It was 1977, I was 12 or 13 years old, and Roots was released on television for the first time. I sat riveted to the screen with my parents and sister. I remember it like it was just yesterday. The living room with our white framed couches with bright colorful cushions, the big coffee table in the middle of the room and the small television screen built into the cabinet on the wall. I am sitting on the floor staring up at the t.v. in disbelief, watching in horror as Kunta Kinte is ripped from his mother’s arms and dragged kicking and screaming (as his mom and other family members and friends scream and look on in horror, having no power to do anything to stop this outrage) into a truck, sold to a new slave owner. As I watch this scene unfold, I am wailing and screaming barely able to hold my little self and my body together and yet I know I am safe – I am white, I am at home with my parents, this is not me, this is not now. Still, I am outraged and horrified at the capacity of human beings to treat one another with such disregard and I make an internal vow to do all I can in my power to contribute to a better, more just and loving world.

And then yesterday (and still today), 38 years later, I watch in horror as a Black school aged girl is ripped from her desk by a white police officer, thrown on the ground on her head and back, dragged and thrown across the room, and held down while handcuffed and eventually arrested. (Don’t even ask, “what did she do to deserve this” – the answer is nothing. No, she did not have a gun. No, they did not think she had a gun or other weapon. No, she had not threatened anyone, unless you think a teenager not complying with the demands of someone in authority is threatening – I suppose some might if that child is black.) The Black teacher had called the officer allegedly because the girl had supposedly refused to put away her cell phone. (That is disputed by the student who shot the video – http://goblackcentral.com/2015/10/6-things-that-should-enrage-you-about-the-assaultatspringvalleyhigh/.) Another student objected to the officer’s behavior and through her tears said, “This is wrong;” that student was also arrested for “disrupting” school. What? It is the officer who disrupted the school, not the student, the one student who somehow had the internal strength and clarity to speak up while both terrified and outraged. She deserves a medal of honor. I would hope my child would stand up in that situation and say, “This is wrong” and call upon others students to do so as well.

Just as my body shook in horror, grief and rage 38 years ago, and as tears flowed down my cheeks then, they do so now. And again, I was not there. This is not me. So if I feel this level of internal dis-ease from simply watching the video on my computer screen, I can only begin to imagine what the students must have felt and what every black and brown person in this country must feel and live with every single day.

This is the legacy of slavery. No white American child would be ripped from her parents arms and sold to another family and no white student would be ripped from her chair, violently slammed to the ground and thrown and dragged across the floor. This does not happen in white America. But it does happen in black America and it happens frequently. Students at the school where this incident occurred tweeted that they are not surprised, but are happy it was finally caught on video. Why, because just like in the days of slavery and Jim Crow, black people’s reporting of violence by white people is not believed, particularly if those black people also happen to be young.

Until white people in power see black people as fully human, as fully equal beings, as embodiments of the sacred, this will not stop. It is easy to demonize the officer involved in this latest incident but doing so would miss the bigger picture. This is not about this one officer or this one school. This is about a system and structure of racism where black students are suspended or even arrested for being “disorderly” or “disruptive” in a class, where black students end up in jail and prison at alarming rates, and where states like Maryland vote to fund more money for juvenile prisons but not for schools. Rather than demonize this officer (who absolutely should be fired and never allowed to interact with the public, or at least the black public, ever again), our energies need to be directed at the system that needs to change.

Is it really any wonder that #Black Lives Matter take to the streets and “disrupt” our comfortable lives? Is it really any wonder that they interrupt Bernie Sanders demanding that Black Lives Matter be placed on the national agenda? Is it any wonder that they blockade police departments? What would you do if this were your family, your community, your brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, mothers and fathers? I know what I would do – I’d be on the streets (as I have been and will continue to be). And, we have to do more.

Those of us with white privilege have a responsibility to speak out about this with our friends and family members who may mistakenly not draw the connections between slavery, Jim Crow laws, racial discrimination and the level of violence directed at black Americans today. We need to speak with our elected officials and demand that they and our police forces receive appropriate training in, and have understanding of the history of racism and its insidious impact on all of us, even those of us who think we are not impacted by it. We have to demand that our police forces are held accountable and that if an officer is seen behaving in a racist manner, that he or she be dismissed immediately. And we need to use our white privilege every day when we witness acts of racial profiling and injustice because throwing a student to the floor is on a continuum of racism that is experienced every day by people of color. (For a beautiful accounting of what being an ally looks like, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wf9QBnPK6Yg.)

When the head of the F.B.I. claims (with no evidence supporting his claim whatsoever) that one of the causes of the increase in violent crimes is due to the fact that officers do not feel as safe getting out of their cars because they are “harassed” by people videoing them, we need to call him out on his outrageous blaming of the victim. Violent crimes don’t increase because police officers are being held accountable for their violence (another violent crime I might point out). Violent crimes increase for a number of reasons including, the inequality in income and wealth in our country, the sense of hopelessness, the school to prison pipeline that breaks-up families, the easy access to guns, and the use and abuse of drugs, among others. But what does not play a role is that police are finally being watched and expected to do their jobs legally and as peacefully as possible. (I want to also point out that the allegation by the FBI director places into the discourse, which thus far has remained unchallenged by the media, the White House or Justice Department, that an increase in violent crimes is code for an increase in violent crimes in black communities because otherwise the issue of officers being videotaped would not have been mentioned. Police officers aren’t being videoed in white communites! What this subtly does is leaves those of us reading the story, which was reported in today’s NYT, with an internal assumption and picture in our mind of who is committing the violent crimes in our country and who is the cause of their increase – blacks. Only perpetuating internalized racism in our country.)

I cannot stop shaking in horror and outrage when I think of the impact of this officer’s behavior on both the girl who was thrown from her chair, and also the impact on the students in the classroom and on all Black students around the country. This week the NYT had a story about the “Disproportionate Risk of Driving While Black” which showed that Blacks are stopped at disproportionate rates to white people and that once stopped they are more likely to be told to get out of their cars and searched. The story recounts incidents of Black people being dragged from their cars, thrown to the ground, etc., and the psychological trauma (not to mention physical harm) of those incidents – leaving many people so afraid and untrusting of cops that they will not call one if they needed one. This is not new, it is just finally being reported. When I was a public defender in Seattle, WA working in the misdemeanor division in the early 1990s, I saw unlawful stops and harassment of black men daily. I even tried to do the research that is now finally being done to prove it. This behavior is a legacy of our past and until we grapple with, confront, repent, and engage in the necessary healing, repair and transformation of consciousness and then take strong, decisive and meaningful action, Black Americans will continue to be treated as second-class citizens. That is not an America I want to live in. I hope it’s not one you want to live in either.

So what can we do? In addition to joining in the protests and actions of Black Lives Matter and standing up and speaking out when you personally witness acts of racism at your grocery store, in your children’s school, on the street, as well as calling upon leaders and public officials to hold those accountable and obtain appropriate training, we also need to re-educate ourselves. We need a massive transformation of our consciousness so that slowly but eventually the legacy of slavery (both the enduring trauma for black people and the internalized racism of white people) is dissolved. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The insidiousness and hidden nature of racism in our country is a festering wound that needs to be lanced and cleaned. We owe it to ourselves and to our Black brothers and sisters. Changing consciousness is no easy task. It takes time and commitment. It takes a willingness to look at our past and allow our stories and understanding of that past to be formed and shaped by present day understandings. I remember when I first started exploring for myself the history of the development of the State of Israel and the actions and policies of the Israeli government. This was not easy because I grew up in a Zionist family and had a particular worldview about who “they” were and who “we” were. They were the “Other” and we were the victims. It was not easy digging deeper into the past because it meant confronting my past and my understanding of who I was and who “we” were. It was a spiritual and moral crisis and awakening.

Yet this is exactly what needs to happen here. Just as the Germans were forced to look at what gave rise to the Holocaust and to take responsibility for it and make reparations, so do we. When Netanyahu spitefully tried to blame the Mufti of Palestine for convincing Hitler to exterminate the Jews, the Germans immediately jumped into the fray and claimed full responsibility for Hitler’s choice and the German’s participation in the extermination of Jews.

Likewise today, we need to educate our citizenry in the truth about slavery, Jim Crow laws and present day racism and how white people benefitted by this system (and continue to benefit) even if they never participated explicitly in the system itself. This means that school books and history books need to be written by historians and activists who have a deep understanding and knowledge of the full history of how wealthy, white property owners formed the categories of race, pitted working class and poor whites against Blacks, and created laws and policies that explicitly and subtlety discriminate against Blacks and how these policies, practices and laws laid the foundation for the ongoing violence, discrimination and injustice perpetuated against Black people today.

This education effort will not be easy because history is usually taught as facts, devoid of human experience, human emotion and human suffering – it just was and no longer is. We need to examine our history in a way that allows us to probe into the deepest recesses of our hearts and souls (as individuals and as a country). This will be challenging because, as Peter Gabel points out, to examine our past in this way will require us to open ourselves to our vulnerability, to our sense of alienation and our fear of being alone in the world. It will require an examination of our history that forces us to re-think what it means to be American. Perhaps we can learn from Germany – how do they teach the Holocaust in a way that holds Germans accountable while simultaneously integrating this history with their national identity? There needs to be a way for us to see this history not simply as a “they” who did this but us – our society. To do this kind of work, we need a spiritual process, not simply a history lesson. Students, teachers, all of us need a safe space in which to engage in this learning so that we can soften into the truth, grieve and mourn it and then move forward into a place of healing, repair and transformation. Most of us actually want to live in a world that is kind and compassionate but do not believe it is possible so we shut down our yearnings and tell ourselves we are alone. But we are not alone.

In addition to ensuring that our history books accurately reflect this legacy, our laws also need to do so. This means that we need to push for greater (not less) affirmative action, for reparations, for changes in our criminal justice laws, and for changes in how our media portrays Black people. We need to transform our schools so that rather than be a mini-prison and a pipeline to real-life prison, they are centers of compassion, care, love, kindness, generosity and rich and dynamic learning environments.

Furthermore, in addition to understanding the economic incentives of slavery and discrimination and the legal underpinnings and necessary changes, we also need to understand the dehumanization project that allowed black people to be owned, sold and lynched. What is it that allows us to see other sacred humans as nothing more than an object? We need to help people understand how the dehumanization process of an “Other” also leads to a dehumanization of ourselves. When we shut out the “Other” we likewise shut out a part of ourselves. We need a society in which we are taught to see each other as embodiments of the sacred and we need to create schools, communities, businesses, governments, hospitals, etc. where values such as kindness, generosity, love, care, compassion and empathy prevail. As long as our society prioritizes money and profit over love and care for each other and the planet, we will continue to demonize the “Other” as a way to ensure our own security and safety. When we restructure our society based on genuine care for the well-being of all, we will no longer perceive a need to fight against each other for the limited resources available.

I would also like to see facilitated healing and reconciliation circles in all schools and communities, with police, educators, politicians, parents and children so people have opportunities to share about themselves, their lives, their dreams and how racism has impacted their lives.

It is time for Americans to engage in a massive re-education campaign – a spiritual awakening – so that we can finally be free from the history and legacy of slavery and discrimination that keeps us separate from each other and binds us in fear and unleash the loving, compassionate, caring parts that reside in each and every one of us – then we will all be free.


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