Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Just Because a Black Man Said it Doesn't Mean You're Not Racist

Editor's Note: I am not going to go into the complexities of the systematic racism and historical inequities that the unrest in Ferguson represents. Nor am I going to go into the nuances of white privilege and how our blindness to it perpetuates racism. And I will not address the efficacy of property destruction as a form of protest. Killer Mike, Jaeah Lee, Carol Anderson, Manic Pixie Dream Mama, Peggy McIntosh, Jesse A. Myerson and José Martín have all done a much better job of addressing these issues and I encourage you to look at what they have to say. Lastly, my pen name is Erasmus P. Sinclair, and my birth name is Brian Scott Lehrer. I stand by these words I write as both Brian Scott Lehrer and Erasmus P. Sinclair. I accept the responsibilities that I have to the public when exercising my right to free speech. 

With the decision by a grand jury not to bring charges against police officer Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown I've seen the expected flood of vitriol, ignorance, and hatred coming from white people incensed by the unrest in Ferguson. The protestors are being called uncivilized, animals, criminals, and other such dehumanizing things. I see people commenting on social media about how white people never riot over anything and always work within the system to redress grievances. However, with this most recent development in the Michael Brown murder I'm noticing a lot of white people sharing posts and videos on social networks created by people of color who don't feel that racism is a systemic problem in America anymore, and that the onus is solely on African Americans to rectify their status in our society. I don't doubt that these ideas and feelings are well thought out and sincere. I don't presume to question the efficacy the myriad ideas and opinions being debated within the African American community. What I do question is the sincerity of those Caucasian Americans sharing these posts in their claims of not being prejudiced.

Unfortunately, the sharing of these posts does not strike me as being motivated by an honest attempt to spark a civil dialogue about racism in America. One need only look at the comment threads below these posts to come to such a conclusion. As a white person I've had more than my share of discussions with other white people in which they try to justify their biases with the old "I've got a black friend that agrees" trope. Sharing posts by African Americans condemning other African Americans strikes me as the same thing. This is the digital version of the 'my black friend' argument. The 'my black friend' argument is called the 'friend' argument by, and defined thusly:
The friend argument is an argument used by people who want to claim knowledge about and/or sympathy with a group, by referring to their "friends" belonging to this group. It is commonly used to clear and absolve oneself from suspicion of racism, xenophobia, or other kinds of prejudice. It is a particular form of the "Not prejudiced, but..." statement.
I don't believe that all people who use the 'my black friend' argument are actually racist. I think it is more likely that they are unaware of their biases and privilege. This is something that many white people experience, even those of us that have taken up the cause of social justice. Biases by their very nature are very hard to detect within oneself, so prejudices which arise from these biases are equally hard to detect. It's not a problem if you haven't yet worked to detect these biases. But it is a problem if these concepts have been explained to you and you choose to ignore their implications.

In this instance (the popular use of digital 'my black friend' argument on social networks) people are unaware of several dynamics that are occurring when using this argument. Firstly, the arguments made in many of the posts being shared are the same exact arguments that were used historically by whites in power to justify slavery and Jim Crow. They are the same arguments that are used today by the white supremacy movement. Just because some members of an oppressed group happens to agree with those arguments does not necessarily justify or support those arguments. It just shows us that this specific group is just as diverse in thought as any other. Secondly, by sharing these posts you are at the very least tacitly endorsing those ideas, unless you state otherwise at the time of posting. Hence, you are a member of a privileged group making the same old arguments made historically by past oppressors to justify their injustice; and you're doing it while wearing the mask of that oppressed group. Lastly, you're inserting yourself into a discussion you were never invited it to. Jamie Utt puts it very well in the post 4 Reasons White People Can't Use the N-Word. Although the author is speaking specifically of use of the n-word I think it's apt with regards to the 'my black friend' argument:

No matter how long that conversation goes on in Black communities, though, White people do not get to take part.  I’m sorry.  As the ones from whom the word of violence and oppression must be reclaimed, we do not get to have a word in that conversation.  Plain and simple. . . The question being asked is, in essence, the epitome of White Privilege.  As White folks, we tend to think that every door should be open to us, every conversation should be ours, every space should welcome us.  We think this way because, when it comes to racialized spaces, that tends to be the case.  We have the privilege of having our voices heard and our presence recognized in just about every space there is.  Thus, we HATE IT when we are told that we are not actually welcome in a conversation.  But here’s what we need to understand: we’re the only people that get the privilege of access to whatever racialized space we want. . . Just because we are not welcome to use one word in the English language does not mean that we are being 
discriminated against.  It means that we, rightfully, need to shut up and listen.
Making the 'my black friend' argument does not necessarily mean you are racist, but it does reveal an ignorance of aspects of our history and of the lived experiences of African Americans, past and present. That does not mean you are dumb or bigoted. All it means is that you received the same poor education in history that most American's have received, and that like most white Americans you likely have not been broadly exposed to African American communities.

However, there is one post that is going around in the guise of the 'my black friend' argument that reveals not only bias and ignorance, but overt racism. Titled "An Old Black Veteran Speaks His Mind" this is a contempt filled, hateful, blatantly racist screed supposedly written by an 83 year old African American veteran on his death bed. The author uses the n-word practically as a form of punctuation and spews nothing but hate and contempt for black people. It's reminiscent of the worst filth spewed by the segregationists and Klansmen of the Jim Crow era. According to the source of this letter cannot be verified. The editors at concluded that:
By November 2014, it seems concerns about the anonymity of the e-mail hampered its spread, as a name became attached to the commentary: William G. Lillas. For months, the remarks circulated without attribution, and it's not clear how the name "William G. Lillas" adhered to it. It's possible the missive was reposted or e-mailed by a person of that name, creating the incorrect impression the reposter was the original author.  
While the words are aimed at the presumed failings of black Americans, we can't find one forward or notable repost of the item that didn't come from a white person. Most likely, the e-mail forward was authored by a white person who wished to express unpopular racial prejudices and felt the image of an elderly (and wise) black gentleman with a proud history of military service was the most authoritative candidate to deliver his list of grievances with a number of racial issues and general events. 
It is appalling to see people post this with absolutely no comment or disclaimer. One can only presume that by sharing this post with no comment that you in fact endorse the views expressed. I ask all those that are sharing this post, would you write these words and put your name to them? If you would not, then you know it is wrong. You might fear being ostracized by friends. You might even fear for your job. And you should. The rights guaranteed to us in the Bill of Rights protect you from being stifled by the federal and state governments, but they do not protect you from the personal and social consequences of your words. Our rights are inextricably linked to responsibilities. I have a right to oppose an unreasonable search and seizure by agents of the state, but I have a responsibility to acquiesce to a warrant signed by a judge. I have a right to bear arms, but I have a responsibility bear those arms safely. One of the responsibilities that comes with your right to free speech is to stand by your words, not to hide behind the words of other's. If you believe in what 'William G. Lillas' has to say, then say it yourself, don't put on blackface and say it.


  1. The only people who are going to fall for this supposedly Black-written missive are the racial bigots who are looking for more justification to strengthen their callous and negative feelings towards people who are less fortunate than they.