Some personal background: Until recently I was a registered Independent, but I have voted Democrat in every presidential election since I turned 18. The vast majority of my family is Republican. I was raised in San Diego, a military town. Most of the people to whom I’m related own at least one gun, hate taxes, grumble about seeing signs in any language other than English, and are made uncomfortable by the LGBTQIA+ community.
As you might imagine, over the years I’ve had my fair share of disagreements with them. When I was in high school, and just beginning to form my political opinions, there were quite a few heated discussions at the dinner table. I remember homelessness being a topic of considerable debate – “They need our help” vs. “They made their choices,” that type of thing. Later in life, I would get in deep, well-researched email exchanges with conservative family members about racism, capitalism, you name it.
Overall, while I disagree firmly with almost everything these people ever said, I was grateful for this upbringing. It was like growing up in a dojo – you never knew when the next strike was coming, so you had to hone your skill carefully. I was always, always prepared to spar. I had my talking points. I could cite my sources.
This became even more important as I began to grow my personal circle – assembling like-minded people with whom to spend most of my time. I say it was more important, because these friends – being like-minded, and all – almost always agreed with me. My opinions were no longer challenged; instead, it was becoming much more a conversation of us versus them. We would shake our fists wildly at the sky, bemoaning these bigoted, Republican assholes – so resistant to change, so dismissive of any experience that didn’t reinforce their own.
“But wait,” I would say. “That’s not fair. Many of them are from different generations, different backgrounds. They’re not stupid, just misinformed. They’re not racist, they just haven’t been forced to confront racism.” Often, I was the voice of mediation – because I’m related to those people. Or, I grew up with them. I worked alongside them. They were my classmates, my bosses, my goofy uncle who used to blow on his thumb and make it look like he was inflating his bicep. Droves of them. And they aren’t MAGA-hat-wearing buffoons; they’re intelligent, compassionate individuals who I genuinely believe can be reasoned with.
If you’ll indulge me in a moment of narcissism, I like this quality about myself. In fact, even in other areas of my life, I appreciate having the ability to see situations from multiple perspectives. Whenever two of my best friends get into an argument and they ask me which one of them is right, I always infuriate them by saying that both sides have a point. When my ex-boyfriend found out I was registered as an Independent, he said something to the effect of “If you’re willing to work alongside the devil, that makes you the devil,” and I literally wrote this blog post after getting into that fight with him – arguing that we were too divided as a nation. (Psst: That was before Trump even got elected.)
You get the point, though, right? By and large, I really do try to reach across the aisle – even as my peers have rolled their eyes at me. I try to understand that there are worldviews besides my own, and just because they don’t match doesn’t make them any less valid. I’m imperfect, of course, the other day I got heated and called someone a sociopath… but I try! I do!
Unsurprisingly, the death of George Floyd, the subsequent protests, and the Black Lives Matter movement in general has stirred up a lot of dialogue in the conservative circles of my life.
As always, I tried to be diplomatic. In all my communications (via email, on Facebook, in in-person conversations with my immediate family, etc.) I strayed away from extremities. I never said anything along the lines of “All Cops are Bastards,” although so many others have.
And as a result, every single thing I’ve done – every single post I’ve made – has been pathetically milquetoast. In re-reading them now, they seem almost laughably timid. “White privilege is a sensitive topic. It’s easy to get defensive when you’re told you have a distinct advantage in life…” I would start. “You’re probably justifiably confused / alarmed by calls to #defund the police… Here’s a resource you might find helpful.” Or, to make it sound more self-reflective than accusatory, I threw myself under the bus. “A couple years ago, I used the word ‘gypped’ in conversation and it was a teachable moment for me…” I always approached anything I said publicly with as much grace as I could possibly muster. To lead with compassion and understanding. To ask everyone (like I constantly ask myself), gently, to consider another perspective.
And yet… even those watered-down opinions were considered radical. I had multiple family members reach out to me, encouraging me to take down the posts lest I offend someone.
Offend someone? Seriously? No hyperbole here, that genuinely floored me. I had to sit down. Because even among my most ridiculous, flat-Earther, Confederate-flag-waving family… that seemed like a stretch. The ideas I was touting – black lives matter, racism is bad, police brutality needs to stop – did not strike me as controversial, let alone offensive. I was flabbergasted.
So, like a dutiful student, I did my research. In the ensuing political debates, I reached out to people personally to ask if they could share what resources helped them solidify their opinion. One of them was the person I called a sociopath – and a literal quote from that Instagram message was “…not because I think it will change my mind, but because I’d love to read a data-driven argument for the opposing side rather than believing you’re all sociopaths.”
The point being – again! I tried! So hard! It’s always a shock to discover that someone you assumed had good character may hold racist beliefs… so I really wanted to understand. Trust me, I genuinely would’ve loved to have been proven wrong. I actively sought out information that would challenge my worldview.
And I didn’t have to look far.
Just this evening, one family member forwarded me this video from a family group thread – with the message “Please take time to listen to this. She’s got it right. Puts into a whole new perspective but something many have felt for some time.”
For those of you who have yet to stumble upon this video, allow me to save you 18 minutes: The messenger is Candace Owens, the black woman the Republican party anointed as their right-wing darling because of her willingness to demean her own race the way most white people never would have the guts to do. (Hence this particular family member’s relief at someone finally “getting it right” by saying “something many have felt for some time.”)
If you’ve never heard of Owens, her other greatest hits include calling Native Americans cannibalistic savages before being tamed by white Christians. Conservatives love her because she reaffirms their preconceived racist notions – and she gives them permission to agree with her by being a person of color herself.
Anyway, back to the video: Her thesis statement seems to be the idea of black martyrdom. Owens points to George Floyd’s criminal record and the autopsy report showing that he had drugs in his system, saying that the fact that he has been held up as a martyr “sickens her.” In other words, he was unworthy of being the catalyst for such a massive social justice movement.
The video was retweeted by the President of the United States.
I’ll start with the obvious: If we are to condemn Floyd for having drugs in his system, we must also condemn every white kid who overdoses after shooting up and has to be brought back to consciousness. If Floyd didn’t deserve a second chance, then they don’t either. As to his prison history – her flippant response to a callous murder of a man by law enforcement seems to suggest that it’s more understandable to kill a man who has been locked up before. If that’s all it takes, I guess Martin Luther King, Jr. deserved what he got. He was arrested and thrown behind bars nearly 30 times.
Literally what do you think the point of our criminal justice system is? If we’re to continue to look down on people long after they’ve paid their debt to society, we must do the same for all the white-collar criminals we still hold in such high regard.
Owens is quick to talk out of both sides of her mouth, though, to make her message more palatable. She oscillates between saying that Floyd doesn’t deserve a movement, BUT the police who killed him “still deserve justice.” Floyd had a record… BUT people with a record still deserve a second chance. BUT maybe not an 8th chance. BUT she’s still glad the cops got arrested.
The bottom line being, she’s trying to sidetrack us with minutia. She pointed out every bad thing Floyd ever did in his life as a reason for us to marginalize his death.
Here’s where a lot of you are going to stop reading. I know this, because whenever I’ve shared any of the following facts with people, they’ve gone quiet. It’s fairly pointless to try knocking down Owens’ talking points one by one, for the simple reason that they are largely insane… but I’m going to do it anyway.
Perhaps most importantly, Owens misses the point that movements are never about a single person. This one certainly is not. Yes, Floyd is the face of the movement. But if you’re unhappy with that face, I’ll happily provide another. Let’s start with Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old EMT who was shot eight times in her own bed in March, by plainclothes police officers executing a no-knock search warrant for a crime she didn’t commit. Or 23-year-old Elijah McClain, who was unarmed and also committed no crime, but was put in a carotid hold and later died. Why? Because he was cold and anemic, and wearing a ski mask while walking home from the convenience store with an iced tea. Or 44-year-old Eric Garner, held in an illegal chokehold and pinned down by officers, while he died saying “I can’t breathe” 11 times. Or Philando Castile and Anton Sterling, two black men killed by police officers two days apart. I’m literally picking these names out of a hat, there are countless more – but you know what they all have in common? All of their murderers are still walking free.
The movement is about the collective understanding that ANY black man or woman’s face could be painted on a mural on ANY street any America where police killed an unarmed black person. These marches have drawn millions across the country into the streets to demand change – not because of one man’s death, but because of a pattern that has yet to be addressed.
That problem is that black people are disproportionately killed by police.
But Owens has an answer for this too! She goes on to cite some racism-affirming statistics, like that black men account for only 6% of the population but 44% of all murders. (I assume my family heard this and thought, “I knew it! They are just naturally more barbaric!”)
Interestingly, though, of the 50% of crimes black people are claimed to have committed, they also represent 47% of the overturned convictions. Murder cases where black people were wrongly convicted were 22% more likely to happen than with white people. Among drug convictions, innocent black people are 12 times more likely to be convicted than innocent white people. Seems pretty substantial, considering they only make up 13% of the country. (Source)
So no, racist family members, black people are not uniquely predisposed to commit crimes. Again and again, the factor most closely correlated with crime isn’t race, but poverty. Black and white people in poverty are equally likely to be victims of crime… but one in four African Americans lives in concentrated poverty, in comparison to one in 13 white people. Meanwhile, white families have six times as much wealth as black families, and the poverty rate for black people is almost three times that of their white counterparts. (Source)
Toward the end of the video, Owens has a micdrop moment when she says, “The best way to avoid police brutality is to limit your encounters with police.” Which comes so close to the point, it’s almost hilarious. Again strange though, because other developed countries have somehow found a way to police their people without killing them.
I’m belaboring the point here…but another fun stat, just for the hell of it: One in every 1,000 American black men can expect to be killed by police at some point in his life. (Source)
What’s interesting to me is that I seem to be having two very different conversations in the various pockets of my life. In one pocket (the one filled with people I absolutely adore), we are sharing resources for how to confront racism, and how to be a white ally for disenfranchised communities. At my work, we added a new channel on our messaging app titled #blacklivesmatter, and my company agreed to match donations to any black causes we care about. I just joined my third book club for the express purpose of reading White Fragility. Several friends of mine are currently working their way through this resource – a collection of anti-racism books, podcasts, and videos assembled by scholars and researchers, sorted by where you are in your current understanding of racism.
This group, you might notice, is working hard to listen to the BIPOC community. They not only acknowledge the problem of systemic racism, but acknowledge their own role in it. They are seeking out experts to help them understand how they may help – the actions they can take, today and long-term, to reverse this shameful trend in our country. That’s because these people are compassionate, thoughtful, and self-aware.
And bizarrely, in other pockets of my life… I’m being sent this Candace Owens video. And I’m somehow being put in the position of trying to convince (white) people that racism is even real to begin with.
That doesn’t mean this other pocket isn’t compassionate, thoughtful, and self-aware. It just means they are resistant to admitting that there is a problem. And who could blame them? Problems are so inconvenient! Consider how difficult change is in general, even in normal circumstances. But to acknowledge that your experience isn’t the only one that matters? To be asked to confront your privilege, when you hold so dearly to the idea that you pulled yourself up by the bootstraps? To address the notion that our country isn’t as star-spangled awesome as you were raised to believe? To challenge the very foundation upon which your success was built? That’s terrifying!
And how refreshing to have a clear enemy. How tidy it would be if black people were genetically predisposed to poverty and violent crime, and thaaaaaat’s why these racial inequities exist. That would require so little critical thought! It would mean we could continue to demonize protesters, while reducing police brutality to “a few bad apples.” It would mean we could continue living in our suburban white bubbles, blissfully ignorant of the sins of our ancestors. It would, truly, be the most comfortable possible future… for some of us, at least.
All this to say, I can understand why Candace Owens’ video is attractive to a certain type of person. I can understand why you would breathe a sigh of relief that someone finally said all the things you could never say – and she’s black, no less, so she must be right!
But that understanding only goes as far as this post. I have spent my entire life going to bat for you – defending your beliefs, making excuses for your behavior. I have written off your casual racism for three decades. It stops now. Now, I have some hard truths to deliver:
If you believe black people are just inherently more inclined toward crime, you are a racist.
If you think what happened to George Floyd is terrible, but that “it’s just a few bad apples,” you are the problem.
If you’re asking why a spontaneous, decentralized protest can’t control every one of its participants more than you’re asking the same about a taxpayer-funded, heavily regimented paid workforce, I have lost all patience for you.
I debated for a long time about writing this post – because, again, my natural inclination is to give people the benefit of the doubt. Admitting that I’m related to / associated with racists is hard for me, too. But being sent this video by someone I respect was enough to push me over the edge. And, I think we have an obligation to intervene when our loved ones begin to mentally and morally curdle in front of our eyes.
Some people assert that the right thing to do is immediately and forcefully disavow anyone in your life who starts spouting hateful ideologies, but I’ve always struggled to understand how that helps. If I stop talking to you, others will be there to fill the void, which is basically how radicalization works.
So, I’m still here. I do not disown you as my family (or my friend, or my former coworker, or whatever) just because of these beliefs. In fact, my very sanity depends on my steadfast belief that you will come around. That the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
But I will no longer be the voice of mediation. I will no longer defend you, because it’s high time you reckoned with precisely why you need defending. I have become fundamentally intolerant of intolerance. I don’t know how to convince you that you’re supposed to care about other people. I’m tired of making excuses for why you don’t.
So, to wrap up this very long post… I guess if I was raised in a dojo, now I’m suiting up for actual battle.