White America must make a choice: Which side of history do you stand on? Do you stand with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which allowed slave patrols to watch every neighborhood? Do you stand with the courts, police and juries that acquitted anyone accused of lynching a black person? Do you stand with the White Citizenship Councils who defended Jim Crow apartheid? Do you stand with the Klu Klux Klan, which was the first group to make the argument that the Voting Rights Act and affirmative action gave “special rights” to blacks, an argument that quickly became a rally crying for white Americans around the country?
Or do you stand with abolitionists Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison and Harriet Tubman who were routinely told that they were creating racial hostility and disturbing the natural order? Do you stand with journalist Ida B. Wells, whose research found that accusations of rape and theft used to justify lynching were false allegations time after time. Do you stand with Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Anne Braden, the Freedom Riders and the civil rights movement as they faced angry white mobs from Chicago to Alabama?
My nephews, five and seven years old, recently asked their grandmother during a trip to the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, “Nana, how could Christians have supported slavery?” It’s a heartbreaking question, and many of us who are white would respond by condemning slavery, as we should. But how often do we take the time to look back and wonder how people could have supported slavery and segregation? We are not just talking about the people who actively supported the practice, but also the people who, through their indifference and inaction, allowed these systems to continue. The argument is frequently made that segregation and slavery was just considered normal in those times, even though it is appalling to us now. But what isn’t as frequently said is that it was the resistance of Black Americans, people of color and white anti-racists who are the ones who challenged these injustices and won the institutional and cultural changes that render these systems appalling today.
Many white Americans often say that they would have been on the right side of history working for justice, or, at the very least, that they would not be on the wrong side by supporting the slave system and segregation. But it is easy to assume you would have been on the right side of history in retrospect. What is much more difficult is being on the right side of the history that is being made today, since we currently living in a normal that, in retrospect, is so clearly racist.
The Trayvon Martin murder and the verdict that acquitted George Zimmerman is only one example of today’s racial injustice. A recent report found that in 2012 a black man, woman or child was killed every 28 hours by police, security guards or vigilantes. What is striking is not that Trayvon Martin was racially profiled and killed for being black “in the wrong neighborhood,” but that his story is so tragically common. Even President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have spoken of the prevalence and dangers of racial profiling. Yet, while there are many white people outraged by and demonstrating against the verdict, there are many more who say that the whole situation is complicated, or that they both made bad decisions, or that Trayvon must have done something to deserve his own death.
It’s time to speak honestly. During all the historical eras to which we look back and question how people could have supported such violent racism, white people at the time said that the situations were too complicated, or that it was simply the way things were, or that a black person must have done something to deserve it.
Even when 14-year-old Emmitt Till was murdered by white men in 1955 for allegedly flirting with a white girl, many in the white community responded that, while the punishment may have been extreme, the boy did forget his place. Today, another murder has occurred, the verdict is in and white people have to choose what side of history we are on. This is our moment. Our character, values and legacies are shaped by the choices we make in the times we live in, not by the stands we imagine ourselves taking in the past. I believe in our ability to stand, in the millions, in the tradition of the abolitionists, the Freedom Riders, the Dream Act students, the Moral Mondays in North Carolina, the immigrant rights movement and the Justice for Trayvon Martin movement today.
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