Aaron S. Bayley
If you are a black person who is well-versed in social justice-oriented literature, chances are you are familiar with Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth. Chances are you have read the autobiographies of Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela, the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr, the writings of Cornel West. You might even have read Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness. And you probably know the names Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, and George Floyd without requiring any context.
But what good is being armed with pedagogy in the fight against anti-black racism? How is being empowered and knowing your rights going to help you when you're handcuffed and lying face down on the street and a police officer has his knee on your neck as his partners stand guard? The burden of ending racial inequality does not lie with black people. It lies with those who stand to profit from it. And that's white people.
The problem is that white people will never admit to nor accept this burden.
When I say white people don't care about black people, I don't mean whites who have taken time to educate themselves about systemic racism and police brutality, who do not need to be convinced that institutions are structured to guarantee racist outcomes, and who are risking their own lives by marching in protest right alongside blacks. I mean white people—in government, law enforcement, and education; in churches, middle-class neighbourhoods, and gated communities—who deny that racial inequality exists yet benefit from perpetuating society's caste system.
As a teenager and into my early 30s, I had white friends who hated cops. The reason for their hate? The cops were always picking on us for being drunk or playing music too loud or having drugs in our possession. Now that those same friends have settled into comfortable suburban lifestyles, they're oddly silent over the murder of George Floyd. (I guess moral indignation over police wrongdoing has its limits.) More recently, an acquaintance who traveled all over the U.S. once told me that Atlanta was his least favourite American city to visit because there are "too many blacks." Scan social media, and you'll see ignorant white people countering "Black Lives Matter" slogans with "All Lives Matter" or, in the case of the social unrest following George Floyd's murder, condemning the looting instead of the police brutality. They believe that gun violence is cultural not because they've studied sociology and deviant behaviour extensively, but because they want to believe the stereotype of black people as violent criminals. They are sick of hearing about their white privilege from social justice warriors and want only to flee to their cottages and not have to deal with "the black problem." In Canada, the firing of hockey icon Don Cherry caused more consternation among these whites than the killing of George Floyd and all those African-Americans whose deaths preceded Floyd's. If you are black, you need to understand that these people don't want to engage in "frank conversations about race." These people don't care about you.
But what about white people who aren't so blatantly or casually racist? What have they done to make the lives of black people better? Only as much as they're comfortable doing. Social media is an ideal platform for virtue signalling, not so much for taking concrete action.
If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it's that, pathetically, we only care about things that affect us personally. But those who are enlightened have a greater sense of empathy. The idea that we cannot be free until everyone is free was eloquently expressed by artist and political activist Banksy, who posted on Instagram his thoughts about the killing of George Floyd and the problem of systemic racism:
At first I thought I should just shut up and listen to black people about this issue.
But why would I do that? It's not their problem, it's mine.
People of colour are being failed by the system. The white system. Like a broken pipe flooding the apartment of the people living downstairs. This faulty system is making their life a misery, but it's not their job to fix it. They can't--no one will let them in the apartment upstairs.
This is a white problem. And if white people don't fix it, someone will have to come upstairs and kick the door in.
White people have had 400 years to fix it. That they haven't is not surprising. Why would white landowning elites who profited substantially from the economic system of slavery agree to put free blacks on equal footing with them? No group of oppressors in the history of the world has ever willingly conceded power to the oppressed.
If anything positive is to come out of the heinous murder of 46-year-old George Floyd, it's that in cities all across the globe, decent people of all races and colours are kicking the door in and demanding change. There have been calls to defund police; in Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed, there is already lip service being paid to defund and dismantle the police department. This is not privileged white people fixing the problem; this is people of courage, integrity, and character sensing a moment of reckoning and grabbing the opportunity with all their moral might. The year 2020 started off with a global pandemic but might turn out to be a revolutionary year for racial progress. It is too early to tell, but there is a sense that we are at a turning point in history.
In 1964, Norman Rockwell painted Ruby Bridges, a 6-year-old African-American girl, being led by four U.S. Marshals to William-Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, the first black student in the all-white school. On the wall behind Bridges are the words "Nigger" and "KKK," along with a splattered tomato thrown by an angry racist protester. Rockwell titled his painting "The Problem We All Live With." On June 3, 2020, New Orleans Saints' quarterback Drew Brees came under fire for saying, "I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country." It was an obvious, tone deaf reference to Colin Kaepernick, who in 2016 began kneeling during the "Star-Spangled Banner" to protest police brutality against African-Americans.
Almost 60 years later, and it's still the problem we all live with.