Over the past few weeks, I have heard an unfortunate number of conversations that showcase passive, white Minnesotan liberalism at its finest. These have focused on the recent police shooting of Jamar Clark in North Minneapolis and the ensuing protests led by Black Lives Matter.
Thankfully, few of the people I interact with are against Black Lives Matter, either as a movement or statement. A few of my friends are actively engaged with the movement by sharing news and ideas, attending protests and participating in constructive conversations.
Others are in what I would call a state of passive agreement, acknowledging their ideological support of Black Lives Matter. However, they restrain their support to sympathetic nods and sighs of “such a shame.”
Still others bask in pious claims of neutrality, taking what they see as an “objective” view. These are often the people waiting to hear “all sides of the story.” It is the latter two groups to whom I am speaking.
To begin, I think even those who passively agree with Black Lives Matter adopt a position of “neutrality.” By doing nothing to engage either the movement or discussion about it, they too lounge in the comfort of inaction and perceived impartiality.
I would like to recall the words of South African human rights activist Desmond Tutu: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
Following this metaphor, the mice seem easy to identify: people of color living in the U.S. and especially black people. Some might want to cast the elephant as white Americans, specific police officers or perhaps even the police force as a whole. This is not the case.
The elephant in our country is not an entire race of people nor a few select individuals. It is not even a group of individuals that constitute a police force. Rather, it is the entire system of racism that the United States was founded on.
As we all know, between 1650 and 1860, hundreds of thousands of West Africans were forcibly captured and brought directly to North America. Then the Civil War happened, freeing slaves in states that had seceded from the Union.
However, before the Civil War, an insidious force came to power. Slave patrols and Night Watches routinely patrolled the land. These groups, designed to control the behavior of racial minorities, evolved into some of the groups that we now call police forces — particularly in the South.
After slavery was abolished, systems of racism perpetuated by way of the Jim Crow laws and the prison-industrial complex, to name a few.
Even from this brief outline of the police force’s historical relationship with the this country’s black population, we see that the institution of law enforcement has both
supported and been supported by much larger systems. It’s this history that I believe people are ignorant of — sometimes intentionally — when they make claims of neutrality.
One could make the argument that individual cases do not represent an entire system — do we really know that the mouse’s tail is caught under the elephant? Did the mouse perhaps trip the elephant?
However, when we look at the fact that one in three black men will spend time in prison — we begin to realize that these are not isolated incidents and cannot be viewed as such.
Let’s keep in mind that these statistics do not include the number of black women who are killed or raped at the hands of police and who are also disproportionately incarcerated.
The individuals who commit these abhorrent acts of violence need to be held accountable for their actions. However, I want to reiterate that they are part of a larger system.
Thus, once again, the elephant of Desmond Tutu’s metaphor is the system of racism that exists in our country, infiltrating everything from our schools to our prisons and our hospitals.
It is important, also, to note that many — perhaps most — of the people who claim neutrality benefit from this system of racism. Thus, by doing nothing in the name of impartiality, one not only sits idly by as the elephant stands on the tail of the mouse but also uses the elephant to carry them through a life above the treacherous ground on
which the mouse must run. Most do not make the conscious choice to do so, but the fact of the matter is that being white in the U.S. comes with some perks.
I’ve had many conversations amongst family and friends who triumphantly ask me, a gleam of victory in their eyes, how I’ll feel if the tapes from the shooting of Jamar Clark show Clark reaching for a gun.
To these folks, I reply that, the way I see it, even if it turns out Clark did put the officers’ lives in serious harm (which I highly doubt), I stand unapologetically behind my active support of Black Lives Matter in North Minneapolis and elsewhere.
Even if it turns out that multiple eyewitnesses colluded to create a story, I see the actions of Black Lives Matter as part of a movement much larger than single acts of violence.
To me, this is not a matter of “us versus them” or of placing the police as “the enemy” (though I feel they’ve done little to dissuade that narrative). To me, this is a matter of standing against the systems of racism that have been in place since white men came to North America.
By being active, engaging in productive conversations, attending rallies, listening to the stories of others and questioning our own assumptions and views, we can begin to
change these systems. Claiming “neutrality” will not remove the elephant from the mouse. Nor will it erase the benefits we gain from the system of the elephant. Rather, neutrality will continue to perpetuate systems of injustice and oppression. We must, instead, act to remove the elephant from the room.