You will have already been deluged with analysis about the grand jury’s refusal to indict the police officer who shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, so I’ll be brief. I guess the essential thing that has to be repeated, again and again, is that this outcome, and so many like it, are the result of a system functioning the way it is intended to function. Racism is baked right into the foundation of the system. When racist outcomes happen they happen not because of the evil in the hearts of individuals but because our social, economic, and legal systems have been designed to deliver those racist outcomes. You can imagine a world where a few things break differently and Darren Wilson does not kill Michael Brown. If you try really hard, you can imagine a world where a grand jury does indict him. But you can’t imagine a world where police officers aren’t an immense danger to young black men. You can’t imagine a world without Michael Browns, without Darren Wilsons.
Every one of those grand jurors might have hearts of purest gold. The outcome was predetermined precisely because the outcome did not rely on the individual character of the jurors. We have police aggression against black people because the white moneyed classes of this country have demanded aggressive policing and the moneyed control our policy. We have police aggression because the War on Drugs provokes it and we still have a War on Drugs because the War on Drugs puts vast amounts of tax dollars in the hands of police departments and a voracious prison industrial complex. We have police aggression against black people because centuries of gerrymandering and political manipulation have been undertaken with the explicit purpose of empowering some people and disenfranchising others. None of that can be solved through having pure hearts and pure minds. Racism is not a problem of mind. Racism cannot be combated by individuals not being racist. A pure heart makes no difference. In response to systemic injustice, you’ve got to change the systems themselves. It’s the only thing that will ever work.
How you go about doing that, I don’t pretend to know. I don’t blame well-meaning white people for reaching for emotive responses in a situation of such awful emotional devastation for our people of color. But the reflexive return to the language of privilege checking, where opposition to racism is fundamentally a matter of attitude and ideas, is indicative of why there’s been so little progress for so long. For 30 years or more, we have opposed racism emotionally rather than structurally, and the consequences are what they are. I ask you to consider two very different responses to this decision:
I don’t even know what the first tweet means. I really don’t. All I know is that it defines white privilege, first and foremost, as a matter of emotion, as a matter of what its author thinks and feels. And that’s exactly the problem. Another definition of white privilege is being so steeped in the language of emotive politics that you think the system cares whether you as an individual are terrified or outraged. I promise: whether you as a white person feel outraged, terrified, delighted, or indifferent, the system that ensures cyclical state violence against black men is utterly unconcerned with how you feel. It just doesn’t matter. An 18 year old got shot to death by the cops and nothing has happened. Who fucking cares if you feel outraged rather than afraid?
The second tweet, in contrast, says the opposite: it doesn’t matter if you understand your white privilege and it doesn’t matter if you tweet that understanding and it doesn’t matter if you retweet others who understand, too. I am not indicting people for not “doing something” — I don’t know what they should do and I don’t know what to do myself. I’m not exactly shaking the foundations of the system out here, am I. I am not indicting people for failing to actually create change in a system that has resisted it vociferously for decades. But I am indicting them for refusing to consider the possibility that their emotional and psychic relationship to racism simply doesn’t matter. If we ever are going to figure out how to do something about all this, it will only come from an acknowledgment that good white people being good has done nothing to prevent a world where Michael Brown lay dead in the street for hours. Until that second sentiment is more popular among them than the first, the outrage of white people will never be a force for change.