I’m sorry I thought you were guilty. That’s what echoed through my mind when I finished watching When They See Us. I wasn’t much older than they were. In April 1989, I was a junior in high school, a predominantly white, middle class, suburban high school in NJ. As a white girl, the world recognized my humanity and the humanity of the jogger. She was “good” and “innocent” – that’s what I remember. The teenagers who became known as the “Central Park Five” were “bad,” and I remember thinking that. I don’t remember wondering if they were guilty; I took their guilt for granted because I thought the criminal justice system was fair. I remember thinking I had something in common with the white woman and nothing in common with the boys.
Ava DuVernay’s brilliant four-episode series reveals to me that my mindset was the same one held by the police, by the media, by all of the systems in power that allowed five innocent kids to be incarcerated for years. Her title is so powerful because white people are taught not to see black people as human beings. We are taught to see black people as criminals, as animals, as inferior. As white people, we need to recognize how we are all Linda Fairstein, how–even when presented with irrefutable evidence–we hang onto the false narrative of white supremacy with desperation.
As the 4th of July approaches, I implore my fellow white Americans to confront our ongoing complicity in a system of white supremacy that persists in the US, despite our attempts to deny it. The criminalization of black and brown people is the norm, not the exception. The exception is that these five men were exonerated, and that only occurred because the person who actually committed the crime confessed on his own volition, more than a decade later. We criminalize black and brown people because we see them as inferior, as other, as sub-human, as animal. We are locking up black and brown people, including children, at the border and at detention facilities around the country. My own state of New Jersey has the worst racial disparity in the country when it comes to youth incarceration, as the NJ Institute for Social Justice reports.
As a white girl, I was taught to trust the system, and I did. I thought that if the boys were called a “wolf pack,” that if the boys were “wilding,” then they were “wild,” that they were animals, that they should be locked up. If the police and the jury said they did it, then they did, and that was it. Justice was fair, and my privileged life was safe.
Now, decades later, as a white anti-racist educator, I recognize that they only way to resist systemic racism is to be actively anti-racist. Being passive just reaffirms the systems that perpetuate white supremacy. We must constantly question the systems that surround us and confront the ways in which they uphold unearned advantages for white people, even without the awareness of those involved. I had the mindset I did as a high school junior in 1989 because I was not taught about the history of race and racism in this country. I firmly believed the myths that I now work with white people to debunk, the myth that race is biological, the myth that race has always existed, and the myth that the Civil Rights Movement ended racism. I wrote my book, Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox (Routledge, 2018), to provide an accessible introduction to these concepts, with steps for action.
Systemic racism persists because it teaches white people that we are the only people who are fully human. When They See Us resists that in powerful ways by humanizing the five boys and the men they became. As white people, we need to ask ourselves, what will it take for us to share that vision and see black and brown people as fully human? Just because we have been taught otherwise doesn’t mean we need to continue to be complicit in a centuries-long system of oppression. White children would never get treated the way that black and brown children are treated in the US, whether it’s 1989 or 2019. They would not get shot by the police for playing with a toy gun. They would not be seen as a threat. They would not be vilified by the media. They would not be locked in cages at the border. They would not experience the tragic abuse revealed in When They See Us. If white people have been taught that we’re the only people who are fully human, we need to ask ourselves: where is the humanity in continuing to believe a false racial narrative about white superiority?
by Karen Gaffney