Yesterday, Alton Sterling was executed by a police officer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The video of the encounter is gruesome, and it should shake you to your core, no matter the color of your skin. The police tackled him to the ground, pinned him, and shot him at close range. By definition, this is an extrajudicial killing. It’s not dissimilar to what happened to Eric Garner, Laquan McDonald, Mike Brown, Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd, and a long line of Black people who have lost their lives at the hands of a corrupt and racist criminal justice system. We know their names, and it’s up to us to say them.
I feel an extraordinary amount of anger and sadness today, but that pain cannot compare to what our Black friends and colleagues are experiencing. As a White person, I will never know the extent of this sort of pain. I can, however, offer some modest advice to other White folks who are trying to figure out how to be good allies on a day like today.
1. If you’re White, don’t look to your friends of color for answers today. If you haven’t already grappled with the extent to which our criminal justice system – from the police to prosecutors to prisons – treats Black people differently than they treat you, today is not the day to start reaching out. If you’re eager to learn, talk to other White people who have been engaged in this work, as one of their primary roles as allies is to lessen the burden that people of color have for the education process around issues of justice. Now also is a good time to do some independent reading and research. If data moves you, read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, which catalogues the extent to which the American criminal justice system disproportionately, and unjustly, punishes Black people. Once you’ve spent some time educating yourself, then you should have some conversations with friends of color, but you should spend most of the time listening to them.
2. What happened to Alton Sterling is, in fact, about race. If you are tempted to change the subject to something else, please resist that urge. Police kill Black people at a rate disproportionate to both criminal activity and their presence in the population at large. Campaign Zero has done an extraordinary job of cataloging both the extent of this problem, and its relationship to race. What happened to Alton Sterling does not happen to White people.
3. Be aware of a few standard, and racist, media tropes about Black victims. In the wake of police executions, you are bound to hear a few things that distract from the real issues. One of those storylines is that “he was no angel,” wherein the media will outline the various ways in which the victim behaved inappropriately in the past. None of this matters, and it certainly does not change the fact that the police killed the person outside of any legal process. I smoked pot when I was in high school, for example, and if the police used that as justification to murder me, that would be ludicrous. The second narrative that will emerge is that the killing of Alton Sterling is part of the “Ferguson effect,” wherein police killings are linked to increases in crime. This is not true, as there is no statistical connection between local crime rates and police killings:
The final storyline to avoid believing is the notion that the real problem is “Black on Black” crime. Bringing this up is an attempt to change the subject away from the extrajudicial killing of Black people by the police. Not to mention, the vast majority of crimes are committed within racial groups, so “White on White” crime is just as prevalent as “Black on Black” crime.
4. As a White person, you are in a unique position to influence the perspectives of other White people. If the illegal killing of Black people by the police bothers you, as it should, talk to your White friends about it. There are many nuances and ambiguities in institutional racism, but the police committing murder is not one of them. In many cases, having these conversations will not be easy. The more you talk about race, however, the easier it will become. You might even change some minds, particularly among family members. If you’re already spending time talking to other White people about race, now is a good time to help other White people develop their skills.
It is never too late to make a personal commitment to being a more active ally in the movement for Black lives. A year ago this month, folks were fighting to take down the Confederate flag from the South Carolina state capitol, after the massacre at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. A year ago this month we started wondering what happened to Sandra Bland. Correcting these injustices is the work of generations, not years or months. If you’re a White person on the sidelines, we need you in the fight. Please raise your voice, particularly today.