Guest Blog: Wake Up White America

My friend Jan Brimacombe, concerned citizen and social activist, volunteers in a prison facility to help inmates read books to their children. These books and recordings are then sent home, providing much-needed connections between incarcerated children and their fathers. She participates in a group that reads, learns and discusses the complicated issues of racism every month. She works on environmental issues, in particular with the dwindling populations of Monarch butterflies as she helps people to save their habitat by planting milkweed. I am honored to post her piece (written before the tragedies in Charleston) about our responsibility as white people to be aware of how our complicated and painful racial history and current tragedies impact black communities—and she urges us to get involved in the piece below.

–Judy Patterson Wenzel

Wake Up White America

by Jan Brimacombe

I am a 72 year old white woman; wife, mother, grandmother and retired teacher. On a recent Sunday afternoon while volunteering at the Milan Federal Prison Detention Center, I counted 25 African American children visiting their fathers. Ranging in age from infants to teenagers, the children were very engaged: lively conversations, hugs and laughter, seemingly normal father/child interactions except all of these children’s fathers are incarcerated. (The negative effects on the children, families and communities of the incarcerated warrants an entire new editorial.) And this is just one small visiting room for one unit in one section of a federal prison. My informal surveys of this visiting room have nearly always revealed the majority of inmates to be men of color. This microcosm of incarcerated men seems to mirror what some in this country are beginning to acknowledge and question: the mass incarceration of black men in America.

The recent series of deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of white police officers revives an obscure genre of plays dating to the early 1900s. Anti-lynching plays were written and performed to show how lynching devastated African American families. Readings of these plays has begun at JACK, a Brooklyn Community Arts Center. After performing Blue Eyed Black Boy the troupe read Safe in May. An Ohio State University professor who has studied the history of anti-lynching plays states that being able to tell the truth about why communities are under siege is an important counterpart to being told you deserve what you get. By performing these plays today one of the actors concludes that the audience might think, Oh, my that looks like what’s happening right now.

Eric Garner dies while in the choke hold of a white police officer in Staten Island as he pleads, I can’t breathe; I can’t breathe. Unarmed Michael Brown dies amid a volley of gunshots from a white police officer’s gun in Ferguson, Missouri. Grand juries conclude non-indictment in both cases. Violence erupts in Ferguson. Protests staged in New York City. Demonstrations take place around the country. Walter Scott is shot and killed by a white police officer in Charleston, South Carolina after being stopped for a faulty car taillight. In Inkster, Michigan Floyd Dent is stopped by white police officers; video captures him being dragged from his car and then punched in the head until his injures require medical care. Violence and rioting erupt in Baltimore after Freddy Gray dies from injuries suffered while in police custody after his arrest. Like Eric Garner, Gray’s calls for medical help go unheeded by the police. At Gray’s funeral his brother remarks, Most of us are not here because we know Freddy Gray, but because we know many Freddy Grays. The perennial black/white racial divide surfaces in reaction to all these incidents.

Bill O’Reilly, Megyn Kelly and Martha MacCallum of Fox News discuss the Michael Brown case. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are sensationalizing these events for their purposes. You can’t take an isolated case and say racial profiling occurs. Profiling happens to everyone. NBC News pays Al Sharpton to deliver garbage. He has the nerve to insult the American police community. How audacious of these Fox “newscasters” to claim that profiling happens to everyone, choosing to overlook the meaning of profiling in the case of Michael Brown. This interpretation of the tragedy in Ferguson fuels racism in white audiences.   

Bryan Stevenson, director of The Equal Justice Initiative of Montgomery, Alabama shares these statistics in his TED Talk: one third of black men in the United States between the ages of 18 and 30 are in jail, prison, on probation or on parole. In many of our urban areas 50-60% of young men of color are in jail. 34% of black men in Alabama have permanently lost their right to vote. Milwaukee Public Radio devotes a year to reporting on black male incarceration in Wisconsin, which has the highest incarceration rate of all fifty states. The state spends more on prisons than education. By age 34, only 38% of men living in the 53206 zip code area of Milwaukee (95% black) will NOT have spent time in a state correctional facility. Why is it that law enforcement targets predominantly black neighborhoods?

Parents of black boys in the United States must teach their sons the rules of engagement during encounters with the police. Don’t forget you are black. Do not get into a power struggle. Keep your hands visible; DON’T reach for your cell phone. Make the officer feel he is in charge. Don’t move suddenly. Use sir when addressing the officer. Portland lawyers create an app titled Driving While Black to teach people of color how to stay safe during traffic stops. As a white parent of a white son I worried about him being involved in an accident as a new driver, but NEVER feared he was in danger of being targeted or mistreated by police officers. I felt secure in knowing that if my son had car trouble or was in an accident the police would be there to assist him. The contrast between my reassurance and black parents’ fears in regard to policing is stark.

After George Zimmerman’s innocent verdict in the shooting death of Travon Martin, Alicia Garza posts her outrage on Facebook. Patrisse Cullors responds and culls Black Lives Matter from Alicia’s posting. A movement is born. Garza writes in an article for the feministwire: Black Lives Matter is an intervention in a world where Black Lives are systemically and intentionally targeted for demise. Black Lives Matter is an affirmation of Black Folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression. I think back to the sixties and the Black Power Movement and the coinage: Black is Beautiful. Fifty years later African Americans continue to struggle and plead for dignity and justice in our society.

I feel compelled to ask white America to Wake Up. We must dig deeper into our souls and recognize that the oppression of our African American citizens continues to this day, as is highlighted currently by the deaths and beatings of unarmed black men at the hands of majority white police officers. Since the abolition of slavery, mechanisms have emerged that ensure the continued subjugation of African Americans: the Ku Klux Klan, lynching, Jim Crow, share cropping, segregation, the war on drugs and now mass incarceration of black men (as well as an increasing number of black women). Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow is an excellent springboard for studying our country’s enduring practices of racial oppression. White America must shed its cloak of indifference and join the movement: BLACK LIVES MATTER.

No Man’s Land

Two compelling stories have my focus this holiday season. One contains hope; the other anguish. The hopeful one is about the Christmas Truce on the Western Front in WW I, celebrating its 100th anniversary this Christmas Eve. It was one of my favorite historical stories to teach, especially in December when my prison students were lonely for home and distracted in the classroom. They loved hearing about it, and I still love reading about it—how the British soldiers heard the German troops singing Silent Night on Christmas Eve across No Man’s Land; how a German soldier lifted a Christmas tree, sparkling with candles on its branches, and moved out of his trench to approach enemy lines. How the British soldiers withheld their fire, how they crawled out of their trenches to reach out and shake hands with the enemy. Later, they traded treats from home, played soccer, and sang along with the Germans. Both sides were able to bury their dead. The truce was a mere blip in the four years of horror that spread across the world during WW I, but it has remained a symbol of hope and courage ever since.

The other story is about the lack of compassion as more black people are killed by white policemen. Instead of trying to understand what it means to be black in the this country, what the challenges are about raising black children, what I’m hearing more about is their “criminal behavior,” their “bad decisions” and that they “did it to themselves,” as if these killings are somehow justified. Unless people are living within the confines of fear, degradation, and economic oppression like so many people of color are, it is difficult to recognize their pain and fear, especially for those of us who live in the midst of white privilege. Many of us mourn the country we are becoming. It feels like No Man’s Land.

It feels like we are at war. We were discussing a foreign war in my prison classroom one day when a man asked,  “Why are we talking about that war when we have one right here—my city is a war zone.”

Thousands and thousands of people are behind bars because of our War on Drugs, its Black Hawk helicopters and war-like tactics used in our inner cities, almost always against people of color. In Ferguson, Cleveland, New York City and across the country—even in my own neighborhood, unarmed black people have been gunned down by white policemen—and so far, with impunity. The images of police in riot gear are seared into our brains. Recently I saw a huge army tank in my town with the name of my county—not my country– painted on its side. The police are scared—and often say so. Guns—and/or the fear of them–are omnipresent.

One of my students keeps walking around in my head. Mr. Bridgman was a tall, good-looking, young African American man, who carried himself well and was always neatly dressed. Like many of the men I taught, Mr. Bridgman needed a while to get used to being in school. When he joined my history class, I knew only that he had grown up in foster homes and dropped out early in high school. When he showed up for class the first time, he greeted me respectfully, then sat down and did almost nothing. Any written work proved that he was very capable, but he looked like he was zoning out and seemed to hear nothing, including my warnings that he was not earning credit. “I’m just not feelin’ it,” he told me.

The year I had Mr. Bridgman in history, we were studying WWI at the end of the fall semester. I handed out a page of statistics listing the countries that fought in the Great War, the amount of people engaged in the fighting, the war dead and the number of casualties. Mr. Bridgman liked math and asked for a calculator when he got the hand-out. He figured and figured, then burst out, “Mrs. Wenzel, more than eight and a half million people died! Later he figured out that they weren’t all soldiers. “Mrs. Wenzel, so many civilians died too!”

He was having a hard week, but he was waking up. Courageously, he did some more reading, discovering the devastation of the Spanish flu in 1918. He asked, “Mrs. Wenzel, how could this happen on top of all the people who died in the war. 20-40 million more people died from the flu! What about their families?” As I fumbled around, answering his questions inadequately, I saw that he was finally engaged in what he could learn. I saw some of his innocence peel away from his eyes, and I’m still amazed that it was the carnage of WW I that woke him up that semester. I don’t think it was just the overwhelming numbers, however, that so shocked him. I think it was his innate compassion that changed him. He was finally “feelin’ it.”

The Western Front in 1914 was the deadliest place on earth, but on Christmas Eve, soldiers on both sides, who endured life in the trenches and aimed their rifles at ordinary people they did not know, needed a respite—just to feel human again. America needs far more than a quick truce. We need truth, and we need reconciliation. In order to get there, white people need to summon the courage to look back at our history and understand our long and complicated struggles of both personal and structural racism, the injustice, the anguish, and the raw fear that so many black people experience. We can start by at least recognizing that Black America is not lived or experienced like White America. We can wake up, ask and listen carefully, trying to understand and feel it as much as possible. Compassion humanizes. Its expressions, reaching across our great divides, could be a first step in the long, hard process of healing our old and open wounds. It could at least get us out of the trench.