Staff Editorial: Conversation of race must acknowledge harm, move beyond ‘white fragility’

The recent death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore from injuries sustained while in police custody can not be ignored. According to Marilyn Mosby, Baltimore City State’s Attorney, police “failed to establish probable cause for Mr. Gray’s arrest, as no crime had been committed [by Gray].” She went on to describe even the arrest itself as illegal.

While police did check on Gray, who was not buckled into a seat in a police wagon, they did not respond to his requests for medical help. He was eventually discovered to be in cardiac arrest and died a week later of spinal injuries.

The city erupted into mass protests and ultimately riots. Over 100 police officers had been injured as of Monday. Approximately 200 businesses, many minority-owned, were destroyed. Many on social media recalled a quotation from Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “A riot is the language of the unheard.”

Institutional racism in the American justice system causes significant harm. Furthermore, while at times, deaths break through the news cycle, those experiencing racist policing and corrections policies are unheard.

Of course, Freddie Gray, who was 25 years-of-age, was not the first young black man to die in police custody. Sadly, these deaths have become familiar. Back in 1997, then President Bill Clinton called for a “national conversation on race.” That’s almost 20 years ago. Every time one of these incidents happens, not only do people take to the streets, but people, particularly white people, call for more conversation.

Unfortunately, many whites see racism as a one-dimensional person-to-person binary. Some examples of this thinking include believing that racism is only a conscious choice of ‘bad’ people, or only the province of those who wouldn’t hire someone because of skin color or of those who make racist jokes.

According to Robin DiAngelo, a professor of critical multicultural and social justice education writing in the Huffington Post, while whites have “strong emotionally laden opinions [on race], but they will not be informed opinions. Our socialization renders us racially illiterate.” He goes on to note that whites often lack humility when discussing race.

DiAngelo also argues that racism is multidimensional and that it “ensures an unequal distribution of resources between racial groups.” He also notes that whites struggle to discuss race in a meaningful way. He said, “We have not had to build tolerance for racial discomfort and thus when racial discomfort arises, whites typically respond as if something is ‘wrong,’ and blame the person or event that triggered the discomfort (usually a person of color).” He terms this “white fragility.”

Fortunately, he posits a solution: “The antidote to white fragility is on-going and life-long, and includes sustained engagement, humility, and education.”

Dramatic disparities in health, wealth and education exist in Baltimore as they do in many American cities, including Minneapolis and also can not be ignored. For instance, in Baltimore, whites make twice as much as blacks on average. A national Business Journal study?1 found that income inequality is less of an issue in Minneapolis-St. Paul as a whole than in other cities, particularly than in Birmingham, AL, Memphis, TN and Oklahoma City.

However, racial disparities in Minnesota’s poverty rates are dramatic. 37.8 percent of black Minnesotans lived in poverty in 2012, according to figures from the Minnesota Budget Project?2. Of white Minnesotans 8.1 percent live in poverty, a difference of roughly 30 percentage points. Minnesotans who are native American experienced very high poverty rates also; 31.9 percent of these Minnesotans lived in poverty.

On a totally different topic, feminist Andrea Dworkin once titled a piece, “Violence against Women: It Breaks the Heart, Also the Bones?3.” Young men of color – and young women of color, including Tanisha Anderson of Cleveland?4, are dying. We must do more than feel heartbroken.

Did the mass protests and riots influence the indictments of six police officers in Gray’s death? Indictments and arrests – and even convictions – are one thing. Justice, which means we all ‘see race,’ and we all stand together for equality is another.

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