by Mary T. Yelenick
a White member of the Pax Christi USA Anti-Racism Team

Our nation is drowning in the blood of African Americans murdered by white people – often (though not always) by police officers; frequently with impunity.

IMG_7424In March of 2020, Breonna Taylor, a young emergency medical technician in Louisville, was killed in her bedroom when the police – who kicked in the door and burst into her apartment to execute a no-knock warrant, actually intended for another person, at another address – executed her instead. Several weeks earlier, on February 23, Ahmaud Arbery, an African-American man, was ambushed and murdered by
gun-toting, racial-epithet-wielding white men in Glynn County, Georgia as he jogged through a residential neighborhood. And on Memorial Day, 2020, a videotape captured the agonizing death in Minnesota of George Floyd, whose desperate pleas (as with those of onlookers) to a white police officer kneeling on Mr. Floyd’s neck, preventing him from breathing, were ignored.

Most white people I know – holding a wide variety of political views – have condemned the murder of Mr. Floyd.  Presumably, such condemnation should accompany any callous murder. Yet the reality is that many white people have historically resisted denouncing the killings of People of Color by whites. Instead, in the aftermath of such murders, many whites have scrambled to concoct reasons why the victim should bear at least some responsibility for his or her death – reasoning that, after all, the person killed was not only Black (thereby posing an implicit risk to whites), but also:

  • Was overweight, or not otherwise in good health – like Eric Garner, killed in Staten Island in 2012, whose anguished last words were, as were Mr. Floyd’s, “I Can’t Breathe!”) – and therefore bore some responsibility for his own death;
  • Had, in response to a police order to stop and show his hands, pulled from his jacket his wallet – like Amadou Diallo, who was shot 19 times in the middle of the night, just outside his apartment in the Bronx, by four plain-clothed New York City police officers (all of whom, despite having fired at Mr. Diallo a total of 41 bullets collectively, were later acquitted at trial);
  • Was wearing a “hoodie,” partially obscuring his face – which, after all, might reasonably frighten people in a largely-white neighborhood (like 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, visiting the apartment complex of his father’s girlfriend, whose self-appointed neighborhood protector/vigilante killer was subsequently acquitted by a jury);  or
  • Owned a gun – like Philando Castile, who after explaining to the officer who had pulled over the car carrying Mr. Castile, his fiancé, and their four-year-old child that Mr. Castile was in possession of a registered gun in the car, was nonetheless shot point blank by the officer (who was subsequently acquitted).

This fixation by some white people upon “explaining” why the Black victim – “if only” he or she had acted more reasonably – could have avoided death, reframes the death as an unfortunate, but avoidable, mistake, instead of the predictable outcome of a racist system that deems Black bodies expendable. White people, in other words, look for an “out”:  a way to avoid responsibility for the deaths of Black people caused by white police officers, or by white citizens, traced to the social system from which all  whites benefit. It is a sleight-of-hand: blame the victim, not the system – and thus, by definition, don’t blame “me.”

IMG_7442I wonder now whether we might not be witnessing a variation on that theme. The murder of George Floyd – perhaps because it unfolded in all its brutality on television and computer screens all across the country – has prompted a nationwide outpouring of public protests. The large crowds gathering in the streets of major cities all across the country  – notable not only for their size and multi-racial character, but also for the willingness of the protesters, congregating in large groups, to risk contracting the potentially-fatal coronavirus [1] – are expressing deep-seated anger, pain, and outrage.

For the most part, the large crowds are, by all accounts, peaceful. Yet there are also reports of some individuals – including white people, as well as People of Color –  destroying property (though it is not clear whether those individuals truly come from the ranks of the protesters themselves, or are instead disrupters, opportunists, or outside provocateurs seeing to influence media coverage). And that is where white “if onlys” are being heard anew, albeit in a slightly different context. Most whites seem to agree that Mr. Floyd’s murder was wrong. But many whites then add a coda, or caveat, to their condemnation: the protesters’ actions (presumably, they mean the looters’ actions) are wrong, too, given that some people from those crowds have engaged in destroying property. Accordingly, there is “bad” on “both sides.”

But is that not a false equivalence? Do we really place the destruction of property on the same moral plane as we do the destruction of human beings?

And are we white people – who have perpetuated, and who continue to benefit daily from, a rigged system that persists, generation after generation, in inflicting deadly harm on People of Color – now also entitled to judge the appropriateness of how victims of that system react? Who appointed us whites the arbiters of what, and whose, conduct is appropriate, in response to our highly-violent system of white supremacy?

And how do I – as a white peace-activist – respond to the death of George Floyd, and to the reactions of others to the death of George Floyd?

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. knew the imperative and efficacy of nonviolence. He preached it. He modeled it. He died for it. He knew that nonviolence was the only effective, long-term way to counter violence. Responding to an oppressor’s violence with violence only serves to justify, in the oppressor’s (and often the onlooker’s) mind, reciprocal violence. And so the parties commit to a death spiral. It is only when violence is returned with love that the destructive character of the oppressor comes into sharp contrast with the life-giving character of the nonviolent responder. [2]

As a member of Pax Christi, I am firmly committed to nonviolence. I believe it to be the only force capable of disarming the world. And because I care very deeply about my sisters and brothers of Color; desire that they have the fullness of opportunity and respect that I experience daily; and yearn for an end to our nation’s system of white supremacy, I pray for the struggle to be undertaken in the manner that history has shown to be most likely to be effective, successful, and sustainable long-term:  through active, creative nonviolence. [3]

To the extent that some people in the crowds on the streets of our cities may be unfamiliar with, or too impatient to explore the philosophy and historical basis for, proceeding nonviolently creates a tension between what I personally believe should be done, and the way that someone else may choose to act. It is a tension with which I, as a white person, and also a peacemaker, must struggle. On the one hand, it is my own core belief that only nonviolence can defeat violence. But I also know that nonviolence takes time. It takes patience. It takes experience. It requires suspending the cathartic experience (one that should not be underestimated, for anyone who has long borne unspoken and unacknowledged pain) of smashing something, and directing suppressed energy outward.

How can I condemn a young person for expressing the depths of a lifetime of anguish? How often has the system of white supremacy softened its response to People of Color? Are we whites somehow to be given a pass from reaping what we have sown, for generations? How much grief and pain can people take, before they explode?

It is not my role to determine or criticize, nor try to shape, the response by any Person of Color, or anyone else, to white supremacy. I have more than enough to worry about regarding my own response, as a white person, to white supremacy. My obligation as a white person is to work to stop the behavior of, and challenge the presumptions by, white people (including myself), and our nation’s vast white-favoring systems, that trigger the necessity of a response by People of Color in the first place.

My obligation as a white person is to work for the abolition of our racist system, and of white supremacy. That requires me actively to engage with and challenge other white people; it also means changing my own behavior as a white person. It means deeply and honestly examining and recognizing the many ways in which I benefit, daily, as a white person, from the system of white supremacy. It means being conscious of the opportunities, relationships, access to power, presumed competence and credibility, [4] freedom to live, work, speak, and travel wherever and however I choose – the “free passes” that I take for granted, and have never been called to account for, simply because I am white.

It also means honoring what People of Color themselves decide they need to do. And it means offering my presence, my heart, and my soul, as an ally in that work – and also asking People of Color to be my allies (though not my saviors, nor dispensers of absolution), as well, to help me recognize the many ways I have to unlearn, and repudiate, my unearned privilege.

A sign carried by a white woman at one of the demonstrations, replayed on national media, read simply: “Listen to Black People.” And indeed, that is what we whites need to do.

But we cannot rely on People of Color – from whose psyches, energies, futures, and lives we whites have already demanded and extracted so much –  to “teach” us about racism; or soothe or reassure us that we had no real choice in constructing a system devised long before we were born; or otherwise salve our consciences. [5]

Racism persists because it benefits whites. We may not have actively worked to institute policies or practices of white supremacy. But every day that we as whites benefit from them, without actively seeking to dismantle them, we remain complicit in them.

We whites need to honestly name and confront – and work actively to eradicate – the structures of white domination and unearned white privilege that touch every aspect of our lives.

We whites have plenty of things to do other than to criticize the response of any Person of Color to the deadly system and strictures of white supremacy. We have plenty of our own work to do.

And if we whites do our job properly, our sisters and brothers of Color will finally be able to breathe.

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Mary T. Yelenick is a member of the Pax Christi USA Anti-Racism Team (PCART). She is deeply grateful for the comments and suggestions generously shared by other members of PCART regarding earlier drafts of this article. As always, every insight gained about the system of white privilege from which she benefits reveals how much more work she needs to do to recognize and work to dismantle that privilege.

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[1] This dangerous risk is exacerbated by the fact that African-Americans are continuing to fall victim to the coronavirus in numbers far greater than those of their white fellow citizens, due to the harsh legacy of racism –including higher levels of poverty, inadequate housing, poor nutrition, ill health, and the trauma People of Color experience daily in our white-supremacist society.
[2] In the words of Dr. King, “in winning our freedom we will so appeal to your  heart and conscience that we will win you in the process.” Stride Toward Freedom:  The Montgomery Story  (Harper & Row 1957), p. 94.
[3] See, e.g., Why Civil Resistance Works:  The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict by EricA Chenoweth and Maria Stephan (Columbia University Press August 2011) (noting that nonviolent campaigns attract greater numbers and a more diverse composition of participants, and have greater long-term success, than do violent struggles).
[4] A powerful article by Fr. Bryan Massingale, “The Assumptions of White Privilege and What We Can Do About It,”  (National Catholic Reporter, June 1, 2020), observes that the accounts of white people regarding a given situation will likely be given greater credibility by law-enforcement officials than will those of People of Color – with often deadly results (witness our nation’s horrific history of lynching). 
[5] I strongly recommend that every white person read “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard to Talk for White People to Talk About Racism” by a white woman, Robin DiAngelo (Beacon Press 2018).

16 thoughts on “It’s OUR racism

  1. Brilliant Brilliant. Beautifully written and f reflective and so clear I want to share it everywhere!re!

  2. Find your place where you can make a difference in this struggle. Go there. Do your work. Do it with passion and humility. Continue to identify and then dismantle your own prejudices and behaviors. Be a voice for change and find others to stand with in solidarity. There is power in that place. There is heightened consciousness in that place. Learn about black history. Be willing to take responsibility. Practice compassion. Hold a vision of the future where all people are treated with dignity and respect….Repeat.

  3. Mary – Thanks very much for your thoughtful comments.. I’ve already sent it to some family. And I will continue to think about it and pray over it. I thank you and I thank, for so many gifts, pax christi. Blessings, jim kelly

  4. A thoughtful commentary on the privileges we as white Americans enjoy without thinking about them or in any way questioning their consequences on the lives of others.

  5. “Listen to Black People.”
    this says it so clearly.
    I’m putting each word on a sheet of paper
    in my window to the outside reading clearly to all.

  6. Thanks so much for the passionate, thoughtful insight, Mary! I am forwarding the article to friends and family.

  7. Thank you so very much for this article, Mary. I’ll be sharing it with our Church in Society committee here at Lititz Moravian and as widely beyond that as I can. Blessings to you.

  8. Thank you for putting your thoughts and commitment So eloquently into words and sharing it with us. We have much to learn, but acknowledging that is our first step.

  9. Excellent! Does PCUSA offer the antiracism workshop online? Also, a friend from my parish can translate this into Spanish, how can she contact you? Her name is Maria Carmen Riera. take care, Margaret

  10. Thank you Mary for this deep reflective, challenging and reflexive article that touches the core of our being. This is not an article that one can leave lying in a shelf. We all need to read and reflect on it for we are all part of one body and where one suffers we all do.

  11. “Racism persists because it benefits whites. We may not have actively worked to institute policies or practices of white supremacy. But every day that we as whites benefit from them, without actively seeking to dismantle them, we remain complicit in them.” Thank you for making this critical point (and so many others) so crystal clear!

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