I’m a Texan. This is not something that is immediately obvious about me, nor is it traceable in my speech, politics, patterns of dress, etc. Why? Well, for one reason, Texans are actually quite a diverse group of people and you need to let go of the fantasy that we all have horses, carry guns, and speak with a twang. Just let it go. Second, I am feminist, anti-racist, pro-choice, liberal af, and recently, that list of attributes seems to encapsulate absolutely everything Texas (as a State institution) is not. There are reasons I am no longer a permanent resident of the Lone Star State, and I am well aware of its troubled social and political landscape, but that does not stop me from feeling deep fury and profound sadness when some new catastrophe of bigotry unfolds. Why would I feel any better about the incitement of religious hatred just because ‘it’s Texas’? Why would it be any easier for me to shrug off denial of human rights just because I know the majority of lawmakers are racist assholes?
Most of the time, some other liberal news outlet or social media site will pick up Texas’ latest crime against humanity and synthesize it in a way that I find informative, responsible, and demonstrative of my own feelings. I post it to share my disappointment and try to move on because I have a tendency to get incredibly angry, and increasingly anxious about the state of the world, to the point where I feel paralyzed and helpless. So sometimes, I practice a little self-care by recirculating critical op-eds rather than writing my own.
But sometimes that’s not enough.
Yesterday, author and activist Mikki Kendall sent out a tweet stating that she really needed ‘white people who get it about racism to talk to white people who don’t. Just, y’all do the work. I’m tired’. The sobering thing about this type of request is its frequency. Many, many PoC and Black activists on Twitter are expected to ‘answer for’ social and political events where race is a determining factor, they are ‘tapped’ as an information source by white people on social media who, at best, believe they are trying to ‘educate themselves’ (and yet, are asking for others to do that work), and at worst, who believe there is some debate to be had about whether racism is ‘a thing’.
For Black people and PoC, it’s not just their lived experiences in racist systems that can be exhausting (if not life-threatening), but also the demands on them to do diversity work as if it is solely theirs to do….as if ‘race’ is an issue white people are not a part of. I don’t know what it’s like to feel this kind of tiredness, the kind of fatigue that comes from waking up every day in a world where you are attacked from one side, and exploited from another, to such an extent that you are denied even space to think on your own terms. That I can only empathize with this feeling is a privilege, one I have solely because I am a middle-class, educated white woman and therefore, to some extent, a benefactor of ‘the system’. That I can count myself as somehow being within ‘the system’, and even a benefactor of it (rather than cast out by it, or a victim of it), is precisely why Kendall is so right to call on people like me to do the work. Because as anxious as I might feel, as enraged as these events might make me, I am still allowed to live, to think, to be in whatever ways I please, and to stand by while white, capitalist culture robs Black people and PoC of the same basic freedoms is to be complicit in this violence. I am not here for that.
So, white people, I want to talk to you about McKinney, Texas.
Friday June 5, 2015 police were called to a community pool in west McKinney around 7pm. Following their arrival, a group of Black teens and other teens of color were instructed by police to vacate the premises; the teens’ refusal to leave led to obscene shouting from police officers and eventually, a show of force. Although there are some discrepancies in the various reports about the events leading up to the arrival of the police, it seems likely that initial complaints resulted from a minor fight between an adult resident of the neighborhood and a young, Black woman.
Although I hate to perpetuate what I believe is indeed a disturbing trend, I think in this instance, it’s worth examining closely the video taken of the events in question, recorded by a young, white man. The video, paired with the testimonies of the two white teens who witnessed events and spoke with news sources, raise a number of issues which bear thinking about, the first perhaps, being the most unequivocal…
This is Racism
For some, the video evidence combined with the testimonies given by teens, might be enough to understand that the reactions of certain residents and the show of force by police was motivated by racism. For those who remain ‘unsure’, it is perhaps constructive to start with some historical context. There are few Americans who would not understand how particularly poignant the swimming pool is as a site of racial segregation and later, as a site for civil rights and justice. According to Yoni Applebaum of The Atlantic, that the incident in question took place at a pool is not mere coincidence. Applebaum observes that McKinney ‘ is among the fastest-growing [cities] in America, and its residents hail from a wide range of backgrounds. Formal, legal segregation is a thing of the past. Yet stark divides persist’. In fact:
In 2009, McKinney was forced to settle a lawsuit alleging that it was blocking the development of affordable housing suitable for tenants with Section 8 vouchers in the more affluent western portion of the city. East of Highway 75, according to the lawsuit, McKinney is 49 percent white; to its west, McKinney is 86 percent white. The plaintiffs alleged that the city and its housing authority were “willing to negotiate for and provide low-income housing units in east McKinney, but not west McKinney, which amounts to illegal racial steering.”
Applebaum goes on to clarify that all three public pools in the city are located in the East, the neighborhood where these events took place, Craig Ranch, is located to the West. There are two things here worth unpacking: one, racial segregation (one structural manifestation of racism) does not have to be officially mandated to exist, it does not have to be sign-posted to be any less real. Having said that, it’s difficult to see how an actual, stated mandate from the city of McKinney would make any difference as the population is clearly racially segregated at present. Two, the language used in the lawsuit outlined above is crucially important to note: ‘East of Highway 75…McKinney is 49 percent white’. Even in an area where the majority of the population is ‘of color’, the reference point is still whiteness. To describe the population in east McKinney, one simply refers to how much of it is white, because that’s the portion that is of concern. This is not neutral language. It is not an accident. This type of speech serves to reinforce racist assumptions about which type of resident matters.
With this context in mind, it pays to revisit some of the statements made by the teen witnesses. Brooks, the young man who shot the video, speculated that initial calls were made from parents who ‘were angry that a bunch of black kids who don’t live in the neighborhood were in the pool’. Later, when police arrived, Brooks notes that ‘everyone who was getting put on the ground was black, Mexican, Arabic’. Further, Buzz Feed News reports that they were told by teens that police were called after ‘adults made racist comments telling the black children to leave the area and return to “Section 8 [public] housing”‘. For certain of the adult residents of Craig Ranch, a community which is overwhelmingly white, the presence of Black children was egregious enough to incite violence through expressing racial hatred. The injunction to ‘go back to where you came from’ is notoriously racist, it lays bare fundamental beliefs about the existence in an ‘us’ and a ‘them’, and about the superiority of the former over the latter. It has been used against Black Americans for generations in order to strip them of feelings of belonging, of feelings of potential, of their humanity.
That police set themselves on the teens of color, and left almost all of the white teens alone, further indicates racist assumptions about who belongs where. Yes, Craig Ranch is majority white, but that does not necessarily mean that none of the Black teens and teens of color at the pool party were residents. In fact some claimed to have ‘passes’ allowing them entrance. And yet, ‘everyone who was getting put on the ground’ was of color, the assumption being made by police is that those who do not belong are not white. Those requiring criminal treatment, are those who are not white. The one young white woman who was put in handcuffs was, in all likelihood, detained for her disagreement with police behavior, rather than any belief they may have had that she didn’t belong.
The treatment of the white actors in this scenario also deserves more critical attention…
This is About White Privilege
In conjunction with the racism demonstrated by the Craig Ranch community is an unexamined current of white privilege. Again, the segregated make-up of McKinney already points to the ways in which white becomes the standard of ‘normal’ in an area like Craig Ranch. But particular aspects of these events highlight further how whiteness elicits a level of freedom virulently denied to PoC. One of the women who apparently told the Black teens to go back to ‘Section 8 housing’, and thus who, arguably, incited the violence resulting in police action, can be seen leaving the scene following a physical altercation. Hate speech, racially motivated hate speech, and inciting violence are all crimes. This woman, however, walked away, was not pursued, and did not even have to witness the abuse her bigotry wrought.
The white teen who was handcuffed? Her treatment is also observably different from her Black counterpart who wound up on the ground with a grown man’s knee in her back. Although Grace Stone was undeniably wrongfully detained, she was kept on her feet, allowed to speak without being berated by obscenities, and watched over by her guardian. I’m not suggesting that any of this is OK, but it is markedly different to what was happening simultaneously to Dajerria Becton who lay on the ground screaming, having her hair pulled, and unable to receive aid from anyone.
Brooks, who filmed the police, remarked that the cops ‘didn’t even look at me. It was like I was invisible’. Since the death of Eric Garner, we have learned that attempting to film the police can be potentially dangerous, particularly for someone of color. But for a young white man, who, as I have already suggested, poses no threat in the mind of police because he is where he ‘belongs’, and because he constitutes the ‘norm’, filming an abuse of power left him totally unscathed. At no point did police try to detain Brooks, even though his actions were arguably more damaging to them than those of Grace Stone. What kind of privilege is being taken for granted here? What attributes are being presumed so normal as to go unseen because they can be conflated with those of the people in power? It is whiteness, and it is maleness.
I am horrified at the responses I have seen from some white people trying to defend the actions of the police, and to place the blame for these events on the Black children who ‘crashed’ the pool party. What orbit are you spinning in such that the common antics of teenagers, of children, warrants police brutality? How can you honestly think that a few kids, who may have been at a pool party to which they were not officially invited, were such a threat that they needed to have a gun pulled on them?
Now, ask yourself white reader, if you really truly believe that exactly the same things would have happened if a group of 15 or so white teenagers not from that neighborhood were the protagonists. Would that have solicited the same response from neighbors and police? Would anyone have even noticed? If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll say ‘no’. That’s white privilege.
If you’re less honest with yourself, and you’re screaming at me about homeowner’s fees, and keeping up the community, and maybe even keeping the community safe… I want to ask you if it is really that big of a fucking deal. Is it really so fucking upsetting to have a group of children swim in your pool for one afternoon at the end of their school year? Keeping your community safe? From what, exactly? What are you so afraid of?
That leads me to the last point: we need to talk about…
The Criminalization of Blackness
The final stretch of the video is perhaps the most terrifying because as Dajerria’s friends attempt to rush to help her, the white officer who has thrown her to the ground and kept her there by force, pulls his gun on unarmed, swimwear-clad teenage boys. Keep in mind he has ‘nine additional units’ standing around, monitoring the situation, and these kids are 14 to 15 years old. Please spare me whatever arguments you might have about police needing to think quickly, being rushed, blah blah. Do you know what I see in that video? I see other officers rushing in to INTERVENE with the cop who has pulled his gun, they come in not to defend him but to STOP him. What would possess this man to aim a loaded weapon at teens who he knows are armed with nothing more than a little petulance?
Moreover, what the hell is going on with tackling a 14 year old, bikini-clad girl to the ground, cuffing her, pulling her hair and kneeling on her? You can watch the video, none of them pose a threat, none of them present as attackers. They’re scared as hell and panicked about their friend. How could this have happened? There have been a lot of strong arguments recently about the state of the police force and the need to ‘de-militarize’ them, discussion that should be had and which, in some ways, links to my final concern, however in this context, I think the focus should lie elsewhere.
Important research has been conducted proving that ‘Black children are seen as older and less innocent than they actually are — particularly by cops’. The overestimation of the age of Black children, and thus, their assumed lack of innocence, is staggering in comparison to the estimations made of white children. ‘With the average age overestimation for black boys exceeding four-and-a-half years, in some cases, black children may be viewed as adults when they are just 13 years old’, study co-author Matthew Jackson noted. These types of biases have not only led to wrongful detainments and searches, but to physical violence. In this study:
Researchers surveyed 176 police officers, mostly white males in their late 30s, and found that cops who dehumanize black children are more likely to have used force against them. These police actions include anything from applying wrist locks, to striking the youth with blunt objects, to unleashing police dogs in their presence, to showering them with tear gas or even killing them.
This same type of discrepancy also exists in schools. According to New America:
Last year, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released a report that revealed shocking data about school discipline policies around the country. Nationally, black students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than white students, often starting at an early age. For instance, black children only represent 18% of preschool enrollment, but they represent 48% of preschool children receiving more than one out-of-school. The uneven use of suspension and expulsion is mirrored across K-12.
Of course the end result of this type of constant scrutiny and criminalization of black youth is a disproportionate population of Black people in prisons. This ‘trend’ has been identified by the ACLU as the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’. That means, we have enough evidence not only to identify this as a trend, but that it has become SO common as to warrant a name.
The children in McKinney are not criminals. They are Black. They are not criminals.
But the minute that police officer threw Dajerria Becton to the ground, she became a criminal for being a Black teenage girl in the ‘wrong’ neighborhood. Again, recall Grace Stone who attempted to actively stop the police, was not treated in the same way and her father was repeatedly assured that she ‘was not under arrest’. When Dajerria’s male friends rushed to help her, they had a gun pointed at them; as Twitter activist Feminista Jones pointed out, they were being taught that it was a criminal offence to try to help a young, Black woman.
The important thing to take away from this, if you are white, if you are anti-racist, if you care about Black lives, is that it is not enough to shake your head and sigh about ‘one bad cop’.
That is not enough.
This is about institutional racism, about a powerful, armed authority that has been proven to operate with serious biases and to abuse citizens for nothing more than existing. It is not enough to point out that there are ‘good cops’. Do not let that reality derail you. A handful of good individuals in the face of a corrupt institution doesn’t change the balance.
And it isn’t just about the police. It’s about all of us, white people. It’s about actually learning what racism is, how it evolves, how sophisticated and insidious it can be. Learn about it because we have to help change it. We have to look at the systems by which we have come to enjoy a disproportionate and unearned amount of privilege and work to change them if possible, or dismantle them if necessary. Be prepared for that, be open to it because we cannot go on hating other humans for being different. It makes us hateful, and hate-full.
Learn with me. Be better. Make a pledge to understand why Black lives DO matter.