Not Another Conversation on Race


Michael Brown, the African-American young man killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, has been laid to rest. His homegoing celebration was at once a period to his earthly life and the blank space before the next chapter of activism that his family and a variety of communities promise to write.
After peaceful protests, marching in the street, chants of “hands up, don’t shoot” and “no justice no peace”, after fires, looting, a militarized police force aiming weapons of war on its own citizenry, smoke, tear gas, and national and international news coverage, the question now is: what is next? Some commentators have suggested that President Obama come to Ferguson and give another speech on race. Others have suggested that we as a nation engage in another conversation on race, this time with different contours.
I say, what this country does not need is yet another presidential speech on race. Is there anything new to say? And I am too tired of the conversation on race. I have been having this conversation my entire life, and I am weary of it. I remember watching Martin Luther King, Jr. give his “I Have a Dream” speech at the first March on Washington. I was a little girl watching with my parents. Twenty years later, I was in Washington DC for the anniversary march. In the 1990s, I taught race and racism at Temple University. In the first decade of the 21st century I taught courses on the civil rights movement and on “The Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Since the election of President Obama, I have written about race within the context of birther madness, and after the George Zimmerman verdict, I wrote about the myth of the super-physical black man that explains why so many people see the African-American male body as at once less than human and more than human that requires extraordinary force to subdue.
I have made my contribution to that conversation, and I am done with it.
Let us talk instead about cop psychology. What kind of psychological screening must one pass before we hand him or her a badge and a gun and give them the power to administer lethal force in the name of the state? What is the level of education required of police officers? How are they trained? Does this training include diversity and racial sensitivity training? Do they learn to subdue a suspect without illegal choke holds or gun fire? What goes through the mind of an officer when he is beating an unarmed woman by the side of the road, or when he is choking an unarmed man to death while the man says over and over and over again that he cannot breathe? What goes through the minds of the other officers on the scene who are pressing the man’s head into the pavement as if the man were not human? What is an officer thinking when he shoots six shots into an unarmed young black man and kills him? What police procedures allow for a body to lie in the streets for hours?
Let us have the conversation about radical humanism. This is the humanism that Malcolm X articulated when he said, “We declare our right on this earth to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.” Let this conversation include what it means to be human and how we lose a portion of it when we fail to respect the human dignity of other human beings. How does the Golden Rule that says, “In everything do unto others as we would have them do unto us” inform and shape our humanity?
Let us talk about class. Let us talk about how a suggestion of white privilege that a global political-economy gives conceals white poverty. When we talk about race, for the most part, we side with our own in-group. It becomes an us against them conversation. We are good. They are evil. The system is neutral. We are blind to the yin and yang of the thing, that there is a little evil in the good in us, and there is a little good in the evil in them. And our social, cultural, political, and economic system is not neutral. It is organized for the benefit of the richest one percent.
White people are still the majority of Americans and are the majority of poor people in this country. The poorest people with the worst education and health care live in red states in the former confederacy. St. Louis County where Ferguson is located is not the poorest county in the state. With some of the poorest counties in the nation, Missouri legislators refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. People who could have health care under the ACA do not. Let us talk about why so many of these poor people vote against their economic interests.
Let us have the conversation about power. Power is everywhere. We all have power. The question is: what kind of power do we have? We have the power of presence, and we have the power of how we move through the world. There is power in our own dignity and self- respect. We have the power of our own artistic presentation to the world, how we dress and decorate our bodies. We have the power of speech and organization and citizenship. This includes voting in local elections – city council, mayor, school board, and judges. We have economic power, how we spend and invest our money. Power is not only top down, but it is also bottom up. This is why President Obama need not fly into Ferguson. The good people of Ferguson will have to summon the “do for self” spirit that has been an important element of African-American culture since the first African set foot on American soil. They will have to implement strategies and tactics for their own liberation that will last long after the celebrities and the cameras have gone onto the next crisis with exciting pictures.
We can end police brutality. We can end the national psychosis that wants to see the Other as less than human and robs us of our own humanity. We can end poverty for all of our citizens. We can exercise our power in organized and concentrated ways. Let us have this conversation.
Valerie Elverton-Dixon is the founder of and author of “Just Peace Theory Book One: Spiritual Morality, Radical Love, and the Public Conversation.”

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