Last night while my city burned and curfew fell, I sat and watched “Black Panther” and thought about what smug hypocrites White people can be. Myself included, of course.
I have spent a lifetime watching cities burn and always over the same damn thing: racism.I am just old enough to remember the 1968 Baltimore riot, one of several violent protests that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
I remember it mainly because the curfew extended to my family’s suburban neighborhood, which meant I could not play in the yard as long as I wanted to do, something I found extremely unfair.
A reasonable reaction for a 4-year old; not so much for a grown person, though that is the response from far too many White people whenever a city burns for the same damn reason.
Including this weekend.It’s so much easier to judge a relatively few looters than deal with the fact that the country you live in would rather regularly set itself on fire than address its obvious racism.
Why they’re mad
Even during a global pandemic. Think about that for a second. How furious do people have to be to gather in the streets at a time when a highly infectious disease is killing thousands daily, especially Black and Brown people, who are dying at disproportionately high rate?
Pretty damn furious.
We know why: A Black man died in the custody of Minneapolis police, for the horrifying offense of attempting to pass a fake $20 bill, while three of his fellow officers looked on. And the only reason any action was taken by the city’s police department was that the whole thing was captured on video and circulated on social media.
Which is also why Gregory and Travis McMichael were recently arrested after stalking and shooting Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who had the temerity to take a run in a predominantly White Georgia neighborhood.
And no doubt the only reason Christian Cooper wasn’t arrested when a White woman called the cops to say “an African American man” was threatening her (after he asked her to leash her dog in a leash-only section of Central Park) was that he had filmed the whole incident.
Seriously, if cellphones turn out to be what saves the soul of America, it will only be what we deserve.
Certainly, this is a theme of “Black Panther” — that technology, used in pursuit of equality and justice, can be the great leveler. But that’s not why I was watching it as Los Angeles, and Minneapolis, and Philadelphia, and New York and a dozen other cities, burned.
I am shocked and horrified by George Floyd’s death and Arbery’s death — and how Amy Cooper’s reaction to a perfectly reasonable request immediately exploded straight to racism so obvious and absurd it would have been funny if we didn’t all know that the story could have ended a whole other way.
With Christian Cooper in custody. Or dead. For asking a white woman to leash her dog. We are all horrified, but only White people have the luxury of being shocked.
Being White does not guarantee fair treatment by the police, just ask countless White rape victims, any more than being white is an automatic protection against COVID-19 or poverty or injustice.
But White people do not live our lives in constant, thrumming low- to high-grade fear of the police. We do not worry about getting arrested or killed for being in the wrong neighborhood or because a White person committed a crime and we look like him because we too are White.
We don’t worry about being pulled over or asked for ID for no apparent reason, or threatened with a drawn gun when we ask, “What is this about?” White people do not worry that any chance encounter with the police could easily end with us, or our children, incarcerated or dead.
And we are, or should be, very aware of this. God knows, police harassment of Black people has become so normalized it is part of the popular culture. How many jokes, episodes, films and songs have depicted an act of institutionalized racism?
Just plain wrong
How often have White people sat, full of righteous indignation, through stories, scripted and personal, of Black men being asked what they’re doing in a “nice” neighborhood or driving an expensive car, or of a White person being pulled over for speeding, only to be asked if he or she is all right when the officer sees that the person in the passenger seat is Black?
How many times have we heard a Black man say, “It’s fine,” while he reaches for his ID and tries to calm us down because we, being White, are allowed the luxury of being furious at a clear example of racism.
We cannot divorce ourselves from injustice simply because it is not happening at any given moment in front of our very own selves. Not only is that the very definition of “morally bankrupt,” it’s just plain wrong.
So it isn’t enough for White people to wear “Black Panther” Tshirts and say “Wakanda Forever,” it isn’t enough to tweet a hashtag or sign a petition or show up for a march if once the fires burn out we all go back to our “normal” lives.
“Normal” is the problem. “Normal” is what needs to be changed.
‘Karen’ for change
Nobody complains better than White people, just ask any city that has tried to put a Metro line or a homeless shelter in a “nice” neighborhood. Suddenly Karen is on the line, pissed off and demanding to speak with her Congress rep.
Ah, Karen. Lately we’ve heard a lot about Karen, a label for White women (and occasionally men) who call the cops or the manager or otherwise hassle people, usually Black or Brown, for doing perfectly harmless things that these women find outrageous.
Why not use those Karen powers for good?
Be a Karen for change. Don’t demand that the government and the cops put a stop to those horrible protests; demand that they put a stop to the behavior and crimes that led to the protests in the first place.
Demand body cams and accountability; demand better training and a zero-tolerance policy, demand that racist cops get fired, abusive cops get prosecuted and good cops get recognized and rewarded. It’s that simple.
Because you know what no one protests against, peacefully or violently? Justice and equality and freedom. Give people justice, equality and freedom and they will stay at home and watch “Black Panther,” which really is a terrific movie.
But if White people want to go around saying “Wakanda Forever,” then we have to be Wakanda. Right now.
Mary McNamara is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.