Most people discussing the crises in Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland, and all across America are missing the point. The countless conversations in social settings and on social media in the time leading up to and following grand jury decisions in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases have shown a stunning lack of understanding of the larger issues at play.
Having engaged in these discussions and watched them play out makes it clear that most people find it impossible to think beyond the parameters of their own lives. This creates a pathetically low bar for discussion that entirely lacks empathy for others. It is particularly offensive when it comes from white LGBT people who purport to be interested in furthering human rights, but only when it comes to themselves and not to other minorities.
The point we take away shouldn’t be about the facts of any particular case. Nor should we focus on the actions of the police or the protestors. We should be addressing the 400-plus years of institutionalized racism, a consequence of which is a severe imbalance in our criminal justice system and significant mistrust of it on the part of the African-American community. There are also serious ramifications from lasting and ongoing economic disparities that contribute to the injustice.
It’s no wonder that tensions have flared and public discourse has spiraled out of control. It’s not hard to predict where folks will fall in these discussions. The more white and affluent you are, the more likely you are to fall on the side of “the rule of law.” The less white and affluent you are, the more likely you are to see the injustice in these crises and sympathize with the communities affected by young, unarmed black men and children being shot to death by police officers. The chances for finding common ground are slim. That’s exactly why folks should start to talk about the underlying reasons that these situations have come to pass.
The LGBT community should find it easy to see a big picture here; our own movement for equality was borne out of systemic injustice and harassment by law enforcement. When our brothers and sisters stood up to the NYPD back in June 1969 and began the Stonewall riots, it set us on a course of liberation. Those protests sent a message that we weren’t going to take the harassment anymore.
Instead, social media is filled with insensitive and arrogant posts from white gays criticizing protesters and their tactics. Instead of taking a moment to understand the larger goal in these protests, there is overriding concern about not being late for work or for a dinner party. Instead of caring about highlighting the systemic discrimination in our systems of justice and economics, some people would rather complain about a momentary imposition in their lives. I suppose many people are so steeped in their lives that they fail to realize that others aren’t as lucky as they are to not experience this injustice on a daily basis.
Are we too privileged and removed from struggle that we are unable to identify with others facing the same kind of systemic injustice that our community has long suffered from?
The LGBT community has also experienced societal discrimination. Whether because of police harassment, bullying at school, the loss of a job, being the victim of a hate crime, or the many other forms that bias can manifest, we know what it’s like.
Let us also not forget that many African American civil rights leaders and organizations have stood with us in our march towards equality. Some did so when their own communities were not quite ready, but worked to show that the struggle for LGBT equality is similar to their own. Civil Rights hero Congressman John Lewis has been a vocal supporter of marriage equality and was one of the main opponents of DOMA back in 1996. Following President Obama’s public statement in support of marriage equality, the NAACP also followed suit.
LGBTs are not a monolithic community. We represent every kind of diversity that can be found within society. Many members of our own community experience the injustice that Ferguson represents. Many of my black LGBT friends have found themselves isolated from our community because of the things being said. Picking a side in this discussion means we are leaving behind part of our own community. It’s not an either/or proposition. Instead, choose justice for all, it leaves no one behind.
We have a moral obligation to stand by our friends and join in efforts to call attention to the injustice that continues to plague the African-American community. Together, we can work to build a more perfect society. But it won’t happen if we forget or ignore our own history and leave our allies to carry out this struggle on their own. Consider joining a protest in your city, sharing relevant posts on Facebook, or weighing in to stand up for fairness whenever the opportunity arises.
By choosing to understand the bigger issues at play, racial bias, systemic injustice, and economic inequality, we can redirect the conversation to a higher ground. If this can be done, then we may be able to move past the division we have experienced and start finding common ground towards a better society for us all.