We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor

– Desmond Tutu

Note: A version of this article was first published in Gazillion Voices magazine.

The Allure of Peace, Hugs, and Love

We often take the start of a new year to imagine different future. Recently, nationwide protests against recent police violence against black Americans have called for change, yet critics have suggested that the protests are too disruptive, not in the right venue, or are pointless. As the New Year begins, many Americans are hoping for peace and quiet while protesters—of all backgrounds—are hoping for peace and justice.

Since November 2014, sad and outraged protesters have assembled in cities across the nation, responding to three main events: On Nov. 24, 2014, a grand jury decided to not indict Ferguson, MO police officer Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown (even though he had his hands up). Two days earlier, Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehmann shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice within two seconds of arriving on the scene. Rice was holding a toy air pellet gun and died the next day. On Dec. 3 a Long Island grand jury decided to not indict officer Daniel Pantaleo for using an illegal chokehold that killed Eric Garner (even though the incident was captured on video and Garner repeatedly cried “I can’t breathe”).

In contrast to the “annoying” protests, you might have also seen the “Hug Shared Around the World,” which was a photo of 12-year-old Devonte Hart, who is black, hugging Sgt. Bret Barnum, a white police officer, at a Portland, OR protest. By early December, the original post of the photo generated more than 440,000 shares on Facebook alone (not to mention Twitter and other social media). Sgt. Barnum said he approached Devonte “not as a police officer, but just a human being.” The photographer, Johnny Nguyen, explained, “I knew it had something special, something powerful. It had a message I think everyone wanted to see.” For Nguyen, it was a message of hope, “We all have hurt in our heart, but we have to turn that hurt into hope, hope for humanity. We need to find a way to come together and find a common ground and find peace.”

The twist is that Devonte Hart is adopted by his two white mothers, Jennifer and Sarah Hart. In a Facebook post following the photo going viral, Jennifer explained that they went to the protest to “spread love and kindness.” The picture did not sit right with me. It was too simple and did not show the whole picture. It is one representation, one that extremely skews the realities of black and police interactions. What happened in Ferguson, what happens in cities across the nation, and what has happened throughout U.S. history cannot be healed with a hug alone. Nguyen was right: This is what Americans want to see because it is the easy way out. Let us hug and make up. Let us treat each other like human beings. This is a perfectly beautiful sentiment (for a playground lesson), but this picture and narrative becomes the dominant representation of “how things should be done.” Implicit in this message is the rejection of loud and disruptive protests. In fact, Nguyen stated that the images of Ferguson he had seen “all showed some violence and anger—some even to the point of hatred and destruction.” His photo, on the other hand, was the first to show “something positive” by capturing “humanity.”

Indeed, seeing the photo and reading about Devonte’s background and his story of that day is a tear-stained moment precisely because it is cathartic for white America. It makes us feel good about humanity and ourselves. It is easier to look at than pictures of dead black men or of angry protesters demanding change. Hope replaces anger; it replaces excessive force and death; it replaces an unjust legal system; and it replaces the requirement to do anything substantive, especially actions that would address the anger and protests. Instead, we can share the message of love and compassion.

This is not to dismiss love and hope. Together, they can help sustain a movement. But deployed in this way, they do quite the opposite. They reassure us that things will eventually change. If we just love a little stronger and show a little more compassion than black people will stop dying at the hands of police who assuredly strive to serve and protect everyone, just as Sgt. Barnum states.

This example, in both its adoption and non-adoptive contexts, parallels the historical practice of the adoption community. Love and simplicity have dominated adoption discourse and practice, but the conversations and what we do following them must be more advanced. (Ironically, Jennifer’s Facebook post suggests that she has a much more nuanced understanding of race in relation to her son, but unfortunately her actions undermine her own knowledge.) Inevitably, this will be more difficult.

Ferguson, the Dehumanization of Anti-Blackness, and Lives versus Property

Like many, I found myself asking (especially after seeing the above-mentioned photo), what does Ferguson (and all of the other deaths) mean for our supposedly “post-racial” society? More specifically, I wondered, what does it mean for the adoption community? The evidence suggests that it does not mean much. With rare exceptions, in all of my news reading and watching during November’s Adoption Awareness Month, I saw little mention of Ferguson and what lessons the community could learn from it. (See Aselefech Evans, Land of Gazillion AdopteesPACT Adoption Alliance, and this adoptive parent for examples of important contributions.)

This is to say, Ferguson should matter to our community, especially for adoption agencies and white parents raising black children. When transracially adopted black children become adults, they will not have the blanket of their family’s white privilege that helps protect them to some extent. Even before they are adults, black children and youth are seen as more dangerous and threatening than other youth. It matters right now. For other adoptive parents and non-black adoptees, it matters to us as well. In reality, it matters to all Americans. I recently explored why most people benefit from settler colonialism, and we could say the same thing about how most of us benefit from anti-blackness.

As associate professor Michael Jefferies states, anti-blackness “is about the debasement of black humanity, utter indifference to black suffering, and the denial of black people’s right to exist.” To focus on anti-blackness (rather than love and kindness) is a difficult and uncomfortable endeavor. To do so requires not only acknowledging structural and ideological forms of racism but also the unique nature of anti-blackness and our own roles in its existence.

Unfortunately, the little attention that the public has given to Ferguson is too often concerned with the wrong things. There is a tendency to half-heartedly sympathize with Brown, his family, and the protesters only to eventually insert a “Yeah, but ___.” Yeah, but why do the protesters have to riot? Yeah, but why are they looting stores and destroying their community? Yeah, but if he would have not stolen cigars or had given (former) officer Wilson some deference he would still be alive. Yeah, but we need to wait to see what the evidence says so we can be objective. Yeah, but he seems like a thug because there is a picture of him posing with a gun on Instagram (that was not actually Brown). Yeah, but it’s not really about race because it could happen to anyone (would it happen at the same rate, though?). Yeah, but what about black-on-black crime (it is actually very similar to and in some cases lower than rates of white-on-white crime)? Or yeah, but let me play devil’s advocate. The “Yeah, buts” distract from what actually happened—two black people were once again killed by police officers and those officers were not even indicted (let alone found guilty of anything). They, in effect, enable the status quo of anti-blackness to reinforce itself.

Many observers painted Michael Brown and the protesters with one brush. For them, Brown was a thug, criminal, and certainly no civil rights martyr. From Darren Wilson’s perspective, Brown was a “demonic” threat. One officer “keeping the peace” called Ferguson protesters “f*cking animals.” On Wilson’s “Go Fund Me” web site (which garnered more than $400,000 in donations), donators often left racist messages. One person who donated, with the fake user name “Michael Brown” wrote, “I want to apologize to Darren Wilson and the people of Ferguson for my bad behavior. I was a thug and would have taken a bullet sooner or later, most likely from one of my peers or someone defending themselves from violence I instigated again [sic] them. All Darren Wilson was save [sic] the community a lot of trouble. I hope to become a peaceful butterfly when I am reincarnated. Though the guys up here in limbo with me say I’ll likely become a cockroach or parasite of some sort.” Two others said, “Don’t let the savages win,” and “We appreciate your service in the animal control division of the Ferguson police department.”

In response to five St. Louis Rams football players showing solidarity to protesters by coming out of their stadium tunnel with their hands up, NFL legend Mike Ditka said, “I’m not sure they care about Michael Brown or anything else. This was a reason to protest and to go out and loot.” One Florida GOP staffer tweeted, “A suggestion for Ferguson—fire hoses. Grt big fire hoses, serious water pressure. Kn0ck those thugs over. They probly need a shower anyway [sic].” These are just some of the iterations in which black people are dehumanized, literally seen (and eventually treated) as subhuman.

Again, these examples show how society tends to simplify what is really complex. As many have articulated, the people who are angrily protesting are not rioting—they are uprising. To construct a dichotomy of “good” protesters and “bad” rioters is to ignore that the vast majority of protesters are peaceful and many have been locked, arm-in-arm, protecting businesses, while many of the rioters were (white) anarchists or other outsiders co-opting the protests. It also misses how the tanks, assault rifles, militarized police, and the National Guard created a war zone environment, attacking non-riot protesters and journalists with tear gas. As Mia McKenzie states, “Looting, too, is about power. When people have nothing and something happens to remind them, in a big way, that what little they do have can be taken away in an instant, including their lives and the lives of their children, they may reach for any semblance of power or control they can get. That might mean breaking a window or even starting a fire. It may mean taking something. Something you’ve been told you can’t have because you’re not human enough to live, let alone prosper.” Even MTV, awesomely, gets this.

At the end of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, the main character (Spike Lee) throws a garbage can through the window of the pizza place he worked at in response to the police killing a black man in the neighborhood. The audience is left wondering, why would he do that? And then you realize, what is more valuable—lives or property? I do not promote stealing or *unnecessary* violence, and I do not think that rioting is necessarily productive to the “cause,” but I refuse to judge such actions because I can see where they are coming from. It is coming from a point of dehumanization—being told and shown through countless actions that your lives matter less than others. Riot shaming is easy to do when you have a job, comfy home, and are not getting attacked/shot by police, but rioting and looting cannot be isolated in a vacuum. They are symptoms of social injustice and effects of certain human limits. It is not enough to say stop rioting and looting. We must address the actual problem.

Another issue of “respectability politics” suggests that we blame the victim for his death (not unlike slut shaming women who are sexually assaulted), especially if the person has a “suspect” past or is “disrespectful.” As Jasmine Banks says on respectability politics, “Unarmed college hopefuls don’t deserve to be shot. Unarmed kids heading to work or trade school don’t deserve to be shot. Unarmed kids floundering aimlessly through life don’t deserve to be shot. Unarmed kids who have been in trouble—even those who have been nothing but trouble—don’t deserve to be shot.” We could also say, “Yeah, but Brown charged at the officer and threatened him.” It was “justifiable” homicide. But, we actually do not know what happened. We do know that more witnesses said Brown ran away from Wilson and had his hands up than witnesses who said the opposite. But, most importantly, we do not know Brown’s version of the story because he is dead, which is a convenience that more than 400 officers experience each year. Sadly, we do know what happened in the Garner case because of video and audio evidence, but it still did not matter.

It is not just white folks who buy into respectability politics: lots of people of color and the nearly all of the media perpetuate it as well. Victims of police violence and protesters should not be required to wear their Sunday’s best in order to not be shot. We know that even if they did, it still would not matter. In many ways, “Yeah, but if they only did ___,” says much more about society than about the people who are protesting and uprising. To say, “Yeah, but I would do it this way” is to infuse white normality/privilege onto the situation when white normality/privilege is actually the problem.

Adoptees of color are often told that “You aren’t really ___,” or “You don’t act like ___” or “You’re the whitest ___ person I know.” The idea is that even though adoptees of color are not white, they are respectable because they have acquired “white” characteristics or do not possess “negative” characteristics of a nonwhite group. It is of course okay for adoptees to like what their parents like and pick up similar traits, but the adoption community must reject the notion that acting white is the solution. This carries over to how we in the adoption community analyze and express our own reactions to what is unfolding before us.

Let me be clear: Respectability, civility, rioting, and looting are the not the issues at hand. Buying into these things does not make a person a KKK racist, but it does support white supremacist logic that requires nonwhites to act white or “do as whites would do” in order to be considered a human life worth preserving.

Mythology of Modern Law

Twice I have taught a class at UC San Diego entitled “Law and Civil Rights,” but I really taught it as a “Race and Law.” The difference is the latter course title does not buy into the mythology of modern law as equal and just for all. Law is a fundamental institution that influences various aspects of social, economic, and political life. It is such an ingrained part of society that many of us forget that the law is actively made, and it changes to reflect society’s views on morality and justice. Instead, we buy into the myth that the law is universal, impartial, colorblind, and self-correcting. We buy into the ideas of democracy (that we all have an equal voice), meritocracy (that we all have equal opportunity and earn what we have), and humanity (that we are all humans and should be treated as such). While they are nice ideals, they are in no way a reality for our society.

Surveys following Ferguson show that black and white folks have radically different views on race, police, and inequality. One survey revealed that whites were more than twice as likely to see police as friends. They are 6.5 times less likely to feel the police have discriminated against them. Of blacks who were surveyed, 45 percent said yes to being discriminated against by the police. These match other studies and surveys that show whites are more likely to believe one black person’s success proves that racism no longer exists and see blacks as more racist than whites. They also believe racism is a zero-sum game and that they now experience more racism than blacks.

To be sure, a litany of statistics demonstrates the disturbing fact of institutionalized racism by police and other aspects of the law. Beyond the history of legal slavery, three-fifth’s personhood, Jim Crow, and de jure segregation, anti-blackness is still embedded in our “post-racial” society. From 2003-2009, there were an average of 420 arrest related deaths or “justifiable” murders by police officers (in 2013, there were 461). However, this number is most likely higher (estimated to be as high as 1,000) because of the 17,000 law enforcement agencies, only 750 reported data on police officer homicides. From the low 420 per year estimate, blacks were found to be nearly 4 times more likely to be shot and killed by a white police officer than their white counterparts. In 2012, at least two black people were killed by white police officers each week. This includes black women such as Tanisha Anderson, Aura Rosser, Yvette SmithEleanor BumpursAiyana Stanley-JonesTarika Wilson who are often forgotten because we equate black victims as only being black males. (For comparison, in all of 2013, 27 police officers died due to felonious acts.)

As we found out with Michael Brown, John Crawford III, Eric Garner, and so many others, everything can be made justifiable. Even in the Garner case where there was indisputable video and audio evidence the grand jury decided to not indict, which is extremely common for police homicides. (And despite the media narrative that federal civil rights investigation could bring justice, there is little chance of that happening.) Rather than be trained and required to de-escalate first, cops are given a lethal weapon and an automatic green light to shoot to kill if they feel “threatened.” Whether subconsciously or trained, police officers and trigger-sensitive vigilantes perceive black people to be a constant and imminent threat (even with “hands up”).

Further, countless studies and statistics unequivocally show racial disparities at every level of law enforcement and the criminal justice system. Black Americans (and Latinos) are more likely to stopped, frisked, searched, and arrested than whites despite being less likely to be in possession of drugs or other contraband. In NYC, more young black people were stopped and frisked in one year than actual young black people who lived in NYC. Blacks and Latinos are less likely to have adequate representation, go to trial (and more likely to plea bargain, even when innocent), and be judged by a jury of their peers. They are more likely than their white counterparts to be charged, found guilty, and receive a higher sentence for committing the same crime.

Police officers and the majority of Americans believe that if you do not challenge cops or break the law then you can “breathe easy.” I hope these statistics help tell the larger story that this is not true. Perhaps the larger point, though, is that black people should be more than statistics. Too often we see statistics of black disadvantage and think it is their own doing, but this is just another way they are dehumanized. At every point of intervention, they are disadvantaged, which shows that the (institutionally racist) system was not made by or for black Americans. We need to disabuse ourselves of the myth that the law is applied universally and justice (or people) is (color) blind.

The adoption community must also know that despite the middle to upper-middle class status of most adoptive families, black adoptees will eventually have to confront this context and reality. When they are adults, they will be unfairly judged and treated because of the way they look. As a community, we must make sure that we are not perpetuating the myth (or remaining silent) because doing so can have detrimental consequences.

If by this point, you still are not convinced that inequality is an intrinsic part of our social, economic, and political systems, then you should stop reading now. You will not be a part of the change that is needed and will be on the wrong side of history. You have just proven the point of how difficult it is for some folks to comprehend white privilege and anti-blackness. It also goes to show why black people have to continually assert their basic humanity and that #blacklivesmatter.

Beyond Individuals and Intent: Racism with a big R

Racism is not merely an isolated incident, specific failure, or lapse in judgment. Racism is insidious, embedded in, and comprehensive to the fabric of our society. It is also not about malicious intent. Do I believe that officers Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo intended or desired to kill Brown and Garner? Of course not, but there is a layered psychology that exists (e.g. shooter bias), which paints blacks as constant and imminent threats who are then deemed killable. Here, we should be less focused on the things individuals say (and even do) and whether or not there was racist intent. Instead, we need to be more focused on what are the effects as well as the conditions that allowed those things to be said or done in the first place? By moving away from individual acts of racism (with a little “r”) and intent we can understand the aggregate of systematic Racism (with a big “R”) and its effects.

To be clear, the protests are not against white people or even white cops (because cops of color also are part of a system that uses excessive and deadly force.) They are about systems of institutionalized inequality, privilege, and the differential value of life based on the construction of race.

For these reasons, our scope needs to expand. This is not just about Michael Brown. He is representative of the larger problem. What conditions and context exist that allow for white police officers to justifiably kill black people at a higher rate than anyone else with impunity? How does and has our silence contribute(d) to the larger historical and contemporary conditions and context?

While we are distracted by individualized and indisputable acts of hate in the form of hate crime legislation, white rage, resistance, and retrenchment are and always have been unfolding before our “colorblind” and “post-racial” lives. As folks place all of their negative attention on “black rage,” Carol Anderson points out that white rage goes unmarked and does not have to take to the streets. It is manifests in areas such as gerrymandering to weaken black voting precincts; voter ID laws that disproportionately affect people of color who do not have identification; drastic cuts to the public sector that has historically served as a place of employment for blacks and other people of color. Anderson states, “[W]hite rage doesn’t have to take to the streets and face rubber bullets to be heard. Instead, white rage carries an aura of respectability and has access to the courts, police, legislatures and governors, who cast its efforts as noble, though they are actually driven by the most ignoble motivations.” Anderson provides historical examples: After the Civil War, there were the Black Codes, Jim Crow, and lynching. After Brown v. Board of Education, many government officials beyond George Wallace explicitly resisted desegregation. After President Obama was elected, state governments continued to defund public education, and in 2013, the Supreme Court struck down part of the Voting Rights Act because “things have dramatically changed” in the South.

It is in the context that having a white sounding name on your résumé means you are two times more likely to receive a call back than same résumés with black sounding names. Even more, whites with a fictitious criminal record were just as likely or more likely to receive a call back than a black applicant who had no record. It is in the context of continued housing discrimination, school segregation, and disproportionate punishment for primary and secondary students of color in the form of suspensions, expulsions, and arrests (even for black children as young as three-years-old).

Being black also means you have a different relationship with police and the public in general. It means that the gesture of hands up, don’t shoot can still be threatening. It means many black parents teach their black children to give police officers a “play-by-play” of their basic actions so they are not misinterpreted as threatening. It means if you have a toy gun you can be shot and killed within seconds of arrival while white folks who display a real gun and threaten police officers may (or may not) be arrested. A black man was confronted by police because he had his hands in his pocket; a prominent Harvard professor (who has a show on PBS – “Finding Your Roots”) was confronted by cops when he tried to “break into” his own home; just the other day a black man whose daughter was having a severe asthma attack was shot because of expired car plates. In September, a black man was shot while following instructions to get his drivers license. In non-police killings, people have shot and killed black people for being injured and asking for help, for playing loud music, and for wearing a hoodie while holding ice tea and skittles.

On top of this, black men and women are more likely to be un(der)represented in television, movies, advertising, books, video games, and the media as complex and positive figures. Instead, popular representations centralize poverty, criminality, and unemployment along with negative traits such as being lazy, angry, abusive, unfit spouse or parent, hypersexual, immoral, selfish, unhealthy, etc. Similarly, black youth are seen as adults (and possible threats) rather than innocent children. These racial representations reinforce and “explain away” the structural inequalities, while the structural disparities reinforce how society perceives blacks as undeserving, criminals, and threats.

Black rage (beautifully expressed by Lauren Hill) is valid because anti-blackness is real. We in the adoption community should not be dismissive of the anger and rage coming from within and beyond the black community. Anti-blackness is not a made-up thing. It is dangerous and ultimately can be deadly.

Conclusion: Breaking Our Silence and What is Next?

Many white progressives and even people of color have lacked an audible let alone coherent voice on this historical moment. Even more so, many of us in the adoption community may be vocal on some issues, but reticent to speak out on this one. We might feel like we do not know enough about the Ferguson, or that it does not apply to us. We might also be silent because we do not think that a problem exists or that we are part of the problem (let alone the solution) because we do not “see race” (which admittedly is easier to do when you are self-segregated from black folks). It is true that you did not kill Michael Brown just as it is true that you probably do/did not own slaves, but white people and many non-black folks have benefited from slavery and anti-blackness. And despite not “seeing color” or harboring overt anti-black attitudes, people’s ignorance, silence, and lack of empathy without a doubt contribute to the violence perpetrated against the black community.

Indeed, the philosophies of colorblindness and multiculturalism that are often espoused in adoption discourse and utilized in practice (e.g. the Multiethnic Placement Act of 1994) effectively hide the way in which power and racism operate. Every time we teach children the philosophy of colorblindness, tell subjugated communities to “have faith in the system,” or state that #AllLivesMatter (instead of #BlackLivesMatter) we ignore how meritocracy, democracy, universality, and the law do not apply equally for all of us. Admitting that racism and anti-blackness exist is difficult. Admitting that we are a part of that system and/or benefit from the system is even more difficult. But imagine being on the other end. That again is privilege—not having to live through and then endlessly fight against your dehumanization.

The only reason I have not exploded in rage is because I have an infant daughter who makes me smile and laugh. I have that beauty and luxury in my life. But this is how I benefit from anti-blackness. My daughter is alive, and I do not have to worry about her safety as much as others. I can choose to focus on other things.

On Anti-Blackness 2

We are a part of the conditions and context that have allowed this violence to continue unabated. If all this makes you sick, then it is time to do something about it. The privilege that white adoptive parents have is a fact, but whether you defend that privilege or not is a choice. What is unfolding right now matters to all of us, and it is our job to understand how it matters.

We must realize that anti-blackness is not a problem just for black people (just as racism is not a problem only for people of color). We should be part of the conditions in which anti-blackness is challenged and dismantled. Otherwise, critical accounts of history will remember those who were silent and how that silence (or “neutrality”) helped maintain the status quo.

The thing is, we need to listen first before we break our silence instead of going into a situation thinking that we know what needs to be said. White folks and other people of color can contribute by stepping up and then stepping back, which is to say, we must not be silent, but it also is not our place to overtake the movement. For example, we should be sharing #AliveWhileBlack more than #CrimingWhileWhite, even as the latter is useful to start the conversation. If we are at a rally where protesters are shouting, “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!” we should be chanting the phrase, but not doing the gesture (unless we would also likely be shot by police). Essentially, we must support the movement without centering ourselves (this parallels calls to let adoptees have more voice and leadership in shaping adoption discourse and practice).

It takes a lot of courage to say something or to do something. Having attended, spoken at, and led multiple protests, I know that it is not easy. It takes courage to be out there. To march. To shout in unison. To be watched. To be judged. To be potentially harassed. It is easier to believe in rainbows, unicorns, and hugs while pretending that the system is pretty fair and maybe just a little “unlucky.” This way you do not have to do anything. I hope we, as a community, find the same courage as these youth to not be silent.

More than 150 cities have held protests relating to Ferguson, New York, Cleveland, and the many other incidents since. While most of the protesters have been black, we must also take note that countless non-black protesters have taken to the streets in solidarity. Protesters have stopped traffic (making people ponder that relatively minor disruption in relation to the disruption of having a family member murdered by police officers) and staged die-ins. Students have walked out. Countless athletes have controversially donned “I Can’t Breathe” shirts. Despite the lack of media attention, folks are organizing locally to make numerous and specific demands for reform. While reforms will not change an institution built on racism, they can still have a meaningful effect. Protesters, communities, and organizations such as Black Youth Project 100 are trying to end “jump outs,” create stronger community police review boards, end zero tolerance policies and police presence on schools, and decriminalize marijuana.

Some people in this country #can’tbreathe and too many people can’t see this reality. I hope we ring in the New Year with critical awareness and agitation so we can get closer to peace and justice for everyone.


Image Credit:”Rena Schild / Shutterstock.com” (Both pictures are by Rena Schild).