White folks–are you woke?
During the Vietnam War, the term was “consciousness raising.” People who weren’t directly connected to the brutality in Southeast Asia via a family member or a job found little reason to care…until somehow their consciousness was raised. Maybe it was that famous photograph of the My Lai Massacre, all those dead villagers in a ditch. Maybe it was simply the stark rise in Walter Cronkite’s nightly death count. Or those white college kids getting shot at Kent State. But once that tipping point was reached, the war became an acknowledged mistake, a heartache, a cause for redemption ever since.
Black people have a briefer term for having one’s consciousness raised: “woke.”
I’ve been pondering this term since the verdict came down from the Philando Castile case in St. Anthony, Minnesota recently. You remember Castile, right? The Black man who was shot by police?
Damn, I wish that were funny.
Anyway. Castile was shot exactly a year ago, in his car, with his partner, Diamond Reynolds,and her four year-old daughter, watching. Ms. Reynolds captured the immediate aftermath on her phone. Those of us who watched it felt sick.
But the officer who fired those seven shots was put on trial for manslaughter. When the jury saw what we’d seen, justice would surely be served. Right?
Wrong. Three weeks ago, the jury acquitted Officer Jeronimo Yanez. He was let go by the force, but the point of the trial wasn’t punishment. The point was redemption. Instead, the not-guilty verdict left me feeling more hopeless than I can remember feeling about the future of my country.
Trevor Noah (who isn’t an American but who IS a Black man who’s already been stopped by police multiple times in his few years in this country) speaks my heart:
Laura Bradley of Vanity Fair captures Noah’s stark emotional response better than I can:
And then, Noah got to the most heartbreaking detail of all: for years, the hypothetical solution to murky police shootings was body cams—because in theory, video footage would resolve any lingering questions people might have. “And black people have already taken that initiative, right?” Noah pointed out. “Thanks to cell phones, every black person has a body cam now. Black people have been saying for years, ‘Just give us an indictment. Just an indictment. Just get us in front of a jury. Just in front of a jury of our peers. Of our fellow citizens. We’ll show them the video, the evidence, and they will see it, and justice will be served.’ And black people finally get there, and it’s like, ‘Wait, what? Nothing?’ You hear the stories, but you watch that, and forget race. Are we all watching the same video? The video where a law-abiding man followed the officer’s instructions to the letter of the law and was killed regardless? People watched that video and then voted to acquit? And the saddest thing is, that wasn’t the only video that they watched.”
Noah then played part of the video that Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds,posted live on Facebook soon after watching Castile get shot next to her in the car. Now, just like before, the most striking and gut-wrenching detail is the composure with which Reynolds addresses the situation, and the officer who caused it.
“‘You shot four bullets into him, sir,’“ Noah said, quoting Reynolds. “It’s fucking mind-blowing that Diamond Reynolds has just seen her boyfriend shot in front of her. She still has the presence of mind to be deferential to the policeman. In that moment, the cop has panicked, but clearly black people never forget their training.”
So, what does it say that a jury was able to watch both of those videos in a courtroom and decide that the officer, Jeronimo Yanez—who, since the verdict, has been dismissed by the St. Anthony, Minnesota police department—was justified in fearing for his own life? Noah gave his own unambiguous verdict: “Let’s be honest. Why? Why would you say he was afraid? Was it because Philando Castile was being polite? Was it because he was following the officer’s instructions? Was it because he was in the car with his family? Or was it because Philando Castile was black?
“It’s one thing to have the system against you—the district attorneys, the police unions, the court. That’s one thing. But when a jury of your peers, your community, sees this evidence and decides that even this is self-defense, that is truly depressing. Because what they’re basically saying is, ‘In America, it is officially reasonable to be afraid of a person just because they are black.’“
I started this post with a term: consciousness-raising. Here’s another: white privilege.
White privilege is the equivalent of not having to know what’s going on in Vietnam. If you’re white like me, you can afford not to know about Philando Castile (or Freddie Gray, or Alton Sterling, or…). Sure, I heard about the verdict when it came out, and I was startled, but I was also very busy. Didn’t get around to thinking about it right away. ‘Cause I could afford not to.
Now I’m thinking about it. Now I’m woke. Now I feel sickened. “In America, it is officially reasonable to be afraid of a person just because they are black.”
Is that where we are? Is that where we’re going to stay? Black outrage clearly means nothing in this country. So what about white outrage? Shall we try some of that? What would that look like?
What would America look like if white people like me got woke?