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Racial Tensions Rooted in History

posted Jan 14, 2015, 10:38 AM by Vidal Martinez

By Sister Denise S.


This article was written in response to a grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson, a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, who fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, on August 9, 2014.

I am a white person, born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri. I have understood myself as white, and been treated as white. This article is mainly about white.

It was 1972. Two white teens were apprehended by police officer after robbing the cashier’s box at a golf range in Olivette, Missouri. One of the young men bolted and was shot in the back by one of the police officers. He died from the bullet wound. The young man was 18 years old, and the son of a well-known physician and former university professor. I knew the family. The case went all the way to the State Supreme Court. The police officer never did jail time.

I am writing this not so much to say whether the policeman in this case was right or wrong, or if Darren Wilson, the shooter in the Michael Brown case, is right or wrong. Rather, I want to ask, “Why didn’t the white community rise up in protest over the tragic death of this young white man at the hands of the police?” Of course, the media sensationalized the story, but the fact remains, there was no outcry on the streets. Only the parents continued to pursue this case. Why didn’t the white community rise up?

I believe that white people didn’t protest in this case because of history. For white people, history is, and has been, on our side. Whether we are conscious or unconscious of the fact, we are inheritors of something that is called “white privilege.” We may not know that things are weighted in our favor, because we operate inside of white privilege. We assume that we have certain rights, and we take them for granted. We are blind to the institutional racism that permeates many of our systems, and the often-unfound prejudices that are embedded in our mindsets. Evidence of this might lead us to ask: Why is there white flight into the west county of St. Louis? Why is there no rail system down Highway 40, leaving many primarily black low-wage workers to absorb the costs of maintaining cars in order to service mainly white communities? Why do solidly white neighborhoods feel terrorized when they see a black male walking down their streets and byways? Could it be that he is there to take care of someone’s lawn or house repairs? What percentage of the nation’s wealth is in the hands of black people? Surely the percentage does not equal that of the white community. Why? It’s no wonder that during the time of the Vietnam War, Stevie Wonder sang, “They have me on the front line, but, I’m in the back of the line when it comes to getting ahead.”

I would go on to say that history would tell us that institutional racism permeates not only our economic system locally and nationally, but also our criminal justice system. Our jails are filled with a disproportionate number of black young men incarcerated on drug violations. They are disenfranchised because of their crimes, and will never again be allowed to exercise their citizenship by voting. Yet, what police officer in Ladue or Frontenac (both wealthy suburbs of St. Louis) is going to invade a party of underage young people who are sniffing, snorting or imbibing? Equal crimes, but unequal justice. Is it any wonder that the black community feels targeted? Is it any wonder that a history of repression over treatment of this sort would erupt in a black community where one of their own was killed by a representative of “the system?” In the case of Ferguson, as in the case of the white teen who was shot and killed by a policeman in 1972, I believe that a community rises up, or doesn’t rise up, based on their historical experience. White people may think that the oppression of black people is imagined. Black people may think that the oppression they suffer from systems in this society is real, primarily based on their experience, or their history. As white people, we need not wait to figure things out before some unspecified date in the future, when we, ourselves, are the minority. If our desire is for a more just society now, we need to examine history and begin working toward reshaping it as a whole community.