Hearing the sirens
Talking about the weather, and race
Next Wednesday, July 5th, at noon, sirens will blare, piercing Minnesota skies with sharp warnings of impending danger, severe storms and all manner of natural and unnatural disasters, from toxic leaks to power plant failures.
Minnesotans know the drill, literally, about extreme weather. We can handle droughts, floods, straight-line winds, sub-zero and triple-digit temps. We’ve got basements for shelter from tornadoes, cold weather rules blocking utilities from shutting off heat and community cooling centers so people won’t overheat. Our phones beep updates about volatile storms.
We know what to do about weather.
We don’t know what to do about race.
Next Thursday, July 6th, marks one year since Philando Castile was killed. To many white people like me, the killing seemed shockingly out of the blue, a sudden squall that couldn’t be predicted. The jury’s verdict almost two weeks ago seemed nearly as stunning. The dash cam video shows Saint Anthony Park Police Officer Jeronimo Yanez shooting seven shots into a parked car with a 4-year-old in the backseat. Diamond Reynolds’ livestreamed Facebook video shows her boyfriend, Philando Castile, bleeding out. We watched a man dying in his car, and the man who shot him walked free.
Philando’s killing and the jury’s verdict weren’t fluke eruptions that came out of nowhere. Police killings and police not-guilty findings are as commonplace as summer rains. A day before Officer Jeronimo Yanez shot and killed Philando, two cops in Baton Rouge shot and killed Alton Sterling while they were holding him down. The day after a Minnesota jury found Officer Yanez not guilty in Philando’s killing, a Wisconsin jury found an ex-cop not guilty of killing Sylville Smith, a black man who was seen on video throwing his gun away, with his hands near his head.
How can we ignore the torrents of racism that have drenched our country? We knew about Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland and so many others. The casualties mount, still many people — white people — refuse to hear the alarms. People of color can’t ignore the warnings. They live buffeted by sometimes deadly cyclones of racism while whites carry on comfortably in our bubble, shielded by invisible umbrellas, an unacknowledged wall of whiteness between us and reality.
The fact is, we own racism just as surely as we own climate change. Humans have spread greenhouse gasses along with far more toxic waves of hate and fear. Yet many of us just duck our heads, ignoring the inconvenient truth of racism.
Many people now accept that climate change is real and that our actions — our cars, coal plants, comfortable consumer way of life — are responsible for rising temperatures and sea levels. We need to accept that racism is real and that our actions — our silence and our systems of slavery, Jim Crow, and incarceration— allow racism to continue.
So, what can we do to disrupt the deadly patterns of racism?
A good start is to accept that we whites will be uncomfortable. That’s why I’m writing about the weather. It’s a safe and familiar way to ease into a deeply difficult subject. We have so many ways to talk about weather. We need to find ways to talk about racism.
We need to open our eyes to what we didn’t learn in school. A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota, an anthology of essays by 16 Minnesota writers of color, edited by Sun Yung Shin, is an excellent eye-opener. Saint Paul writer Nora Murphy’s White Birch, Red Hawthorn weaves her Irish American family story and that of Native Americans who lived in Minnesota long before Murphy’s ancestors “settled” here.
The more I read, the more I see the aftermath from centuries of racism. We haven’t counted the victims. We haven’t asked questions. Why does our society view people of color, especially black men, as dangerous and threatening? How does that fear influence our individual behavior? How does that influence cops when they encounter people of color? How many people of color get tangled in the legal system for no good reason? How many are incarcerated? What perfect storm of circumstances must exist before a jury will find a cop guilty of killing a person of color? When we demand answers to those and other questions, we can begin disrupting the deadly cycle of racism.
We remember storms — Andrew and Irene, Sandy and Katrina. We need to remember people — Philando and Tamir, Sandra and Trayvon. We need to learn their stories. Say their names. Then say what we believe must happen next.
After Katrina and Sandy, communities planned what kinds of storm walls, dikes, and wetlands they could build to prevent destruction from future storms.
After Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Terence Crutcher and Keith Scott, what have we built? What are we doing to stave off the devastation of racism?
We made this weather, this hostile climate. We can seed the rain clouds, change the weather patterns. Change starts when we are willing to be on the lookout for racism as fiercely as storm spotters chase tornadoes. We are the ones who need to stop these storms.
Can you hear the storm sirens piercing the sky, warning of impending danger? Are you listening?