Black Lives Matter and The Concept of “Woke”

I always get myself into trouble talking about this subject (because it’s rather controversial no matter what you say about it), but as a privledged white woman living in the US today, both due to my skin-tone and childhood socio-economic status, I often wonder what I can do to help minimize the inequality within our own borders.

Yesterday, I had an interesting conversation (ok, maybe more like heated debate) with a few people on Facebook who said that racism (in the US anyway) was purely a “white people problem.” While I disagree (everyone’s a little bit racist sometimes, according to the musical Avenue Q) – I do know that being white and being black (or a person of color, for that matter) is an entirely different life experience in this country no matter how much money you make or where you end up living.

There is so much anger from the black community, and in many cases rightfully so, but it’s hard to inspire change through anger alone. There’s this concept going around now calling being “woke” where you are aware of what is really going on in the community. In other words, to be aware of the racial injustices that are happening every single day in your own community, not just on the news about some other country where such inequality is unfortunately expected.

In April, The New York Times posted an article titled “earning the ‘woke’ badge” – something alone the lines of being not only aware of your privilege but also somehow transcending that privilege to be hyper-aware of the bullshit around you – being one with inequality or something like that. The concept itself isn’t a bad one, but it puts white allies on edge for always having to prove their one-ness which often comes across as too fake, too forced, and not “woke.”

The majority of people would argue I’m not woke. I have my prejudices like anyone else. I’m less seeking “woke hood,” if you will, and more how to DO something to help the cause. I acknowledge and feel horrible that being black in this country makes it harder to thrive than if you were white. I am horrified that police shoot innocent black victims because the police are more trigger happy when they are interacting with someone who happens to have a darker skin tone. I’m enraged that 38% of black children in America live in poverty versus 22% for all children in America, and that 27% of black men, women and children live below the poverty level versus 11% of all Americans.

The Black Lives Matter movement is separate from the fight against poverty or violence within the black community, as it should be. But the radical anger which is sparked by hundreds of years of systemic inequality seems to get compartmentalized to a point where no one wants to address the bigger picture. Then you get conservatives who throw out stats on black-on-black crime, where 93% of black homicides are by other black people. This doesn’t excuse ONE police officer from executing an innocent white victim, but it is clearly just a fact that I’m pretty sure is not allowed in the conversation of being a “woke” white person.

I will keep repeating that these stats do not excuse the murder or discrimination against ONE individual based on the color of their skin, but the facts also can help us get to why these things happen in the first place, so hopefully we can change the way our society works. Unfortunately, blacks committed 52 percent of homicides between 1980 and 2008, despite composing just 13 percent of the population. Across the same timeframe, whites committed 45 percent of homicides while composing 77% of the population, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The numbers get even more troubling in big cities.

There are many, many, many black people who are not involved in crime and there are many, many, many white people who are horrible murderers and rapists and overall criminals. But when you get into inner city neighborhoods where black crime rates are extremely high and you populate the city streets with jumpy white cops who are prejudiced based on what they’ve seen, you get cops who eventually do something really stupid, even if they didn’t think they were racist and didn’t think they’d react that way. This is not an excuse for those cops – this is not saying they should get a “get out of jail” card for their “mistake.” But it’s a bigger problem. If we want change, we need to discuss our prejudices and our fears. We can’t say that this is 1) racist to talk about being prejudiced and 2) not macho to talk about. I imagine if cops in these neighborhoods would be freely able to discuss their fears and talk about how they react in theoretically life-or-death situations where they have to make split-second decisions, to think through if their actions would be different if that person where white or black (or another person of color.) I think this might help a little bit, if it became part of the overall training cops receive. I don’t know exactly what training they do receive, or what sort of psychological programming exists for them on an ongoing basis, but to start we need to stop saying prejudice is bad and start saying it’s natural – and in most cases won’t kill a person – but when you’re a cop you have to make these split second decisions and any ounce of prejudice is going to push you into the wrong decision if you’re not self aware.

I don’t really see this type of discussion being played in the Black Lives Matter movement. There’s a lot of anger, as their should be, but there’s no real solution presented. The right wing argues that the rise of black-on-black crime has to do with the breakdown of family in black societies. As economist Thomas Sowell points out, before the 1960s “most black children were raised in two-parent families.” In 2013, over 72 percent of blacks were born out of wedlock. In Cook County –which Chicago belongs to – 79 percent of blacks were born to single mothers in 2003, while only 15 percent of whites were born to single mothers.

This is not to say that single mothers can’t do a good job raising their children – but when you have single mothers in poverty, you have a recipe for disaster. I don’t blame the mother – this country does not do a good job in supporting working women, and tax law also benefits single women over married couples at the bottom end of the socioeconomic totem pole. This is a really deep problem that goes much further on both sides than anyone is willing to admit beyond those waging their figures at the other side.

Racism in America is not something we can just protest. Slavery ended in 1865, only 151 years ago, which isn’t that long if you really think about it. Even more recent, in 1964 Brown vs Board of Education said that black children and white children could attend the same schools, ending local laws requiring segregation. That was just 52 years ago. Many of our parents were alive when that happened. What being woke is about, in my humble opinion, is that racism really isn’t over. It’s far from over. Yes, we have a half-black president and there are now black CEOs and other politicians and popular artists, but that doesn’t mean that everything is hunky dory in terms of equality. Things in the world just don’t change that fast. Heck, look at Europe and the mess they’re in because of colonialism in the 1800s. We’re living history, and we like to forget that – but we’re just another sentence being written in the history textbooks that some future generation will speed read through.

The second you look at the community itself as an outsider and question why abject poverty persists and how one can help, you are not welcome. It is not your movement, it is not your right to comment on the challenges internally by the community, only to break down barriers that the white population is imposing in terms of freedom. But it can’t be one or the other. We need to work on educating white people about their prejudices and making it OK to be prejudiced (as long as we do not act on it, or we act against it in our awareness, and educate others) AND to want to help reduce poverty in black communities — but even this can be seen as racist as one should not intrude on culture, or to comment on black communities as an outsider. We are only allowed to be woke insofar as being a quiet ally and keeping ourselves out of the picture.

To address poverty as a whole, one must wonder why some communities are able to escape poverty while others cannot. For example, Jewish immigrants came to the United States with nothing. Being white, they did not face ‘color of skin’ racism, but there was plenty of racism against Jews in the US (although in the debate I was in yesterday I “learned” one cannot be racist against a Jewish person since they are white) – in any case, looking different is a pretty easy way to enable discrimination.

Then, we come back to this concept of being Woke, which really is about examining how white people are very much so contributing to this problem of keeping black people down, despite not even being aware of it in many cases. Being woke is being aware that (and likely angry that):

  • A white man with a criminal record is more likely to get a job than a black man with one
  • Black women are more likely to be evicted and are less likely to be given leniency when facing late payments
  • Stop and frisk targets blacks and latinos. In NYC over 53% of those searched were black.
  • Black people face stricter punishments for the same crimes as white people – in fact, black men receive 20% longer prison sentences then white men for committing the same crime
  • Turn on the TV or any popular movie and you’ll be lucky if you find one token black character
  • College professors are more likely to respond to students they believe are white men (link)W
  • White people are more likely to have done illegal drugs but far less likely to go to jail (this is a big issue)
  • White people (including police) see black children as older and less innocent
  • Black children are more likely to be tried as adults – of the 2,500 juveniles who have been sentenced to life without parole, nearly all (97%) were male and (60%) black. And even the best behaved black kids face a lot of discrimination in public schools because of how they naturally look and are 3.5x more likely to be expelled from school
  • White people are more likely to support the criminal justice system when they think it’s disproportionately punitive towards black people (link)
  • The more stereotypical a black defendant looks in a murder case, the higher likelihood he’ll be sentenced to death, especially if his victim was white (link)
  • White people falsely recall black men they perceive as smart as being lighter skinned, and we apparently view lighter-skinned people of color as being more intelligent, competent, trustworthy and reliable
  • I want to repeat the issue with a really big issue with our legal system that is actually core to a lot of the inequality –  most of the Black men in today’s prison system are not even locked up for criminal offenses, but for illegal sale and possession of drugs (crimes largely ignored in middle class and poor White communities). Whether or not you’re on the side to legalize drugs, it can at least, I hope, be agreed upon that it is unfair for one group to be put in jail for these offenses while another group doesn’t get prosecuted in the same way.
  • And, apparently, the new laws let police keep private property in the event of a raid on someone who they think may be guilty of a drug-related crime, even if in the end they find out they weren’t guilty at all (what in the hell?)

Really, what being woke is is saying that discrimination is very real today, and it’s not just a one-off problem or something that we should only talk about when a policeman shoots an unarmed black man. The systemic discrimination that we’re all guilty of to some extent (even subconsciously) plays into this ongoing breakdown of race relations in our society.

Then you have to go back to the poverty issues, which don’t excuse ANY of the REAL discriminatory issues above, and ask why violence has gotten so bad inside black society today. Things like how the Black church was targeted by banks and paid by banks to promote subprime mortgages (a mortgage with an initial low-interest rate that skyrockets within a few years) which have decimated the Black middle class community.

On the other side of the coin, white people think racism is over, and many think whites are discriminated against more than black people. In a 2011 study, whites believed that discrimination against them had increased from an average of 1.8 in the 1950s to 4.7 in the 2000s. While most white Americans acknowledge that racism is a problem in the U.S., white people are half as likely as black people to see it as a major problem. Three out of four white Americans say that racism is at least a “somewhat serious” national problem, compared to nearly nine out of 10 black people who say the same, according to a HuffPost/YouGov poll. However, many more black people consider it to be a  “very serious” problem — 68 percent of black respondents, versus 31 percent of whites. One-tenth of white respondents said that “racism is an issue in my community and I’m able to take meaningful action against it.”  A quarter said that “racism is an issue in my community but there’s not much I can do about it.” But the majority — 56 percent — said that  “racism isn’t really an issue in my community” and thus, there wasn’t anything they could do to address it.

Going back too the notion of racism, there is the argument that black people can’t be racist because racism describes a system of disadvantage based on race, and black people can’t be racists because they don’t stand to benefit from such a system (this was the best explanation I could find of this concept which is taken from 201’s Dear White People.) The Huffington Post notes – “but in the very specific context of American history, white people have not been enslaved, colonized, or forced to segregate on the scale that black people have. They do not face housing or job discrimination, police brutality, poverty, or incarceration at the level that black people do. This is not to say that they do not experience things like poverty and police brutality at all. But again, not on the same scale —  not even close. That is the reality of racism.”

On the other side of the coin, however, you get Trump’s America. I have a few “friends” on Facebook (high school acquaintances mostly) who grow increasingly frustrated with black America’s “poor” being treated differently than their own. There is a real reason why Trump has risen to power so much – even if he doesn’t end up winning the Presidency his rise to the head of the republican ticket surely says something about our society today – he is running largely on racism as a platform. Racism and fear.

I’m not going to touch much on cultural appropriation in this post, because it’s something that comes up with the racism topic and being as I believe the best way to resolve racism is to not have any cultural segregation or any other kind of segregation for that matter, I think it’s hypocritical to want equality then to be upset when a white person does something that is for “blacks only.” Regardless, this small part of the larger conversation does not change that racism is real and black people bear the brunt of it and we have to stop pretending racism was resolved in the 1960s because it wasn’t.

As I think to my own racism and prejudice, I can’t avoid that I am at the least prejudiced and possibly also racist. It started as a child when my neighborhood had one black family that my mother would refer to as “The Black Family.” They were a lovely family yet I’m sure they felt awkward in an all-white neighborhood to some extent. In high school there was a black boy who bullied me to no end, destroying my property in art class, and constantly picking on me. While I had been bullied in the past I found his antics more violent and upsetting. Was that because he was black or because he was just an asshole? I don’t know. I had a few black friends in high school – the arts really were the only place where that type of integration existed in school in my life. In college I tried to be friends with black women from the midwest, who were typically activist types who held such anger in their hearts. I could not relate to them as much as I tried. Our friendships didn’t last. Today, I have no black friends and I live in an increasingly white upper middle class world. On a daily basis the sad reality is that my interaction with black people is limited to walking past black homeless men with mental illness on the way to work. We have one or two people of color at my company, but in Silicon Valley black people at work are even rarer than women.

Today, I sit puzzled as to how to help, aware of my privilege, but also wondering how we can find a balance between accepting and acknowledging the reality of systemic racism and competing true injustices in society while also inspiring a culture of personal responsibility amongst blacks who – despite starting “behind” – can still peacefully break free of a system that holds them down. We are not living in post-racial America, and whoever thinks we are definitely needs a little woke juice. For the rest of us, there are so many issues to tackle, and so little we can do other than try to be as aware of our own prejudice as possible and never allow it to effect who we befriend, hire, or even say hello to on the street.





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