“Hands up! Don’t shoot!”
“We can’t breathe!”
Over the past few weeks, I have watched as people take to the streets to demonstrate their disappointment, their disgust, their utter disbelief over recent events. Not just those in Ferguson and New York, but communities all over the country have come together to make their voices heard. Everyone is talking about it, from the evening news to our dinner tables to our classrooms. But what are we saying?
I’ve heard it all. “This is an old problem, when will we fix it?” “This is an unfair story, there’s black-on-white violence all the time!” “We can’t go on like this.” “What can we do? It’s everywhere.”
There’s truth to all of these sentiments. Yes, racial violence is an underreported issue, both in its documentation in the justice system and its representation in the media. And the most poignant form of this in recent days has been white-on-black violence. It’s a particularly difficult issue, because — let’s be honest here — white people ENSLAVED and TORTURED black people for a large part of our American history. So, yes, white-on-black violence is a touchy subject.
But that doesn’t mean it’s the only racial violence issue we have. Of course black-on-white violence happens all the time. So does white-on-white and black-on-black, and — oh hey — there are a lot of other races in this country, too! And let’s certainly not overlook violence between men and women, adults and children, heterosexuals and queer groups, Christians and Muslims and Jews, and countless other groups.
The real issue here is how we are treating each other as human beings, and that some groups of people seem to be allowed to mistreat each other more than others. This is a universal problem which manifests itself differently in different places based on the social history of that particular community. But it is a universal problem. And I think it is what people are really protesting right now.
In the movements I have seen, men and women, adults and children, black and white (and Asian and Latino and Indian and on and on), gay and straight, monotheistic and polytheistic and atheist — all have come together as one to give voice to their strong moral imperatives.
This is not just a white vs. black issue. This is a human issue. It is an issue of our rights — each of us — to live in a safe society where we can walk the streets feeling secure of our right to life.
At the moment, it is particularly about our fear that the people paid to keep us safe are doing just the opposite. But it is unfair to place the blame on just one group or another. Not all black people are criminals. Not all cops are killers.
Each of us has grown up in a micro-society with its own loaded history and current issues. We literally cannot help but be shaped by this as children. If you are a white police officer who grew up in an area laden with black-on-white violence and rigorously trained to act swiftly under perceived threat, you may be inherently limited in your ability to fairly assess and react to a situation. If you are a black men who has grown up in an impoverished, suppressed community dictated by white power and suffering from white-on-black violence, your ability to remain calm and logical when approached by a white police officer may be compromised.
If you are a child who grew up in a hostile household and experienced or witness domestic violence, your ability to react to intense situations with deep breathing and controlled words may be limited. If you are a woman who has been raped, your ability to withhold immediate judgment on men who look or talk or act a certain way may be impaired.
We are who we are. In general, we have very little control over the circumstances in which we were raised and which formed our understanding of the world.
But what we can do, what we MUST do, is to reassess those understandings now, as adults. We owe it to each other, our fellow human beings, to step back and look at our society as a whole. Is this really how we want to treat each other? Are these the lessons we want our children to learn?
And if not, if we are not satisfied with this status quo, then we have a responsibility to change it.
This is what I see in the protests taking over our streets — people who are no longer wiling to sit by and let each other treat ourselves this way.
Forget the blame: it is everyone’s fault, and it is no one’s fault. We have inherited who we are. But that does not mean that our inheritance is irrelevant. And it does not mean that who are going forward is out of our control.
Psychology tells us that change requires two things: an awareness of the problem and a willingness to act differently.
I think we are aware of the problem — namely that we do not all seem to feel compelled to treat each other with equal dignity and respect.
The next step, then, is to act differently. To demand of each other that we change our behavior. To make it clear that continuing down this path is simply unacceptable.
The next step is to change ourselves. Only by doing this will we change our communities, and only by changing our communities will we change our society.
And that, I think we can all agree, is a change far overdue.