White people need to commit to dismantling white supremacy
St. Louis is at a crossroads. Since the Stockley verdict, and the Ferguson uprising before it, the rage of disenfranchisement has finally boiled over, sending thousands of people from all walks of life into the streets. For too long, the status quo in St. Louis has benefited by keeping north and south, black and white, young and old, divided. St. Louisans have had enough and will not stand quietly any longer.
In his letter from the Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that the greatest impediment to change was not the white supremacists, easily spotted with white hoods (or more recently tiki-torches), but actually the white moderate.
He wrote, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is … the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace – which is the absence of tension – to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action.’”
Most white people have mirrored the thinking of the white moderate at one time or another. We catch ourselves saying, “I agree with your message, just don’t inconvenience me by disrupting my commute or night at the ballpark or symphony.” Or, “I believe in protesting, but you must be peaceful, stay on a sidewalk and obey orders from law enforcement.”
These messages encourage white people to critique the movement from the sidelines, to not get involved, and to not choose a side. What we have to remember, though, is that no significant change has ever happened in this country without long-term resistance and protest.
We need to get uncomfortable, to question deeply the way we engage with current social movements. If we haven’t shown up to support the Black Lives Matter movement, we must ask ourselves: Why?
If we felt outrage over white supremacist violence in Charlottesville but not for Mike Brown, VonDerrit Myers Jr., or Anthony Lamar Smith (or any of the over 1000 people killed by the state in our country just last year without due process,) we must ask ourselves: Why?
If we showed up to the Women’s March, or to the Science March (or insert one of the myriad of pop-up protests since Trump took office), but not to support Black Lives Matter, we must honestly ask ourselves: Why?
As white people, we need to think hard on these questions; do our answers mirror the answer of the white moderate of Dr. King’s era?
White people need to commit to dismantling white supremacy in all its forms, not just when it’s overt and easy, but also when it’s inconvenient and hard. We need to be having conversations with our white friends and family. We have to be ok with messing up, committing to learn, and to continue to engage and do better.
White elected officials must continually push ourselves outside of our comfort zones, educate our constituents about the sickness of white supremacy, and encourage others to continually engage in racial justice work. We must be involved and continue to speak out, even if that means speaking out against people and institutions that have kept us comfortable. We must educate ourselves on the long history of how our government has let down or backtracked on promises made to people of color in our city.
We, as white electeds, must recognize our arrival into politics is not the beginning of this fight, but rather that we are stepping into a long history – and one in which white electeds have not been reliable allies.
It has been wonderful to see so many white electeds out on the streets, but where else are we placing ourselves and agitating for change? How often do we find ourselves seeking the “negative peace” just to avoid the tension of being uncomfortable? Are we pushing ourselves, our political relationships, our donors, our constituents to also push for racial justice?
In our current civil rights movement that is crying out for justice and change, we, as white people and white elected, must avoid being the white moderate – the one that Dr. King named as the primary obstacle for the Civil Rights Movement in his day.
We have to pick a side and stand for justice. We need to show up and be willing to be uncomfortable. We need to follow the lead of black activists and use our privilege to elevate the voices, experiences, and demands of our black siblings. Each of us has a role to play. We can’t sit on the sidelines; the stakes are too high.
And when we are tempted to become the white moderate again, taking to the sidelines rather than doing uncomfortable work, we must remember that our silence allows the perpetuation of injustice. As the protest chant says, “White silence is violence.”
Megan Ellyia Green is 15th Ward alderwoman in St. Louis. Anti-Racist Collective (ARC) is a group of white anti-racist activists who come together to further anti-racist organizing among progressive white activists in the St. Louis area.