The violent protests are about more than the death of George Floyd. That act was the latest injustice in a long string of events that propelled many to action. While we all can do more, white people have caused most problems and need to take the lead.
At age 40, Rashawn Ray has been stopped by police more than the number of years since his birth. He’s been interrupted while walking, running, studying, eating, driving, sitting in a car, riding in a bus and train, and relaxing in a nightclub. He’s been arrested, thrown against walls, and cussed at by authorities.
Despite those confrontations, the criminal record of Ray, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland and a Rubenstein Fellow at the Brookings Institute, remains unscathed. His only “crime” was the color of his skin.
As violent protests against police killings continue to burn throughout the country, the father of two boys worries about his kids’ and their peer’s future. “I worry about how no credential, no degree, no level of income or wealth, no smile, no level of professionalism or grace can protect my babies from the gaze and guise of police violence and white supremacist stereotypes,” Ray says.
Many people don’t understand why the violent protests continue. They are not just about the death of George Floyd, but that act was the latest injustice in a long string of events that propelled many to action. As Ray says, even the most respected and educated African American in this country can’t do basic things like jog and shop without becoming a suspect in many eyes. We’re not talking about the 1950s. We’re talking about today.
It’s sad because many white people, like me, have tried our entire lives to solve this problem and bridge the racial divide, and it seems like little progress has been made. I was one of the few white kids in my class to befriend one of the few black kids at my Texas elementary school in the 1960s. When some white people have used the “n-word” in reference to African Americans in front of me, I have immediately told them that’s wrong and distanced myself from them. When some whites have complained about Hispanics speaking Spanish and called them slurs, I’ve strongly protested.
In college, I covered high school football games for the local newspaper in Denton, Texas. During one 1980 game, white adults in the stands taunted the lone black player on the opposing team using the n-word. When I wrote about those taunts, my white editor took out that part. I declined to work for that paper soon after that, even though it could have helped my career.
I wrote a book on Dallas history with the late civil rights advocate Roy Williams in which we documented the long string of tragic events that culminated with a landmark lawsuit in 1989. I have long covered civil rights and efforts to improve race relations. The two homes I have bought were in racially-diverse neighborhoods, with the main problems caused by white neighbors. I have written for newspapers run by a diversity of managers; the few that treated me unfairly were run by whites.
Racism explodes from under the surface
It seemed the United States was on a good path under Obama, even as some racist Americans lynched him in effigy and made offensive comments. Perhaps the changes then were only cosmetic. Or many racists kept their ire more contained until Trump freed the bile.
Immediately following Trump’s election, significantly more women and minorities reported hate incidents, mostly by white Trump supporters. The day after the election, golf coach and teacher John Sousa reportedly told some black students as they walked down the hall at Wesley Chapel High School in Florida, “Don’t make me call Donald Trump to get you sent back to Africa.” That same day, a teacher at Bret Harte Middle School in Los Angeles told students that their parents would be deported if they were undocumented.
At schools in Washington, Michigan, and other states, “Build the wall!” was a popular student chant, according to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center that documented almost 900 hate incidents in the ten days following the election. At Southern Lehigh High School in Pennsylvania, students called classmates “ni — — ,” “cotton pickers,” and gay slurs. Some displayed “Heil Hitler” salutes. At the York [Pa.] County School of Technology, students marched with Trump signs and chanted, “White power!” A male student there also reportedly grabbed the breast of a female student, saying that Trump’s election gave him the power to do so.
In Colorado, a white boy approached a 12-year-old African-American girl and said, “Now that Trump is president, I’m going to shoot you and all the blacks I can find.” In Greenville, S.C., numerous middle schoolers surrounded a girl and told her they “couldn’t wait to see her ugly face deported.” In Coon Rapids, Minn., classmates of a middle-school girl forcibly removed her hijab, causing her to fall. At a high school in Cedar Falls, Iowa, classmates bullied a 16-year-old girl, calling her a “fag” and threatening to “grab her by the pussy.”
An 18-year old retail service employee in Kalamazoo, Mich., asked a man if he needed help, and he reportedly replied, “I don’t need to ask you for shit. Donald Trump is president.” He then called her a “black bitch” and spat on her shoes. In Nevada, a customer told a cashier, “Now that Trump has won, you can all go back to Africa!” I personally witnessed a white 50-something man call a black U.S. postal service employee a “retard” in a Maryland suburban post office.
Many were targeted at home. Someone attached a note to the front door of an African-American Muslim family in Iowa City that read, “You can all go home now. We don’t want ni — — — and terrorists here. #trump.” A lesbian couple in Austin found a swastika spray painted on their door with the words, “Dyke” and “Trump.”
Strangers felt the urge to attack others. In Las Vegas, a white man punched two black men, attempted to assault a black woman, and then chanted “Donald Trump! White Power!” In Sarasota, Fla., an assailant beat up a 75-year-old gay man, telling him, “You know my new president says we can kill all you faggots now.” In Dallas, an older white man walked by a Hispanic man and yelled, “Go back to Mexico!” In Hermosa, Calif., a middle-aged white man called a 10-year-old boy a “beaner” and told him to “get the fuck out” of the country.
In Arlington, Va., two men yelled at a woman crossing the street, “You better be ready because with Trump, we can grab you by the pussy even if you don’t want it!” On a New York subway, a man told a school girl he was “allowed to grab my pussy because it’s legal now.” In San Antonio, a man told a girl waiting for the bus, “You’re Asian, right? When they see your eyes, you are going to be deported.”
Some white men at a Delaware gas station discussed Trump, and an African-American woman overheard them talking about “how they’re glad they won’t have to deal with ni — — — much longer.” One approached her and asked, “How scared are you, you black bitch? I should just kill you right now, you’re a waste of air.” Another displayed a gun and said, “You’re lucky there’s witnesses or else I’d shoot you right here.”
The SPLC documented some anti-Trump violence and attacks, but those were far less numerous than the hate incidents by Trump supporters.
While Trump and most supporters ignored the hate crimes, others voiced more vigorous opposition. Former Nevada Senator Harry Reid noted that Trump’s election had “emboldened the forces of hate and bigotry in America.” Reid said that he had heard more stories “of Americans living in fear of their own government and their fellow Americans” in the two days after the takeover than he could “remember hearing in five decades in politics.”
The offensive comments and actions taken by Trump himself in recent years could fill a book, but I only list some as questions:
- Who called Colin Kaepernick and other black NFL players who peacefully protested “SOBs”?
- Who said there were “very fine people” among white supremacists?
- Who encouraged white protesters with assault rifles to storm state buildings and yell and spit on police?
- Who ignored police brutality against minorities?
- Who said Mexican immigrants were rapists and criminals?
- Who publicly mocked a disabled reporter who has arthrogryposis?
- Who derogatorily called Seth Meyers a “stutterer” like that was the worst insult, even though Meyers didn’t stammer when telling jokes at a roast?
- Who called Haiti and African countries “shitholes?”
- Who said all Haitians have AIDS and all Nigerians live in huts?
- Who refused to rent apartments to black people?
- Who advocated going up to strange women and grabbing their private parts?
- Who said overweight women could not be attractive?
- Who referred to other women as “pieces of ass?”
- Who said he wanted to date his daughter?
- Who claimed that Putin called Obama “the n-word”, then denied he himself had ever used that word?
- Who referred to Senator Warren as “Pocahontas,” a nickname many natives say is insulting?
- Who advocated violence against the media and political opponents, and called them immature names on a daily basis while occupying the White House?
- Who said Baltimore is a “very dangerous and filthy place” and called minority neighborhoods rat infested?
- Who insisted that some black and Hispanic teenagers were guilty of raping a white woman in Central Park, even though they had been officially exonerated?
- Who wrongly claimed for years that Obama wasn’t born in the US and his birth certificate was fraudulent?
- Who wrongly claimed blacks were mostly responsible for the murders of white Americans?
- Who tweeted, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts?”
What to do now?
While I don’t support burning buildings and cars, and other acts of violence in protests — and I still wonder if many violent acts are being done by white provocateurs — it seems that certain social problems are never really addressed until a level of violence is reached. I don’t condone the violence, but I understand why it is being committed.
A few days after John Brown led the 1859 raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry — an act of anti-slavery violence most back then condemned but proved to be a key spark for the Civil War that freed the slaves— Henry David Thoreau gave an eloquent defense of Brown’s bold campaign, one of the few such public statements of support at that time.
“Though you may not approve of his method or his principles, recognize his magnanimity,” Thoreau said. “No man in America has ever stood up so persistently and effectively for the dignity of human nature. He could not have been tried by a jury of his peers, because his peers did not exist. When a man stands up serenely against the condemnation and vengeance of mankind, rising above them literally by a whole body— even though he were of late the vilest murderer, who has settled that matter with himself — we become criminal in comparison.”
As Thoreau noted, the United States was keeping some four million people enslaved, and even northern states like Massachusetts helped keep slavery intact by returning runaway slaves and sending troops to oppose Brown’s campaign. That’s what Brown was fighting and that’s what he and his relatively small band, which included several sons, died for.
Moving to the present case, black people are still being unfairly treated, including through modern-day, government-supported killings. African Americans are 3.5 times more likely than white people to be executed by police, according to Ray, while black teens are 21 times more likely than white teens to be killed by police.
So with the continued bigotry and violent acts displayed by Trump and his supporters against minorities and women, the mind-numbing statistics, the trend that many African Americans can’t jog or drive or do other basic tasks without being considered a criminal suspect, and the public executions by police, is it any wonder many people are mad and escalating the violence in protests? In those demonstrations, police have arrested thousands, shot rubber bullets, and dispensed tear gas, including at reporters. Some reports say the police started or escalated the violence. And some say in other instances, police joined the protesters or took a knee in solidarity.
As for a quick fix to the troubles, getting Trump out of the White House would help since he does little to improve problems like race relations and police brutality; in fact, his presence only worsens such issues. But that’s only a start.
Ray advocates restructuring civilian awards for police misconduct to have the money come from insurance policies rather than taxpayers’ coffers, which could help fire bad officers more quickly. Healthcare facilities employ that model to determine whether physicians should be allowed to continue certain surgeries that might be costing more in malpractice awards. The system allows for greater accountability and gives managers more ammunition to make changes, such as firing the “bad apples,” he says.
As a journalist whose late father was an FBI agent, I’ve covered police and crime for years and understand the difficult circumstances officers face. I know there are many more decent officers than bad. Perhaps those good officers have to speak up more among their peers before issues become a major public problem, which is often hard to do. Perhaps there needs to be more penalties for perpetrators of hate incidents. Perhaps white people, who started most of the problems like slavery, have to truly examine their lives and take the lead in making needed improvements to the criminal justice, police, governing, business, and other areas of society.
I know these protests have made me do so. No matter how much you do, there is always more you can do. That’s why I continue to speak out for a better society that really works for “liberty and justice for all,” and doesn’t just mindlessly mouth those words.