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Opinion: What role should whites play in Black Lives Matter?

Karen Dumas

The growing and seemingly never-ending list of black people killed as a result of deep-seated hatred, fear and discrimination that is embedded in the fabric of this county has hit another boiling point. The cycle has become all too familiar — an unjustified killing of a black person, followed by a protest, a plea, a call for policy change and police reform.

Then, things seem to settle down ... until the next time.

But this time, the protests following the murder of George Floyd were different. They felt different and had a different look than those of the past. Rather than participating in the protests, this time white people seemed to have a leading role. They were front and center with bullhorns, Black Lives Matter signs and shirts, and there was even a parade in the elite suburbs of Grosse Pointe with all the politically correct signs and chants.

Alexis Olechowski of Detroit stands in unity with protesters outside Detroit Public Safety Headquarters on Saturday, May 30, 2020. They were demonstrating against police brutality.

Perhaps they heeded the advice of DPD Chief James Craig when he said if you’re not from Detroit and if Black lives truly matter, then protest in your own hometown.

While it is not unusual for white people to side with civil rights efforts and activities, I have never seen anything like this before. They were on the frontlines, taunting the police, throwing objects and seemingly instigating unrest. 

Theories began to emerge on social media — white supremacy plants, agency provocateurs. But the reality is that most of the white people in the rallies around the country were from places other than where they were protesting, including Detroit where only 17 of the 60 arrests at Friday’s protest were of people from Detroit. And, other cities from around the country saw the same — those inciting violence were not their residents.

Why?

Are these transplants sincere advocates for the cause, wrestling with white guilt and attempting to separate themselves from their privilege, or part of a larger scheme to incite civil or political unrest whose consequences would conveniently exclude them?

Regardless, we have failed to openly, candidly and consistently talk about race in this city, region and country. If an issue arises, we put a band-aid on it only to eventually go back to pretending it never existed. When black people raise concerns, they are accused of being race baiters; when white people talk about or protest the perils of black people, they are viewed as civil rights champions. As a result, there is a dangerous level of pent up racial and social frustration, fueled by anger and repeated displays of social disregard that continue to explode a little louder with every new racially charged incident.

Black people are understandably fed up with a country and system that has generationally misled, disrespected, disregarded, excluded and unjustifiably incarcerated and killed them. And, while there are white people who may sympathize with and want to support them, these issues deserve sincerity and effort every day. Solutions, for those who legitimately seek them, are not found in a sign, a t-shirt, an IG post or a one-off protest.

White people must own up to a legacy of discrimination sustained by a structure that continues to disproportionately benefit them; they must respect black people enough to recognize that regardless of their level of sympathy, promoted compassion and cultural appropriation, they will never know what it is like to be black in America. They must ask the hard questions and be ready for candid and painful answers. They must look in the mirror and at their counterparts and acknowledge their contributions to sustaining these injustices, and then be willing to change them even if it upsets the status quo.

Things are different; tempers are high, and tolerance is nearly non-existent. This alone is a recipe for a disaster that this city and country are too fragile to withstand.

So regardless of where you stand, abandon your prejudicial opinions and perspective; be sincere in your efforts and outreach. Speak, ask questions, and be willing to respect our differences even when you don’t understand them. And, reserve your 911 calls for true emergencies, and not your insecurities. 

Race has been an unspoken evil whose head continues to be raised. Either we talk about it and be about the business of changing who we are and how we act, or risk being all consumed as a result.

And please don’t @ me with accusations of race baiting. 

This isn’t playing the race card — it’s a reality check.

Karen Dumas is a communications strategist who served as chief of communications for the city of Detroit under Mayor Dave Bing. She is also the co-host of the No BS Newshour with Charlie LeDuff.