Friday, July 8, 2016

What I think I think...

We all know the kid in high school that always got picked on and pushed around. There are a few in every school, in every town in America. Maybe he/she was a little different, a little awkward, or just didn’t quite “fit in”. We all have a different story. That kid might have been you, your sister or brother, your neighbor or your friend. Or, that kid might have been a stranger to you, someone that you never really got a chance to know on a personal level.

Then there are the people who had power over this kid, those whose power was displayed by making him feel inferior. We all know who they are as well. Once again, this could have been you or me, your brother, sister, friend or acquaintance. The vast majority of people don’t qualify as either the tormented or the tormentor, but most are at minimum complicit in the abuse. Most of us have, at times, seen someone treated poorly, have felt bad for that person, but didn’t intervene to help.

 My personal story is pretty similar to the above generalization. I never considered myself part of the “popular” crowd, but I managed to generally avoid being considered “unpopular,” at least in most circles. I played sports, sang in choir, and did well in school. I was involved in activities, had enough friends, and never really craved the acceptance of the social elite. Still, there were times when I was bullied or mistreated by one group or another, and while the perpetrators were very few, many more stood by and did nothing to stop them.

 One night, in the fall of my senior year, I found myself at a party with a diverse group of friends, classmates and casual acquaintances. Also at the party were a few of the guys who, for whatever reason, liked to give me a hard time. By this point, I was perfectly able to stand up for myself, and the expected harassment wasn’t overly bothersome. This particular night, however, something amazing happened. A casual acquaintance of mine, and a good friend of these guys, stepped off the sidelines, and actively stood up for me. I’ll always remember that moment for a couple reasons. First, I will always respect this act of kindness and bravery, and to this day hold this person in very high regard. Second, I’ll never forget the look of shock on the faces of my tormentors, when their friend told them, and I’m paraphrasing, to “knock it off.” They were literally speechless, and they basically never bothered me again.

 For the last several years, and over the last few days in particular, I’ve struggled to make sense of how people are treated in this country. There are large segments of our society that are marginalized and made to feel inferior and forgotten. The powerful few among us exploit their advantages to make themselves more powerful. Most of us, just like in high-school, are left somewhere in the middle, as spectators to watch this all unfold. As we watch, but fail to act, we are complicit in the many injustices that we witness, some of us more than others. What I realized that night back in high school was that people will continue inappropriate behaviors as long as it is acceptable within their social circle. All it took was one comment from a respected peer to put a stop to years of damaging actions.

 Throughout American history, it has been the same story. Slavery was accepted as a practice for white land owners long after people started to struggle with the morality of owning another human being. Segregation and Jim Crow laws were prevalent long after African Americans began to express their displeasure. I imagine that many white Americans disagreed with these practices, but chose not to act. How long did women have to request the right to vote before progress was finally made? For how long did the fight for LGBT rights go on before real measurable progress was realized?

 The truth is, oppressors don’t simply change their behavior because the oppressed complain about their treatment. Real change only takes place once one’s society no longer considers that behavior acceptable. In order for that to happen, members of that society must speak out against the behavior of their own peers, making formerly acceptable views and behaviors unacceptable. It took two white Presidents (Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson) to abolish slavery and provide legal protections to African Americans. It took members of the straight community to demand equal treatment for their LGBT friends and family to prevail in that struggle. And it took one of the “cool kids” standing up to his peers to get them to stop bothering me in high school.

 Many people criticize President Obama for not doing more during his eight years in office to improve the lives of African Americans. Many people believed that having a black President would naturally make things better for people of color. The truth is, the minds and hearts of people who are comfortable in believing that the color of their skin makes them superior are not going to be changed by a black President. The responsibility for fighting inequality and institutional racism in our country lies with those who benefit from it, not those who suffer because of it.

 If we want to combat injustice and institutional racism on the police force, police officers, specifically white police officers, will have to create an environment where racism is not acceptable or tolerated. In order to combat racism in the justice system, white district attorneys and judges must be a model for fairness and equality. In order to change gun laws, gun owners must speak out for commonsense gun reforms. In order to recognize that #BlackLivesMatter, white people need to pick up a sign and march alongside our brothers and sisters to demand action and reforms. As long as we continue to sit on the sidelines while others are oppressed, the oppressors will continue to take comfort in the belief that their actions are justified, and nothing will change.

  The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. – Martin Luther King, Jr.

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