Dear Fellow White People

Jeff Roberson/AP Photo

Jeff Roberson/AP Photo

We need to talk about Ferguson. I know there is a lot to talk about - the investigation, charges against the officer, the police response.

I want to talk about one thing in particular.

Yesterday, the Pew Research Center released the results of a nationwide survey on the events in Ferguson. The major finding:

80% of black Americans think this case raises important issues about race.

37% of white Americans feel the same.

What that says to me is that many MANY white people believe we have a fundamentally better understanding of what it is like to be black in America then black Americans.

As you recall, I feel pretty strongly on issues of race it is important to call things as I see them so let me be clear.

That is racist. That comes from a position of privilege. That is a problem.

I am not black. I do not have any idea what it is like to be black and, as much as I like to consider myself a thoughtful and intelligent person, nothing I can do, read, or experience myself can replace the experience of being black. 

However, I do know what it is like to be a part of a group with less societal power. As a woman, I know what's it like to be treated differently and unfairly based on a physical characteristic I can not change. I also know that if you happen to be a man and you want to see a my head spin around backwards go ahead and mansplain why street harassment isn't that bad or why I'm overreacting to sexist advertisements.

It is infuriating. It is crazy-making. If I had a Molotov cocktail during some of these conversations, I can't promise you I wouldn't have thrown it. 

I wish empathy and listening were enough to solve this problem. However, I've noticed something else going on in conversations I've had recently about Ferguson.

It's almost as if some people believe there are issues of race at play. However, the responsible party is not the white officer or the predominantly white police department but the black community itself. There's a lot talk about Michael Brown's past behavior. There's a lot of talk about looters and crime in the community. There's a lot of "Why are THEY rioting?" "THEY are making it worse." 

So, the Pew Research result doesn't quite capture the problem because it misses the second half of that sentence. "This case doesn't raise important issues of race because black people bring it on themselvesIf the police have to break a few rules, well then that's ok."

Again, that's RACIST and for a million reasons. 

But here's why these issues of race go beyond individual perceptions.

The Declaration of Independence states plainly, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Those natural rights are further enshrined within the Bill of Rights, which specifically guarantees among others freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of peaceful assembly.  

What does that mean? It means you do not earn these rights and that you cannot transfer or surrender these rights. It means that someone does not sacrifice their fundamental rights because they are poor or are on government assistance. It means someone does not sacrifice their fundamental rights because they have a criminal record or because they harass the police. It means someone does not sacrifice their fundamental rights because they dress or speak or behave in a way you find distasteful or offensive. 

It means even if every terrible stereotype about black people or poor people or women or Muslims was true (which they aren't!) IT DOES NOT MATTER.

The Constitution guarantees certain fundamental rights and, while you may surrender your liberty by breaking the law, you never surrender your right to be treated fairly under the law.

To me, it means if one group of American citizens believe they are being treated unfairly under the law then we should listen to them and not presume we - as the privileged party - know better.