version of Safety Town).

I hate that this is true.

After one mother (after another and another) shared the most recent experience of her 21-year old, honor’s list, college graduate, no charges-of-any-kind-ever, fully employed son who has been stopped “more times than I can keep track of on my hands and feet” a local pastor stood up. “I’m Isaac’s pastor,” she said. And, breaking into tears, “I thank God Isaac handled himself [at midnight, handcuffed because (official explanation) he was “acting nervous” when three white officers with guns pulled him over for no citable reason (Acting nervous? Go figure.)]. Otherwise I might have been doing his funeral today.”

We are not ignorant.

I stewed on this all morning, as I read Steven Biko (the South African Black Consciousness activist, hero and martyr, also killed by police). Referring to liberal, anti-apartheid (but inactive) whites and pro-apartheid whites he said:

In any case, even if there was a real fundamental difference in thinking amongst whites vis-à-vis blacks, the very fact that those disgruntled whites remain to enjoy the fruits of the System would alone be enough to condemn them at Nuremburg. Listen to Karl Jaspers . . . “There exists amongst men [sic], because they are men, a solidarity through which each shares responsibility for every injustice and every wrong committed in the world and especially for crimes that are committed in his presence of which he cannot be ignorant. If I do not do whatever I can to prevent them, I am an accomplice in them. . . .”

Thus if whites in general do not like what is happening to the black people, they have the power in them to stop it here and now. We, on the other hand, have every reason to bundle them together and blame them jointly.” Biko (p. 3rd rev. ed., p. 136-7.)

No difference? Is this what we want? What do we want?

So, besides knowing we can unchoose helplessness, Biko’s words make clear what else we need to know.  If we are not ignorant and we do nothing we allow these deaths. We are accomplices.

Hating with all of our minds and hearts that this happened is not enough. We have the power to be part of stopping it here and now. Not by ourselves. Not by going (white) solo. Not with an expectation that all of it in one fell swoop will end tomorrow (as awesome as that would be) if we  show up.

But if we do hate this, we whites need to find out where and when folks are already fighting this right where we live, fighting because their babies’ lives are on the line. Every day.

We are not ignorant. And, thus we can’t be declared innocent.

But we can start acting like there’s something we can do about it.

9 Responses to “For Whites (Like Me), Who Are Pissed. We Are Not Ignorant.”
  1. As a resident of North Carolina, this was in a our local news and I too was outraged. Outraged not by anyones race, but, outraged that someone that was unarmed was shot to death. This blog is valuable and the story is worth analysis. The history of racism in our country is atrocious and thus worth continued inventory of where we are at with it. At the very least, to assume that this neighbor was racist because they did not let this man into her home is a HUGE assumption and an unfair judgement. I don’t care what race someone is, if someone knocks on my door at 2:30 in the morning looking injured, I’m calling 911 immediately. For all I know, this person is coming from a fight and we know it takes more than one person to fight, so the question is, where is the other person that may be looking for this guy. Maybe this person did the exact opposite of what Zimmerman did, they called the police instead of trying to take something into their own hands. The potential racism of this officer could be debated. But what evidence do we have that race had anything to do with it? Just because something really messed up happens to a black person by a white person does not always mean that it had anything to do with racial bias. What this police officer did was wrong and it should be a lead headline on every news site. Not because of race but because a police officer shot someone illegally. Luckily, he has been charged. The hope is that he will get justice as any other citizen. Let’s hope his sentence isn’t lessened based on his job or his race. Would we be nearly upset if this were a white man having been shot by a black officer? Would we cry racism then? I do know from living in NC, a place with a very, very long history of racism, that racism goes both ways. Black racism against whites deserves as much attention. Racism does not solve racism.

    • ImJustSaying says:

      I think the implied racism comes from the fact that she did not call an AMBULANCE she called the POLICE.
      “There’s a man outside my door he’s all bloody I think he needs a doctor”
      is very different from
      “there’s a man outside my door I think he wants to attack me”
      He’s outside your door. There is no need to let him in just call for help.

      I am not pretending to know what the call said i’m just saying that if she had called an ambulance I think we’d be hailing her as a hero and not a police officer as a racist.

    • I too am outraged at merely the human level. But, as for your hypothetical “what if” a Black officer shoots an unarmed white man in this way, that’s part of the point here. When that starts to happen, let’s talk about that. That’s not an actual critique of my analysis, because it doesn’t happen that way. Meanwhile, we have case after case after case of unarmed Blacks in particular being shot by white cops (who are rarely held responsible…and even here, I hope I’m wrong, but I bet even if this officer loses his job he won’t go to jail). That’s why I can talk about race–because it’s a repeated pattern.

    • Jared says:

      A sociological understanding of Racism; Racism in America is a system of advantage that privileges the White race over any other race.

      You are appalled at the injustice but you deny that race had anything to do with it. That’s actually not surprising. Ignorance and denial of racism is consistent with white privilege.

      Our suppositions about race are not very salient, they are learned over time but in moments of great tension like the above scenario, they come to the surface. This woman’s response to someone banging on her door crying for help was not to call an ambulance, she called the police because she felt threatened. I understand this woman’s fear but to deny that race had anything to do with that fear is again an attempt to deny how racism has shaped our prejudices. We live in a society filled with images of dangerous black men. You argue that race does not come into play but then again we don’t read about white males facing similar circumstances.

      Also, there is no such thing as ‘Black Racism’ or ‘Hispanic Racism’ etc. Racism only gives advantages to Whites in our society so there is only ‘White Racism’. This is a sociological fact with a historical precedent. You don’t read about white males getting shot by black police officers because racism only benefits whites. It’s a system that has been in this country since its onset. Don’t get me wrong, there is Black prejudice and hatred towards whites but that is not ‘Racism’.

      No one is blaming you for what your ancestors did so please don’t think I’m trying to give you some white guilt or shame. Racism gives Whites advantages in this society because that’s just how it works and has worked since America was birthed. You can continue denying racism and believing that the system treats us all equally or you can be humble enough to take a critical look at your society and learn.

  2. Marsha says:

    This story saddened me beyond words and then I got mad enough to create this petition. Please read this, sign the petition. Thanks

    Jonathan Ferrell was at least the sixth person to be shot by Charlotte-Mecklenburg officers since the start of 2012. Four of them have died.

    Charlotte police investigate their own officers involved in shootings. The State Bureau of Investigation can step in if requested, but they haven’t been asked to do so in any recent officer-involved shootings.

    In the other shootings, prosecutors decided not to charge the officers involved and an independent panel of citizens that investigates the police ruled the shootings were justified.

    The shooting needs to bring more scrutiny to the Citizens Review Board so the group simply doesn’t assume police officers are always right, said Kojo Nantambu, president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

    “No police department is perfect,” Nantambu said. “But every time that group investigates, they find nothing wrong.”

    Please help me to draw national attention to the fact that there is no database to track these horrific situations. We need to demand that Congress enact legislation to document these tragic events. With those statistics we can work to hold law enforcement agencies accountable.

  3. Reblogged this on Pittsburgh Coalition on Racial Justice and commented:
    Repost: White folks are pissed about death by racism, too

  4. Reblogged this on cakeleevannila and commented:
    it is time we as a society start talking about racism. i know it makes white ppl feel uncomfortable, but we are not colorblind, even though that is what we continue to tell ourselves! the police aren’t colorblind, the judges and district attorneys aren’t colorblind! not talking about racism in a true and honest fashion does not make it not exist, it means you are consenting to these acts against humanity! we are all connected, all of us, and when our neighbors and friends and strangers are treated unfairly, everyone in society suffers. it is time!

  5. Reblogged this on formations. // living at the intersections of self, social, spirit. and commented:

    Today brings us news that, indeed, the police officer who killed Jonathan Ferrell will not be indicted. Following the funeral of Michael Brown yesterday…well….perhaps that’s enough said.

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  1. […] in the wake of the ongoing despair that sets in when we actually name it: the epidemic of deadly violence against women and men of color (Eric Garner‘s horrifying killing by police in Staten Island […]

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