How one white guy’s perspective on race in the USA changed from Ferguson to Jefferson City
When I decided to join the NAACP’s “Journey for Justice: Ferguson to Jefferson City” on the eve of the grand jury decision not to indict Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson, this journey, at least for me, didn’t start about race. While I was certainly concerned that young black men were being killed by white police officers at an alarming rate, I was more disturbed by the militarization of police forces, their actions against protestors, and the failure of the justice system.
“This is not about one person or event,” I posted on Facebook. “This is about America and being an American. This is not about black or white… This is about our system and its abuse of power.”
Considering who I am today, my naiveté should surprise no one.
I am white. I am thirty-three years old. I am tall, middle class, and highly educated. As an adjunct professor at the University of Colorado, I do not have a single black student. I have published a book of poetry and edited dozens more.
Of course it wasn’t about race for me; race, I thought, was not part of my everyday life. But that hasn’t always been true.
The child of civil rights and anti-war activists, I was raised in a poor, mixed-raceneighborhood in Nashville, Tennessee. My parents bought the house they still live in three weeks after I was born for $30,000. Break-ins were common, as were substance and domestic abuse. My sleep was interrupted by wailing sirens, and I was pulled over in my clunky, butter-yellow 1981 Datsun for countless non-existent ailments: “malfunctioning” taillights, non-expired tags, not coming to a full stop at a stop sign when, in fact, I had…
White or black, it was a tough place to grow up. It got even harder the day my father rebuked me for using the N-word.
Some of the white kids and I were building a raft to float the storm drains beneath the neighborhood. While I had joined them for the adventure (I was reading Huckleberry Finn at the time), their plan was to find our way to “Ni**ertown,” the projects a mile down Charlotte Avenue that were almost exclusively black. As we were nailing empty milk jugs to two-by-fours, I used the term as freely as they until my father called me into his office and explained the meaning of the word.
That afternoon in the storm drains when I tried explaining why we shouldn’t say the N-word, my “friends” abandoned me, leaving me in the wet darkness. My small world closed in on me over night.
When I walked down the street to find a game of kickball, white kids yelled “Ni**er Lover!” and threw rocks from the monkey bars. At school, it seemed I was the target of every angry white kid’s fist—I have thick scars across my eyebrows and knuckles to prove it—and the black kids had enough to deal with, let alone having the back of a skinny white kid.
My first book of poetry is largely about this experience, and I often tell friends about my childhood. Yet, when I learned of the Michael Brown verdict, I was more angry for myself and for Americans in general than for my black brothers and sisters visited daily by this plague.
Despite my background, despite my intimate knowledge of racism and the anger and violence that come with it, I was naïve enough to think the march was more about our justice system than about being black in white America.
The Journey for Justice changed that.
While we encountered kind supporters on the march who brought us coffee, water, doughnuts, hand warmers, orange vests, prayers, and signs that read “Black Lives Matter” and “We LOVE Ferguson,” they were few compared with those who were against us.
Outside Union, two teenagers drove by yelling,
“Get out of the goddamn road, you fucking ni**er re*ards!”
In Gerald, a man in a truck slowed to say,
“Looks like I’ll be eating ni**er tonight.”
Outside a gas station in Gray Summit, a retired military man stuck his finger in the NAACP’s septuagenarian Mary Ratliff’s face, yelling,
“You’re just a worthless ni**er.”
Signs along the route said “Get a job” and “Go home, ni**ers.” Just west of Gerald, a man got out of his car with a “CANT FIX STUPID” sign, chanting “KKK, KKK, KKK.”
At first, many of us marchers were alarmed by the “Kill Thieves” signs and use of the N-word, but after a few hours, we learned to brush the racist naysayers off our backs, to wave at those giving us the finger, and to shake hands with folks screaming at us from the medians. In Rosebud, where the hate and poison came to a climax, we marched straight ahead, eyes fixed on the western horizon, silent.
The Journey for Justice taught me that what’s going on in this country is as much about race and race relations as it is about the militarization of our police forces. It is as much about race as it is about due process. It is as much about race as it is the relationship between law enforcement and the public. It is as about race as it is about democracy itself.
If you are black in America, there are many people who hate you; there are many people who will do violence against you; there are many people who will target you for their violence. It’s only natural that a sliver of police officers be part of that group.
This is what the Journey for Justice taught me. But the march also taught me about the importance of community in a time of struggle, something black America has known for generations.
My parents tried to teach me to cope like this when I was a child. Perhaps, if I’d had a community like that of the march, I could have.