Reflections of a White Woman
It feels strange to talk about this now, almost 10 years after it happened, but with the tragedy of George Floyd’s murder, and the uproar for justice, its been on my mind.
While I was in high school, I found out at the end of the telephone game of family news that my cousin’s dad had been killed. He had stolen school supplies for his younger kids and was pinned down in the parking lot by store security. He had a pre-existing breathing condition, and the security guard never let up, leading to his death. I don’t know the time it lasted or his last words, but it resonated with the themes of George Floyd’s murder: A black man, suspected of petty crime, held down until their last breath.
I think its important to note that his death was not at the hands of the police, but it did show the extent to which punishment matters more in our nation than the magnitude of the offense or the wellbeing of the person. Death was a much higher price than the papers and pencils.
In retrospect, I realize how little I was actually surprised about the events of his death. I knew our country did not value its citizens equally, and the citizens didn’t value each other equally. As much I hoped for fairness in life, I was always reminded that “life isn’t fair”, to which my heart would echo, “but can’t I work to make it better for those who have it worse?” (I didn’t know it, but I wanted equity, not equality, for myself and others).
I later learned more about the pervasive nature of systemic racism. It was more than simply a question of responsibility, but really about looking at every part of someone’s experience. For both George Floyd, and my cousin’s dad, the impact of economic hardship came to light in a $20 bill and some school supplies. These situations were merely the symptoms of larger problems in our culture. They made the choice to pursue certain actions, but what about the ways our culture had closed the doors to any other option?
This is how I now think about personal responsibility and equity. I am personally responsible for making the best choice with the selection of options I have; We are likewise responsible as a culture for providing better options and not preventing others from the options we have. The two are not as opposed as we may think, but rather one is our responsibility for ourselves and the other is our responsibility to others.
I had heard the perspectives; “He committed a crime, so he deserved whatever happened” and, “It’s sad but he shouldn’t have been doing that.” These sentiments all undermined his worth and the pain his family felt. Our misconstrued concept of personal responsibility has overshadowed what justice really is.
Justice is not seeing fault and ascribing a debt to it. Those in cycles of unending debt are considered slaves. This still happens worldwide, but we call that what it is when we see it outside our context: slave labor. Our justice system should not reflect that mentality. Justice should repair the ways that relationships and peace are fractured, instead of pursuing punishment to the maximum allowed by law. In both of these cases, these men received the maximum punishment for incredibly small disruptions.
All of that to say- let’s be people that pursue equity for others, and true justice.
“I have reached the regrettable conclusion that the negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.” -MLK Jr
Jennafer Larsen, MSW
Director, Center Against Racism & Trauma (CART)