I watched the movie Just Mercy recently. Even going in knowing the ending it’s still a tough movie to get through. It recounts the story of a Black man named Bryan Stevenson after he left Harvard Law in order to move down to Alabama and found the Equal Justice Initiative. The major case the movie follows is of Walter "Johnny D." McMillian, a Black man who was framed for the murder of a white woman and sentenced to death. The whole thing is pretty intriguing, especially since it's not only based on true events but starts off into the late '80s and goes into the early '90s, but here’s where I need you to follow.
Bryan Stevenson easily and pretty quickly realizes that Johnny D. had been framed and couldn’t have committed the murder. He presented the evidence thinking it would be an open and shut case to dismiss and was met with resistance every single step of the way. Without spoiling the entire movie (and book), I will say it was a rollercoaster of emotions to watch all of it unfold over several years. However, no matter how right Mr. Stevenson was and no matter how much compelling evidence, he was denied by just about every white person he ran into in a position of power to keep Johnny D. locked up. It wasn’t until the very last moments that there was a change of heart on behalf of one person on the prosecution to finally give Mr. McMillian the justice he deserved.
Which brings me to the heart of this piece. Racism = Prejudice + Power. As such, it is a completely preventable and solvable problem by white people and white people only. And while I knew this before, watching that movie put it into complete context for me.
Prejudice is one thing we can all share in. We prejudge people based on myriad factors from tattoos, hairstyles, gender, accent, and of course, skin color. What we do with that prejudice matters but to the extent of what we can do matters most. This is why there’s a difference between prejudice and racism and why the dictionary definition recently needed to be updated. Racism kicks in when that prejudice is combined with the power to do something to others based on preconceived notions regardless of intent. This is because not only are white people the majority in this country and others, but they’ve also put themselves as the primary rulers in all forms of authority and business.
“Black people account for about 12% of the U.S. population, but occupy only 3.2% of the senior leadership roles at large companies in the U.S. and just 0.8% of all Fortune 500 CEO positions, according to the analysis by the Center for Talent Innovation, a workplace think tank in New York City.”
“Despite white men comprising only 31 percent of the population, 97 percent of all Republican elected officials are white and 76 percent are male. Of all Democratic elected officials, 79 percent are white and 65 percent are male, according to the study.”
This means that, currently, the population, all major political positions, business leaders, and the police are all controlled by white people. What this means is that when Black Jamal calls white Jimmy a ‘cracker,’ it can be prejudice. Saying this can hurt feelings and maybe Jamal can tell some people about Jimmy and his ways but on a systemic level, it will only go so far. However, if Jimmy calls Jamal the N-word, it’s going to hold more weight, yes, even as a poor person. Jimmy has more of a chance to falsify a statement against Jamal and the police are more likely to believe him. Jimmy can know a business owner who can deny Jamal a job. Jimmy can use his whiteness against Jamal’s Blackness easily. Jimmy can use Jamal’s Blackness against him. The movie Just Mercy was about this very thing. Powerful white people subjugating a Black man for years based on the testimony they coerced from a poor white man for a false sense of law and order. And I’m sure we all know this situation in different ways. It’s more than common, it’s standard. Systemic racism means that racism is built into the laws and how our country operates. Remove every person, add in new ones and the same things will happen. It’s a vicious cycle.
Black people cannot solve racism or white supremacy (so tell Terry Crews and his Black supremacy nonsense to shut up) because we’re not the reason it exists or continues. Those Black conservative commentators who swear that racism isn’t a factor because they’re liked by white people aren’t telling the truth at all. White people like them because they’re sitting around praising them and selling out the majority of Black America. They’re sucking up so much that they like to ignore the fact that white conservatives and those wanting to ignore racism will go to them because they like white people, not because white people like Black people. You shouldn’t have to suck up to white America for them to respect you or give you rights. You’re allowed to disagree with someone and still give them a fair shot at things. I don’t respect those people I refuse to name because they’re not telling the truth about the Black experience when those in power are quick to judge them until they start doing the dance. And as nice as you can be, it still won’t save your life. Ask Elijah McClain.
When white people hear that they’re all racist, they need to understand that it’s not because of anything that they knowingly did. You can knowingly take advantage of that fact but it’s not something you asked for. White people are taught, like the rest of us, to act with prejudice, and due to their whiteness, have the power to have that prejudice work for them. That’s it. It’s hard to deny a privilege when the majority of people look similar to you across a nation. When I lived with my parents, I had the privilege of being their child and so they would protect me based on that bond. If I’m at a family reunion and something pops off with uninvited guests, my family will protect me as being one of them. This happens with coworkers, a union, hell, even a bowling league. None of these people have to be rich (which white people conflate with privilege) but they do all have to be alike. So to think that an officer, businessman, or politician who looks like you will not give you a benefit they won’t give others who do is ludicrous. We all do it to some degree, it’s just that the non-white sections don’t get that same benefit due to a lack of power.
Even with the Latinx community about to outnumber whites in America, white people still hand their businesses over to family members and elect other white people to positions of power. They gerrymander districts across county lines to target a majority of votes for them. They started off in power and continue to maintain power in perpetuity. Any white person with any sway fighting for the justice of others is usually seen as going against the grain, not with it. Abolitionists and those claiming to be anti-racist now are not seen as the norm, they’re the exception. This is why they’re met with such resistance and aren’t just seen as the default for American. Remember, whiteness is the default or else there wouldn’t be a designation for African-American, Asian-American, etc. And no matter how nice, how much truth, how much convincing, and how much logic the rest of us hyphenated-Americans have on our side, it means nothing compared to the sway of even one white person in power, let alone all or most of them. Ask Bryan Stevenson and Johnny D.
Racism is a problem solvable directly by white people. No other race has the benefits or power over it. We are not the majority and overwhelmingly are not allowed to run the institutions of this country. If the rest of us have to convince you to do the right thing, then the onus isn’t on us. The rest of us aren’t seen as mattering.
And don’t get me started on All Lives Matter...yet.