What does it mean to keep our communities safe? That’s the question I’ve been pondering after learning of the not-guilty verdict of George Zimmerman, the 29-year-old Florida man who shot and killed Trayvon Martin.
The best way to combat racism might be by taking a stand at home in our own communities.
I’m thinking especially about the safety of black and brown youth whose lives were unsafe before, and may be even more unsafe today. Many people will see the verdict as vindication of Zimmerman’s action—an indication that society condones the targeting of youth of color. And indeed, statistics cited by Frontline show that a homicide in which a white person kills a black person is far more likely to be considered “justifiable” than one in which the victim is white.
This is a state of affairs that must change. My own experience suggests that we can do more within our own communities to protect these young people, and that white people have a special responsibility to step up.
What would it be like to be a black mother, I wonder, and to raise my children with the knowledge that police, public prosecutors, and neighborhood watch volunteers like George Zimmerman were more likely to harm, humiliate, or jail my child than to protect him? As a white parent, I can never know exactly what that feels like. In fact, the not-so-subtle subtext for “getting tough on crime” is that white families, like mine, must be protected.
That puts a special onus on those of us who are white to speak out against the targeting of youth of color, whether by neighborhood volunteers or by the police. We need to say clearly that we don’t want the sort of “protection” Zimmerman offered. We don’t want brown and black kids trailed and shot in our name.
One place where we can have the biggest impact—taking a stand for respect, safety, and justice for all—may be in our own communities, where our efforts can have added impact.
I became involved in this sort of work in my own neighborhood, not through any plan, but because the conflict literally came to my door. In 2000, I moved to a mostly white section of the Suquamish reservation near Seattle, Washington. I made the choice to move there, quite frankly, because housing was affordable. But a few weeks in, an older, well-dressed white woman stopped by and asked me to join her and other neighbors in staying “united against the tribe.” She and others on my street were mobilizing for a big meeting aimed at stopping the tribe from building housing for its members.
I reluctantly attended the meeting and was shocked to hear one person after another explain why “those people” weren’t welcome in “our” neighborhood. Ninety minutes into the meeting, I mustered the courage to speak in support of the tribe’s right to provide decent housing to their members on their own reservation.
Combating racism is not a job that should be left to people of color alone.
Soon afterwards, the gravesite of Chief Seattle—one of the tribe’s historic leaders—was strewn with garbage, including newspaper clippings about the proposed housing project, and the headstone was pushed over and broken. I waited for someone else to step up, but when no one did, I called together the people I knew. We eventually founded an organization, along with a tribal elder I met at the earlier church meeting, to take on the anti-Indian hostility.
At first, we didn’t know what to actually do. We attended the ceremony to reconsecrate the gravesite. We educated ourselves about tribal history, held potlucks to celebrate community leaders who were working to build bridges, spoke up at public meetings, and eventually collaborated on a statewide campaign that resulted in the return to the tribe of the land where Chief Seattle once lived. Some of these moments were contentious, but relationships formed during that time are ones I still treasure.
Much has changed in our community since those difficult struggles. A politician or blog commenter sometimes makes rude and offensive comments, but there is nearly always a response from those who feel otherwise. And there are few anti-Indian incidents. The tribe holds events and invites both native and non-native people. And most years, our group helps to host a giant potluck to help feed the thousands of visitors who arrive on the annual tribal canoe journey.
The experience has led me to believe that the best way to combat racism might be by taking a stand at home in our own communities. Here are four ways to do this:
1. Integrate, integrate, integrate. Creating safe settings in which people get outside their comfort zone and spend time with people different from themselves, talking about the issues most real in their lives and also enjoying shared food, music, dance—whatever draws people in.
2. Understand where people are coming from, especially the particular history of your region. Was it a place where segregation was the law? Did white supremacist groups routinely terrorize people of color? Is it a place that was ethnically cleansed—where Japanese Americans or African Americans or Native Americans were pushed out? Understanding the lived experience of the peoples who make up our community today and who lived here in the past helps us appreciate the difficulties some have faced, while others have enjoyed unearned, and often unacknowledged, privileges.
3. Shut up and listen. When it comes to taking on issues that are tinged by racism, I believe white folks need to start with a lot of listening. Those who are used to being in charge and being powerful should practice stepping back and listening to the voices of those most often silenced. Instead of bringing your own agenda to these discussions, listen for what your neighbors of other backgrounds want most and where those aspirations intersect with your own deepest desires.
4. Don’t be shy. Speak up in public settings. That may mean, for example, taking a stand for everyone’s right to security, including for those who are stereotyped as criminals. That may mean confronting policing practices in your community that target youth of color. Or serving as a volunteer to help mentor young people who cross paths with the law.
Combating racism and the targeting of black and brown youth is not a job that should be left to people of color alone. It’s a job for all of us. Only when we step up to work together can we confront these scourges in our own communities. Only in multi-racial coalitions can we transform the institutions and practices of racial exclusion and build communities that are safe and uplifting for everyone.
Sarah van Gelder is a co-founder and columnist at YES!, founder of PeoplesHub, and author of The Revolution Where You Live: Stories from a 12,000-Mile Journey Through a New America.