Chris Hopson | Harvard University
In the past couple of months, there have been numerous highly publicized instances of white people calling or threatening to call the police on people of color who were doing normal things.
The months of March, April, and May alone saw stories of Native American, black, and Latinx people be threatened with or subject to law enforcement for, among other things, touring a college, sitting in a coffee shop waiting for a business associate, touring a house they recently purchased, napping in a common room at their university, leaving an AirBnB, golfing, having a barbeque, and speaking Spanish (yes, speaking Spanish).
Cases like this aren’t new. In 2012, George Zimmerman called the police on, and ultimately shot and killed, Trayvon Martin as he was walking home from a convenience store. Later that year, Michael Dunn shot and killed Jordan Davis as he listened to music at a gas station (then Dunn returned to his hotel room and ordered pizza). In 2014, police were called on Tamir Rice, a 12-year old playing with a toy gun, who was ultimately shot and killed by officers within seconds of their arrival on the scene.
Looking further back into American history reveals that people of color have faced unwarranted state and vigilante punishment for centuries. Slave patrols, lynchings, and race riots are all examples of this. This particular feature of American racism is disheartening and demoralizing. But some of the more recent cases, particularly those during and since the Civil Rights Movement, have produced groundswells of something of great importance: solidarity.
In the background of the video of Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson being arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks, white customers can be seen and heard questioning the police officer’s actions. When police showed up after being called on Michael Hayes for inspecting a house he had recently purchased, they were on Hayes’ side, and told the woman who called them that if she kept harassing Hayes, she would be arrested. These particulars may seem small and insignificant compared to the scope of action that will be required to end racial injustice, but they are not.
White solidarity, instances in which white people fight for and defend the rights and dignity of people of color, is the only way that racial justice will ever be achieved in the United States. This is because, as is so often the case with oppressed groups in any society, people of color alone don’t have enough political, economic, or social power to fundamentally change the American social order, of which racial inequality is a central foundation.
But white people do. Historically, mass social change has taken place in the United States only when a critical mass of white people take action or change their beliefs. For despite the thousands of Africans and African Americans who openly rebelled against slavery for centuries, the Civil War was not fought, and the end of slavery not achieved, until a government led by white men prosecuted it. As many protests as there were for civil rights before 1965, only a white, Southern president with the support of a large percentage of northern whites could legislate it into existence.
Martin Luther King, Jr. knew that’s what it would take, which is why he said that the Civil Rights Movement served a “subpoena” for the conscience of white America. He already knew where the conscience of black America stood, but it was not enough. None of this is to take away from the heroic actions of black freedom fighters, or other freedom fighters of color throughout the years. But the realities of how wealth and power are distributed in the United States has always meant that fundamental change can only occur if enough white people take part. The upside is that situations like those in recent months show that there are daily opportunities for white solidarity, since there are daily indignities done to people of color. All of us, white and nonwhite, have a part to play in the fight for racial equality, and we’ll only get there by working in solidarity with each other.