The City of Baltimore is uneasy. Tensions are heightened in the aftermath of yet another death of an unarmed young black man at the hands of police officers. As good people attempt to make sense of these bewildering events, we’re are seeing class and race division even in the way we talk about this tragedy. Enter Justin Cohen, an education policy consultant and former president of Mass Insight Education who is also struggling with how to assess the damage in Baltimore, his previous home for five years. Justin’s writing is thoughtful, his assessment is sobering, but his advice for white allies, and others, is positive and helpful.
I lived in Baltimore for five years and still own a home there. None of that makes me an expert on the city, nor could it prepare me for the sadness and grief I feel watching what’s happening there right now. It’s painful to simultaneously love a place and know how deep its dysfunctions run, like having a brother with an addiction.
I talk to a lot of people who feel sad, confused, angry, worried, and curious about what is happening in Baltimore. At the risk of raising some hackles, many of the folks who are most confused about what to think happen to be white, relatively comfortable socioeconomically, and think of themselves as committed to social justice. I also happen to be white and often feel isolated by the fact that I agree much more with the protestors than with anyone shaming the youth in the city. It’s dicey, though, to be a white person who works hard to express his or her emotions and thoughts about complex issues that involve race. It’s also hard to figure out how to find one’s place in remedying the underlying injustice. I’ve done some deep personal searching to figure out how to support this work, and I’ve learned a bunch of things.
First, police brutality is real. It’s part of the broader brokenness of our criminal justice system. If you want to understand just how real that problem has been in Baltimore, check the stats at Baltimore Uprising, a web site that community organizers in the city have established. That’s also a good place to see the ways in which the organizers working on the ground are creating an environment of peaceful, yet assertive, protest.
Second, I want to speak directly to white folks who are deeply concerned about issues facing black communities. The most useful expression of your voice is when it reaches other white people. Most people of color know what’s up already. Many white people, on the other hand, checked out from conversations about race after that episode where A Different World got too real. (Just playing white people, you know I love you.) Serious discussions about race among white people, while sometimes uncomfortable, are not just helpful: they are necessary. Also, have lots of conversations with your friends who aren’t white, and be sure to spend much of that time listening and learning, as opposed to searching for assertions that confirm your existing worldview.
Third, I’ve met some people with a lot of money, and many of them are white. In fact, almost all of them are. Some white people have a lot of money and others have a lot of power. Now would be a good time to use both. Send resources to organizations and people who are working on the problems that matter to communities of color. Even if you don’t agree with every position those folks want to take, swallow your pride and recognize that the perspective of the folks whom you want to help actually matters. You get bonus points if the leadership of the organizations to which you donate are full of people of color, particularly women, given the immense gender gaps in executive leadership in this country.
Fourth, turn off CNN. Now. I’ll wait. Done? Good. Now, go follow @deray, @Nettaaaaaaaa, and@MsPackyetti on twitter. These individuals, and the myriad other organizers involved in the work of ending police brutality, will provide a much more realistic view of what is really happening in places like Baltimore, Ferguson, and all of the other cities that are trying to organize to end longstanding injustice. Also, keep your current concern stoked even when the news cameras leave. We don’t want the children of Baltimore to think that the only time America cares is when their home is on fire.
And finally, another point for white people, particularly those of you with serious privilege and/or power. Perhaps you have been told that you are a leader. You have been looking and waiting for opportunities to lead for much of your life. Today, however, is your opportunity to follow. In particular, to follow the lead of strong individuals who authentically represent the communities most affected by police violence, poverty, and institutional racism. These women and men are risking a great deal in their efforts to lead, and we need to be allies in supporting them.