Black Lives Matter to White People

Sandra Bland Photo:

Sandra Bland

This is for my fellow white Americans. If you are white and consider yourself a feminist, or a liberal, or a progressive, or simply a good person, this is for you.


I have been haunted this week by the death of Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old African American woman who was pulled over by police in Texas for failing to signal a lane change, and three days later found dead in a jail cell.

Her death – following so many other black women and men, girls and boys, who have been killed by police – gave rise to a horrifying new Internet theme: If I Die in Police Custody. For example:

– Know that they killed me. I would do everything in my power to get home to my family. (From @reignofapril)

– Don’t let them tell the world who I was. You tell the world who I was. (From @the4th_duck)

This year alone

It has been one year since Eric Garner couldn’t breathe.

Eleven months since the body of Michael Brown lay uncovered for hours on a street in Ferguson.

Eight months since Tanisha Anderson died in Cleveland as a result of police restraining her so brutally that her death has been ruled a homicide.

Three months since 25-year-old Freddie Gray, shackled and helpless, was flung around in the back of a Baltimore police van until he was mortally wounded.

One month since 14-year-old Dajerria Becton was thrown to the ground and forcibly subdued by a police officer at a Texas pool party.

One week since 18-year-old Kindra Darnell Chapman in Alabama was found dead in her jail cell only minutes after she had been locked up.

Why is all this just now happening? It’s been happening. White people are just now noticing.

Police officer manages to subdue 14-year-old girl at a pool party. (Photo

Police officer manages to subdue 14-year-old girl at a pool party. (Photo

What can we do about it?

What can we, the good white people of America, do about it? If we are not police officers or public officials or in a position of power? If we are busy with our own lives and struggles?

I am no expert, and I have no sweeping solutions to offer. But here are five suggestions of things we can each do in our own lives.

1. Connect the dots

This summer nine African American people were massacred in their South Carolina church by a white supremacist who had no trouble finding inspiration and affirmation in the world around him. Seven African American churches have been burned to the ground, and numerous female pastors have received death threats. The President of the United States has repeatedly been greeted by protestors waving Confederate flags.

And this summer we learned that for the first time, the number of African American children living in poverty in the U.S. has exceeded the number of white children living in poverty, despite the fact that white children outnumber black children by three to one. (Why any children should live in poverty in the world’s richest nation is another matter.)

These things are not unrelated. They are part of a system – a belief system, a values system, a political system, an economic system – called racism. You and I, white friends, are a part of this system whether we like it or not.

2. Educate yourself

I am not a racist. But I know it’s in me. And I know the system of racism eases my life like a strong breeze always at my back. Like a breeze, the system can be invisible to those it benefits. That’s why it’s important for white people to educate ourselves.

For me, the best way to do this is to listen to other people, particularly people of color, and to read. Here are a few suggestions:

“I, Racist” by John Metta (article)

“I am Jewish and Black Lives Matter” by Rabbi Stephanie Kolin (article)

“The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates (article)

Color of Change (website)

Center for Community Change (website – and full disclosure, I work there)

Sister Citizen by Melissa V. Harris-Perry (book)

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander (book)

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (book)

3. Participate

If you can get to marches, rallies or demonstrations for racial justice in your area, join them. If you’re lucky enough to live in a place where there’s ongoing organizing or activism on racial issues, bring your own spirit and energy to the fight. Collective action isn’t radical, it’s one of the ways people speak up in a democracy.

See the white-harked white woman in the middle? That's me. It's easy and inspiring to take action together.

See the white-haired white woman in the middle? That’s me. It’s easy and inspiring to take action together. (Photo: Derek Johnson)

If you can’t join an event, create one. A candlelight vigil on your block. A book party to discuss one of the books above. Some way that’s doable for you to pull people together – even or perhaps especially white people – to examine how race works in our country and to bring about change. Racism is enforced by so many practices and policies, it will require all of our voices and hands to dismantle it.

4. Confront

Okay, this one is hard. When you see or hear racism from other white people, say something.

Obviously you should keep your own safety in mind; I’m not urging you to confront the raging demonstrator waving the Confederate flag. I’m encouraging you to object to the next racist joke you hear, to inform your uncle that his disparaging comments aren’t welcome at your table, to call your friend to talk about her racist and possibly clueless Facebook post.

I’ve done this several times. It’s always excruciating, and it never ends well. No matter. It needs to happen – and maybe you’ll be better at it than I am.

In theory, I try to give people the benefit of the doubt. We white people are so used to living and breathing racism that we may not even be aware of it. Perhaps if a friend or relative gently but firmly points out the racial harm in something we’ve said, we might actually think about it and consider a different perspective.

Unfortunately, I have trouble being kind but firm. I am more likely to be caustic and withering. This tends to offend the offender and, in social situations, the host. It may not lead to the thoughtful examination I aim for – but at the very least, one white person hears another white person declare that what they just said is not acceptable. It’s a start.

5. Open yourself to some pain

I am a white feminist who began a life of activism during the second wave of the women’s movement. In recent years I’ve seen a lot written about the shortcomings of our movement – then and now – when it comes to race and women of color. I’ve seen even more written about the failure of white progressives to truly grapple with race.

It hurts to read these things. My first reaction is, “Yes, but – “ I want to defend myself from pain, from other people’s (or my own) poor opinion of me and my actions. How can they think that about me, when my heart is so good?

I need to stop that.

Racism exists. It exists to benefit me and people like me. Maybe I didn’t build it. Maybe I didn’t want it. But I profit from it daily.

I can only dimly imagine the experience of suffering under racism. Of never feeling safe in the world. Of knowing that your radiant, open-hearted children will have to face that constant battering of the soul, will have their lives made smaller and more difficult and perhaps cut short.

It’s not easy to think about this. It’s not easy to read some of the materials I’ve suggested above. It’s not easy to talk openly with African American friends, and to know that they may not feel safe talking openly with me. But if we want to confront racism in our country and ourselves, the last thing anyone can worry about is whether it will bruise white people’s feelings to hear the truth.

So fellow white people, brace yourselves. This is going to hurt.

Extra credit – give money

If you can, make a contribution to one of the scrappy, underfunded grassroots organizations fighting for racial justice. Better yet, set up a monthly contribution that the organization can count on, even if you can only give a small amount each month.

It’s easy to give money if you can spare it – certainly easier than some of the previous suggestions. It’s also one important way that white people can help balance the scales. For context, check out this article by my friend and former co-worker Sean Thomas-Breitfeld on “Why it’s easier to raise money to fight disease than to fight racism.”

There are many admirable organizations to choose from. Here are a couple that I’ve given to lately.

How to be a good white person in America

I am still struggling to figure out how to be a good white person in America. Maybe you are too.

There are white people in the South who laughed and ate picnics under the dangling feet of lynched African American women and men. There are white people in Boston and Chicago who bared their teeth and hurled stones at African American children on their way to school. I know I’m not one of those.

But there are also millions of white people who turn away, who don’t speak up, who won’t take action, who think racism isn’t their fault or their concern. I don’t want to be one of those either.

Racism is not a Southern problem. It’s not a police problem. It’s rooted deep in the DNA of our nation, in how it was founded and financed. It flourishes in the laws and structures that isolate black people from power and security. And for white people, racism may live in the cobwebbed corners of our own minds and hearts, where even we are afraid to look.

Here, you hold the flashlight and I’ll grab the broom. Let’s go together. It’s time to get started.


A week of remembrance

Photo: Zach Pierce mu-43dotcom

Photo: Zach Pierce mu-43dotcom

I usually write about books on this blog, but today I’m writing about war and protest. This has been a week of remembrance. The past several days have brought the 45th anniversary of the killings at Kent State and Jackson State and the 40th anniversary of the end of the war in Vietnam.

Guns vs. students

In May of 1970, the Vietnam war was raging both overseas and at home. Already about 34,000 American service members had been killed. The public had just learned that President Nixon had ordered the military to invade neutral Cambodia, an action so illegal he had issued the order in secret. The news inflamed protests on hundreds of college campuses nationwide.

On May 4th in Ohio, the state’s National Guard fired on Kent State University students as they protested peacefully on their own campus, killing four students and wounding nine others.

The iconic Kent State photo by John Filo

The iconic Kent State photo by John Filo

Ten days later in Mississippi, local police responded to protests on the campus of Jackson State by shooting hundreds of rounds into a women’s dorm. The fusillade killed two students and wounded twelve more.


Broken windows and bullet holes at Jackson State

Broken windows and bullet holes at Jackson State

In a dynamic that a generation later would give rise to a movement, few people outside of Mississippi ever heard about the killings at the historically black university. The massacre of white students at Kent State drew headlines nationwide, and added fuel to the anti-war protests that embroiled an estimated 4 million college students that spring and closed down 800 campuses across the country.

Bring the boys home

Five years later, on April 30, 1975, the Vietnam war officially ended. I was a junior in college, and the war that had cast its shadow across my youth was over. “Bring the boys home,” we had chanted, and now it was finally happening.

If I was even aware that some 10,000 American women had served in Vietnam, they did not cross my mind on that day 40 years ago. I never could have imagined that I would spend more than a decade in the middle of my life writing a novel about them.

Looking back at a movement that has ended

Last weekend I attended a national conference called Vietnam: The Power of Protest, designed to reunite the Vietnam anti-war movement and examine what we’ve learned. (I am saying “we” although I was only a casual participant in the anti-war movement.)

While our nation often looks back at pivotal events, such as the recent commemoration of the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, rarely do we get the chance to examine and assess a movement that has actually ended.

This is not to suggest that the peace movement is over; indeed, it is needed more than ever now that the U.S. operates in a permanent state of war. But the anti-Vietnam war movement is history. And the young, fiery activists who fought for peace now have decades of experience to call on as they consider what it all meant.

Opening session of Vietnam: Power of Protest

Opening session of Vietnam: Power of Protest


Learning the lessons

So what did the Vietnam era anti-war movement achieve? Some say the movement ended the war; others say it merely shortened the war. Some think it merely ended the draft; others think it drove one President out of office (Johnson) and launched another (Nixon) into a downhill slide from which he never recovered. I believe all of these outcomes resulted from the movement’s most spectacular accomplishment: it turned public opinion against the war.

Tom Hayden is a political activist who co-founded the radical Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), was one of the Chicago Seven convicted of “conspiracy to incite violence” after the police riot at the 1968 Democratic Convention, served for a decade in the California state assembly, and wrote several books. After all that, he is probably best known for having been married to Jane Fonda.

Hayden and Fonda Photo:

Hayden and Fonda

Hayden was a keynote speaker at the conference, and he had a singular perspective on what the movement had achieved. “We can take credit,” he said, “For creating the constituencies that elected Bobby Kennedy, Bella Abzug, Ron Dellums, and Patricia Schroeder – all elected at the height of radicalism in 1972.”

Radicals in Congress

Former Congress members Pat Schroeder (D-CO) and Ron Dellums (D-CA) also spoke at the Power of Protest conference. Schroeder recalled advocating against the war from within Congress, a seat she had won with campaign donations that averaged $7. Her campaign poster was a photo of a military cemetery with a quote from Richard Nixon saying, “Many of our soldiers have already been withdrawn.”

Pat Schroeder

Pat Schroeder


Dellums, the former mayor of Oakland and longtime member of Congress, sounded a somber note. “When the war in Vietnam was over,” he said, “a lot of people went home and left us [African Americans] to deal with poverty and injustice. What would America look like now if Martin Luther King had been alive to say, ‘The war is over. Let’s move on to end racism’?”

Ron Dellums

Powerful testimony

We heard personal testimony from a diverse range of anti-Vietnam activists, all of whom are still involved in social justice movements: Susan Schnall, a Navy nurse who was sentenced to six months hard labor for distributing anti-war leaflets while in uniform; David Harris, who served three years in federal prison for refusing the draft; Wayne Smith, a Vietnam veteran who has spent the past 40 years “helping to heal the wounds of war by addressing the causes and consequences of war.”

Mark Rudd, a leader in SDS and founder of the Weather Underground, spent seven years underground himself, a fugitive from the federal government. He personified the gamut of feelings about the anti-war movement.

Mark Rudd then and now. Photo:

Mark Rudd then and now. Photo:


“It was the greatest thing in my life,” he said, “to be part of a mass movement that won.” But then he questioned what exactly we had won.

“I’m going to die soon, never having tasted any power at all. Why are we so allergic to power? The right-wing doesn’t feel that way. They’re idiots! They don’t believe in global warming! But they run the country. All of our strategies and tactics should lead toward political power,” Rudd said. “The only way to do it is to organize mass movements.”

The journalist Juan Gonzalez provided a perfect definition. “Movements are made by tens of thousand of people who make individual decisions that they will risk the disapproval of their families, losing friends, losing jobs, losing their freedom, even losing their lives – because something has to change.”

But it was Heather Booth, progressive organizer and strategist, who added a grace note to the long day. Looking back at herself and her colleagues in the Vietnam anti-war movement, she recalled, “We were young, headstrong, reckless, arrogant, foolish – and we were right.”

Antiwar poster


Welfare is a Women’s Issue (1972) by Johnnie Tillmon

Not every writer wants her words to be timeless. I’m sure when Johnnie Tillmon wrote this in 1972, she hoped her words and her situation would soon be obsolete. They are as true today as they were 42 years ago. Outrageous. [Reposted from Poor as Folk blog.]

Poor as Folk


Welfare is a Women’s Issue (1972) by Johnnie Tillmon

I’m a woman. I’m a black woman. I’m a poor woman. I’m a fat woman. I’m a middle-aged woman. And I’m on welfare.

In this country, if you’re any one of those things you count less as a human being. If you’re all those things, you don’t count at all. Except as a statistic.

I am 45 years old. I have raised six children. There are millions of statistics like me. Some on welfare. Some not. And some, really poor, who don’t even know they’re entitled to welfare. Not all of them are black. Not at all. In fact, the majority-about two-thirds-of all the poor families in the country are white.

Welfare’s like a traffic accident. It can happen to anybody, but especially it happens to women.

And that’s why welfare is a women’s issue. For a lot…

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