Rosa Parks never condemned the violence of riots and rebellions.
We remember Parks as the mother of the movement known for “turning the other cheek.” But we may not know she refused to denounce the people who broke glass and set buildings on fire in Detroit in 1967, though white journalists repeatedly tried to get her to do so. Parks mourned the reality that those fires harmed Black neighborhoods more than they succeeded in reigning in white violence. But she remained steadfast in her belief that if white supremacy’s chokehold was so tight fires were all a community had, then so be it. That kind of rebellion was better than quietly living with injustice. As she put it in 1971, “regardless of whether or not any one person may know what to do about segregation and oppression it’s better to protest than to accept injustice.”
White people like me, who are horrified at the prospect of a second term for Donald Trump, need to get clear about this historical fact. For we have an urgent civic responsibility in the next seven weeks. We have to talk directly, intentionally and regularly with other white people about what it was Rosa Parks so deeply understood.
As encounters between powerful movements for racial justice on the one hand, and police departments and citizen vigilantes on the other, escalate into violence — most recently in Kenosha, Wisconsin — Trump’s biggest campaign play is clear is for the “good white voters.”
I’m using the phrase tongue-in-cheek of course.
But I’m talking about the grandparents and sisters, the brother-in-laws and next-door neighbors, the sweet white mom whose kid goes to our kids’ schools. I’m talking about the people who get my home state — which also happens to be a swing state — described with phrases like “Iowa nice.”
It’s these good white people keeping me up at night. I’ve seen the polls and heard the discussions in spaces where white people demographically dominate and I know lots of these folks have been, to this point, poised to vote against Trump on November 3rd, 2020. I’ve even heard a surprising number of them acknowledge the existence of anti-black racism for the first time and, after the eruptions in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, even offer expressions of sympathy about racism’s intractability, some understanding of why people have been in the streets.
But even as they don’t love, or even like, the 45th president, even if they find him crass and less-than-qualified, even though they’re enraged at his failure on covid-19, these same are folks most at risk of being lured into reelecting Trump because they’re so easily seduced by “law and order” talk.
As protestors refuse to retreat and some resistance manifests as destruction of property, I can feel the ancient and familiar phrases like “yes racism is wrong, but there must be a better way to protest” beginning to press at the borders of white discourse. From there, what comes next is the rhetoric that began to swell out of the Republican National Convention — Michael Pence’s declaration “the violence must stop!” and “we will have law and order on the streets of this country for every America” — and is amplified daily everty time Trump tweets or talk, will become strangely compelling to the same good white people who were preparing to vote for Joe Biden only a moment ago.
We cannot let this happen. And we don’t have to: the way life is organized in this very segregated nation, even teh most liberal white people (like me) have lots of access to these “good white people.” They’re in our families and neighborhoods. They sit beside us at church (or, now, in a box next to us on a screen). They’re in our professional organizations and our children’s schools.
So, instead of venting our anxieties about November by generically shouting “be sure you vote” into social media voids, pick up the phone say, “Hi mom, I want to talk with you about Kenosha.”
Yes, we actually need to ask our next door neighbor what she thinks about Rev. Erik David Carlson, the pastor of a parish in Kenosha that almost burned having said, “While we are relieved that our church home mostly survived the inferno in the lot next door, we affirm that we would rather lose 100 buildings than one more life to police violence.” We need to ask our dads if they understand why professional athletes, following the Milwaukee Bucks lead, refused to play two weeks ago.
And then, even if any of these folks get mad, or especially if what they say makes us mad, we’ve got to keep talking. We must keep the conversation going so insistently that it gets harder and harder for them to hear and respond to the dog whistles that are going to get louder with each passing day.
Talking about race explicitly is newer for lots of us white folks. So we might struggle to find the words. There might be things we don’t know. New muscles we need to grow. But that’s okay, we need to keep talking anyway.
Humanize what’s happening to Black people right now. Talk frankly about why, of course, sometimes protest morph into other forms that can sometimes be violent. (Dumping tea into the harbor only gets you so far with the likes of King George.) Explain that white supremacy’s very existence is the original violence in each of these situations. Ask them to imagine the devastation of the loss of a father, sister, mother or friend to state violence that is not only unjustified but continues unchecked and with no accountability. Invite them to imagine the courage and grief and anger that must be present for anyone to be in the streets during a pandemic, knowing they are also risking being attacked by tear gas shot by police, or even worse now we know, white men in fatigues with big guns.
Ask them their fears and share yours. Find out what they are confused about and offer possible responses. In short, make the complicity of white silence and political “don’t ask, don’t tell,” impossible. So that maybe, just maybe, these same folks will remain as poised to vote against the current occupant of the White House in the next two months as they have been for the last ten.
If all these approaches fail, and you find you can’t get any traction, then remind those folks of Rosa Park. Ask those white people if they can really live with themselves if they vote against the very communities Ms. Rosa Parks, the hero we all claim we respect, worked her whole life to defend and journey with in the work of securing justice long overdue — regardless.