It’s easy to fire off on social media that you hate Nazis, to decry white supremacy and racism as obvious as what we saw this past weekend in Charlottesville. It’s easy to get angry, to blame Trump or the parents of the young men who are at the center of this resurgence of white nationalism.
It’s even pretty easy to protest in solidarity, especially here in California when the thousands of assault-rifle-carrying members of hate groups are marching not across the street but thousands of miles away.
I’m not saying any of those reactions are bad. And I’m glad so many people are speaking up. But it’s not enough, and we can’t for a moment let ourselves think we’ve done our part to solve this problem with an angry tweet.
I grew up here in Santa Clarita, where the African American population is just 3.8 percent, compared to nearly 10 percent for L.A. County as a whole.
I am the product of the privilege afforded to me by growing up in this wonderful suburban community with great schools, which also happens to be 76 percent white (according to the city’s website).
I, like most white kids I grew up with here, thought racism was more or less a thing of the past. My family wasn’t racist. The people of color at my school were my friends, and were (at least as far as I could tell) as much a part of the community as anyone else.
I’m also the daughter of a police officer, so of course I didn’t think cops were racist. I was too young when Rodney King happened, and I was taught growing up that you had to do something seriously wrong to ever get into an altercation with the police – let alone be beaten or shot.
But then I started working in social services. I saw how overrepresented African Americans were in the foster care system, the criminal justice system (especially the juvenile criminal justice system), and poverty in general. I’ve seen the starkest disparity through my work on homelessness: in Los Angeles, blacks are only 9 percent of the city’s population but make up a shocking 47 percent of the homeless population.
Because of my career, I had to confront the idea I had grown up believing – that we were done with racism.
But that belief didn’t fully die until my family changed. My sister, Kristin, married a black man, Lincoln, whom I now consider a brother.
Not long ago she was driving here in Santa Clarita with Lincoln in the passenger’s seat and was pulled over for a broken tail light. Like most cops’ kids, Kristin and I have both been pulled over more than once and walked away with warnings (or phone calls to our dad) instead of tickets – especially for something as simple as a tail light being out.
Kristin expected something similar to every other police encounter she’d had – polite, friendly, and driving away with a warning or at the very worst a ticket within a few minutes.
Instead, she and Lincoln were asked to get out of the car. The deputies had her get into the back seat of the cruiser while they conducted a full search of her car and of him.
They kept the two of them separate and repeatedly asked her if she was sure she was OK, if she was there by choice, if he had done anything to her. Finally, after 40 minutes of finding nothing, they were allowed to leave.
For my sister, the only difference between that police encounter and every other she’d had before was that she was with a black man. For Lincoln, a respiratory therapist and one of the finest, most upstanding citizens I know, there was no difference at all.
This shocked my sister, and me. But it comes as no surprise to people of color. From the time he was a kid, Lincoln’s mom had taught him exactly what to expect as a young black man during police encounters and how to stay safe.
For so much of his life, he’s seen people cross the street to avoid walking near him out of conscious or unconscious fear of a tall black man. Going to school out here, he and his friends were treated with suspicion because groups of young black men hanging out must be engaged in “gang activity.”
He’s seen too many friends and loved ones enter the criminal justice system one way or another and never escape. He goes through life knowing that he is never just an individual, but a representative of the black community who has to constantly strive to prove stereotypes wrong.
He knows all too well what racism looks like, and that we’re nowhere near past it.
Charlottesville was a wake-up call to white people – an uglier, more obvious manifestation of what Lincoln and every other person of color has known all along.
And at this point, it’s up to us – white folks, the ones who have not and never will experience the stark reality of institutional or overt racism first hand – to fix it.
So what do we do? The condemnation of white supremacy and race-based oppression is a start, but don’t make it about you, and don’t try to convince anyone you’re not a racist in the process.
Call it out whenever and wherever you see it – even when it’s your own family or friends, even when it’s framed as a joke, and even when it’s going to cause a confrontation at a nice family gathering.
Talk to your kids about race. Don’t tell them not to see the color of someone’s skin – that’s a luxury only white people can afford. Instead, teach them to acknowledge those differences and try to understand the way race impacts how we perceive people, how we treat them, and how they experience the world.
Ask yourself – and your friends, neighbors, family members – what is really going on behind incidents like Charlottesville? How have hatred, prejudice, and resentment been produced and reproduced? What are the causes of any of those things, what do they mean, and what are we doing to confront these larger issues in our daily lives?
Most importantly, we have to address and condemn not just overt racism but the more subtle kind that is so deeply ingrained in our society. This kind of institutional racism is especially hard to see as white people, so we have to really look for it, and demand that our elected officials prioritize policies to address it.
This means dealing with voter suppression, truly tackling poverty, reforming our criminal justice system, looking at our housing policies, and making sure that kids, no matter where they grow up or how poor they are or the color of their skin, have good teachers and a safe place to learn and thrive.
The only way to eradicate racism is by taking a good, hard look at ourselves, taking personal responsibility, and committing to doing the hard, painful work that’s needed.
Is Charlottesville enough to make us finally do that? Or will we continue to take the easy way out, be outraged for a minute, and move on once the news cycle does?
Katie Hill is an Agua Dulce resident and a Democratic candidate for California’s 25th Congressional District.