My white friend, Rob, said,
"Manny, can I be honest with you? Whenever I see black people rioting and acting all crazy in the streets, I usually say to myself, 'there they go again, acting like crybabies. Pouting because they didn't get their way.'"
Rob and I had worked on a few projects together, and had gotten comfortable enough with each other to talk with such raw honesty. Our families had spent time together, and we even had a "pancake dinner" at their home (it was great!).
But back to Rob's comment. Rob had joined me for a speaking tour I was on, and, after spending a few days together, he asked me some questions about a part of my presentation in which I described the violence of black and brown people in 1992, during the Los Angeles Riots. What I said about that also applies to what is going on in Minnesota.
So if you are one of my white friends who is upset, worried, or confused about what is going on in Minnesota (and other parts of our country) right now, let me share with you what I shared with Rob, and sometimes share with some of my audiences.
On April 29th, 1992, when a jury acquitted the cops who had mercilessly beaten Rodney King, my hope died. I could not understand how white and black people could watch the same recording of cops beating Rodney King and see it so differently. That, in my opinion, was a crisis in the field of visibility between white and black people. That verdict taught me that, in America, there are victims and there are black people; and, it infuriated me that, because I was black, I was incapable of being seen as a victim in the eyes of our criminal justice system.
That acquittal killed the little hope in me that the world was somehow fair or just.
However, being only 14 years old and a very poor student, on April 29th, 1992, I lacked the lexicon to express exactly how upset I was. I had no access in my vocabulary to words that could articulate my anguish. No dictionary to help me describe my disgust or vent my vitriol.
When justice dies, hope dies, and when hope dies, bitterness is born.
So I picked up a brick and threw it at a police officer’s car, shattering his window. That brick was my manifesto. It was all I could say at the time…
I could have been killed for that, but, to be completely honest with you, I was so angry I would not have cared. Have you ever been THAT hurt or angry? I have.
Recently, someone asked me, “Manny, do you think the causes that contribute to ‘unreachable’ youth today have improved since your experience in the early 1990s, or have they gotten worse?" While we have had moments of progress, I sincerely believe things have gotten worse for us as a nation. For example, the last time I checked,
- Almost 1-in-4 black men between the ages of 20 and 30 are under the supervision of the criminal justice system. For white males in the same age group, the corresponding statistic is only 1-in-16.
- Blacks are still more likely than whites to be shot at by police, and 18 times more likely to be wounded, and 5 times more likely to be killed.
- Prosecutors are still more likely to pursue full prosecution, file more severe charges, and seek more stringent penalties in cases involving defendants of color, particularly where the victims are white.
- Blacks and latinos are sentenced to prison more often and receive longer terms than whites convicted of similar crimes and with similar records.
You might also be thinking, “well, Manny, of course punishment is higher for Blacks and Latinos. They commit most of the crimes. If you do the crime, you do the time.” While I will be the first to admit that wrong is wrong no matter who does it, and that wrongdoers should be punished for it, I think it is equally important to analyze individual crimes in context.
I read somewhere that
“He who is guilty is not only the one who commits the crime, but also those who created the darkness.”
Much of the crime being committed by poor (black and brown) people is derivative- it is derived from decades (centuries?) of unequal access to wealth, power, prestige, justice, social status, education, resources, opportunities and rewards. They didn’t create the social hierarchy in which they are at the bottom. They are merely responding to it. This is not an excuse for violence; it is a historical and sociological fact. Dr. King once said about the riots of 1960s that,
"violence is the voice of the voiceless. It is the language of the unheard."
What is it that America is failing to hear from black and brown people? That they are tired.
You might still be wondering, "but what are they so tired for? We elected Barack Obama. We have successful black people like Oprah Winfrey, Will Smith, and others? Black people need to stop playing the victim card and move on." My friend, I could give you a list of things that I think America is failing to hear from black and brown people, but I want to propose you do something that I believe would be even more helpful for you: open yourself up to hearing the stories and experiences of some of the black and brown people around you. Build friendships with them. Have them over to dinner and get to know each other beyond the surface and the stereotypes. I honestly think that you would enrich each others' lives. Also, I believe you would be able to gain a more real, organic understanding of the perspective of people who have skin that has been kissed by the sun.
Now, to be sure, if you do that, you will be uncomfortable at times. You might even feel offended. But don't give up. Ask questions and listen to the answers. Then share your feelings, too. It will be painful at times, I'm sure. But you will be made better for it. You will grow as a person from it. Both of you will. I'm sure of it, because that's how I've grown.
That, to me, my friend, is the best place to start, especially if you sincerely have no idea about what is going on in Minneapolis and other places around the country with regard to the protests and riots (fyi- several "rioters" see their behaviors as a "rebellion," not a riot).
Finally, I have worked in most major cities in 49 states, and have made some great friends who do not share my ethnicity, my socioeconomic background, my religion, or my politics. Although those personal relationships have given me hope, I am compelled to share with you that I have been feeling a growing hopelessness and even a simmering rage among poor black and brown young people like never before. I began feeling it about 10 years ago, but it seems to be getting worse. It feels very much like the rage I had when I was 14 years old, holding that brick.
I say this with an unwavering love for the United States:
- If we as a nation do not do more to reach poor black and brown youth in positive ways, they will eventually reach us and our cities in negative ones.
- If we do not do more to create a more just, equitable society in which all people are treated with fairness, dignity, and respect, then we are going to see more violence.
- If we do not use our resources to make sure that ALL American citizens have the right to life, liberty, and the opportunity to pursue happiness, then we are going to see a lot more violence.
To be sure, I don't have all the answers about how to fix the problem, but I am sure that militarizing our police forces or building more prisons will only deal with the symptoms of the problems rather than the root causes of them. More aggression from law enforcement will only make things worse. Some people feel so oppressed and hopeless by the current context we're in that they are willing to die, and to kill.
While I will be the first one to say that there are some people who are so violent that they need to go to jail, I must also say that we don’t need more jails. Instead, I believe we need more schools. We need the billions of dollars being used to build prisons to instead be invested in schools and organizations that are working to give poor (young) people, and historically marginalized communities, hope and practical help.
After hearing me share these things, Rob, my white friend, said, "Manny, you've helped me see that these people are not 'crybabies' who are crying over a single occurrence of injustice or police brutality, but they have been experiencing injustices (from police and the criminal justice system) off camera for a long time; and, the rioting is merely their tipping point. This rage has been growing and simmering for a long time, but we are merely catching the end-result of a long series of mistreatments."
Rob gave me hope that other white friends of mine (in person and online) might be open to understanding the rage behind rioting, even if they don't condone it. Understanding should always precede evaluation.
I could go on and on, but let me leave you with this: despite the very real injustices that surrounded me as a teenager, I was transformed from a young, brick-throwing boy into the man I am today because of loving adults—teachers, coaches, administrators, lunch ladies, pastors, and professors who had extraordinary hearts—who entered my world and treated me with dignity, fairness, and respect. By doing so, they gave me hope; and, when hope lives, people flourish.
Right now, our world needs a lot more people giving hope and practical help; and, you, my friend, can be one of them. PLEASE be one of them!
P.S. If you would like to give students hope, please check out Teacher Secrets Every Educator Must Know to Empower Students in a Diverse, Digital World.
P.S.S. If you have been following me online for some time, and you are white (or, if you prefer, of European descent), I want to say thank you for being a friend who is willing to hear things from my perspective. Even if you disagree with me, thank you for disagreeing without becoming disagreeable or disrespectful. Thank you for not letting our discussions degenerate into mean-spirited, destructive attacks. I think we are both made better by such honest, mutually respectful exchanges.
(FYI- I first posted this on 4/29/2017, and revised it slightly in light of the recent racial and political tensions in our country).