Many people have gained popularity on social media for their courageous and enlightening commentary on the tragic killing of Michael Brown and subsequent chaos in Ferguson, but no one has captured my attention the way Shaun King has. When my dad, who grew up in a segregated town in North Carolina during the 1950’s and 60’s, approached me about writing on white accountability, I knew I had to and I wanted to speak with Shaun about this issue.
I am asking that more people of color have a leading and continuous voice in the media and when these tragedies arise, we ask whites, mostly males, what THEY can do? There are a lot of questions I wanted to ask Shaun and as usual, his answers were thought-provoking and enriching. Here is my conversation with him:
Q: What is your educational background and has civil rights always been important to you?
Shaun: I did my undergraduate work at Morehouse College in ?Atlanta, GA. This is where Dr. King and many amazing civil rights leaders ? ?attended college and we have a rich tradition of producing graduates who continue to care about the world around them in a real way. I’ve completed grad school at Emory University and am currently pursuing a graduate degree in communications at USC.
Q:?A recent study from PEW,has shown that most whites do not feel that the Michael Brown shooting has raised important racial concerns. This is overwhelmingly different than how most blacks seem to feel. How can you explain this dichotomy?
Shaun: Those numbers were stark, but not surprising. Even though it’s 2014, that study showed that culture and life experiences truly determine how you see the world. For me though, I think it is really about empathy. Because almost no white people have ever been brutalized by the police, they innately see the police very differently. Almost 100% of African Americans can describe a personal negative encounter with the police and this informs their perspective on this case and all others regarding police violence.
Q: Privilege comes up a lot in discussions of race. How can we get white people to understand this concept? How can we get them to accept their privilege without feeling a sense of guilt?
Shaun: Some of how we get all people to understand privilege is simply to tell our story – one story at a time. I try to do that on Twitter and share stories of others I know. You can never truly understand how others feel, but at least being aware is a good start.
Q: Would you support a bit of an “alternate television reality”, one in which black people are hosts and whites are brought along to discuss conversations of race? Do you accept the notion that blacks are always seen as the ones who should “change” something in order to advance racial progress? What are whites’ responsibility?
Shaun: This a great question with a load of truth packed into it. Racism is strange because African Americans are not only charged with being the chief victims of it, but are basically tasked with leading the discussion and solutions of it. Maybe that’s why it doesn’t work very well. Most conversations about racism are lead and guided and heard by Black people. A departure from this construct could do some real good for sure.
Q: Many people, mostly white, seem to believe Officer Wilson’s story of the incident with Michael Brown and not the independent eyewitnesses who were at the scene in Ferguson. You have written about the racism that underlies these beliefs. You have examined the fundamental distrust of blacks that one may possess to discount such witness testimony in order to believe Wilson’s. Could you explain this a little more?
Shaun: It’s sad, but very true. In the case of the murder of Mike Brown, we know of three different eyewitnesses who saw the entire encounter from start to finish. It was daylight, on an empty street, on a casual?Saturday. All three eyewitnesses were very, very close, but from three different vantage points. They didn’t know each other, but each had the exact same recounting of what they saw.In spite of this, and their retelling of what they saw, is haunting, consistent, and hard to ignore, the majority of whites surveyed just don’t believe them. I honestly think if 1,000 black people saw what happened, and not just three very reliable witnesses, we’d get the same results. In essence, to discount these three black witnesses, one has to believe they are lying for the heck of it, colluded together, or all three actually saw it and just happened to see it wrongly, but see it wrongly in the exact same way. Sadly, I think it’s racism that allows citizens to ignore these reliable witnesses in favor of an officer who has everything to lose if they are right.
Q: It is rare to find a person who is an admitted racist, Darren Wilson probably included. However, studies have continued to show the presence of implicit bias when it comes to matters of race. Can you briefly explain this concept to those who may not be as familiar? And how this internal prejudice can inhabit black minds as well as whites, perhaps resulting in the high number of black on black crime? Is there anything that can be done to help curb this known phenomenon especially when it comes to hiring and training police officers?
Shaun: I’ve taught diversity training many times. In it, one thing that I say is this – “Whatever you are, you are WAY more of that than you know.” See, when we wake up in the morning we don’t say, it’s a great day to be middle class, or it’s a great day to have white skin or brown skin or black skin, we just wake up and go. But, all of us, and the way we think and see the world, is greatly informed by our race, our economic status, the region of the country we live in, how we were raised, where we went to school, our politics, etc. The tendency, though, is for all of us, from all backgrounds to deny that embedded in us in any deep form of bias or hatred. The problem with that is that most of us just aren’t aware of it because we just are who we are who we are.Darren Wilson, like the officers who killed Amadou Diallo because they thought his wallet was a gun or Sean Bell because they thought they saw a gun, etc. was likely informed by a level of suspicion of young black men that he hadn’t even considered before.
Q: Granted, we do not know exactly what happened before, during, and after Michael Brown’s killing, but do you think our policies and attitudes need to change regarding shooting to kill at unarmed citizens? It seems that more and more people are claiming self defense when THEY are armed and the victims are not. How do you feel about this? Do you think these cases are as ridiculous as they often sound?
\Shaun: I absolutely think it’s time for some smart policy changes to protect unarmed citizens. Even one wrongful killing of an unarmed citizen, to me, is tantamount to using the death penalty against an innocent man. We’d all be outraged if we discovered that was the case. Three changes I’d like to suggest immediately are: 1. All officers must wear cameras while on duty. These cameras must remain on during all arrests and encounters and the footage must be stored and monitored by a third party company. 2. Lethal force against an unarmed citizen without a warrant for their arrest for a violent crime should become a federal offense. 3. Violations of the rules around wearable cameras or rules protecting unarmed citizens should have mandatory minimum sentences.
Q: Lastly, you have written very eloquently about why killings involving the police and people of color often hurt more. So many bring up black on black crime when something like Ferguson happens. Can you briefly explain why killings involving such a power difference are important? And explain how we (blacks, civil rights leaders,etc) do care about black on black crime, why the nation as a whole though, does not, and why we still must pay attention to white on black crime as well?
Shaun: Crime is crime is crime. It all hurts. I’m particularly frustrated by the focus on “Black on Black Crime” because 90% of crimes are committed against people of the same ethnic group. That is to say that 90% of white crimes are “White on White Crimes” but nobody calls them that. Police murder, like the murder from an international terrorist for instance, is particularly heinous and hurtful for several reasons. Police are paid to protect you. Black people pay billions of dollars in taxes, including to police to protect them and it’s a sick irony to be murdered by your paid protector. Furthermore, police violence causes a fundamental distrust of all police by black people. I literally know black folk who say if they are in trouble in any form they’d call friends before calling police. Police violence fuels this thinking. Lastly, police violence is one that seemingly goes without any form of justice. Not only is it nearly impossible legally or physically to protect yourself from it, but very little justice ever comes through the court system. Because of that, it backs black people into an emotional corner that I think is fueling the unrest that we’re seeing in Ferguson and will likely see elsewhere.
I give many thanks to Shaun King on having this extremely important conversation with me.