Is a white sheriff ever a good judge of whether racism exists in his community?
Listening to the Sheriffs’ press conference this week was disheartening. Ignoring their demands, which would take a legal expert to decipher the full implications of, it was their tone and word choices that were disturbing. From labeling people as criminals, before they are even arraigned or convicted, to talking about “hippies” causing unrest in the seventies, they seemed intent on seeing protesters and their fellow citizens as “other.” Their demand for “citizen compliance with law enforcement,” seemed to express a desire for an authoritarianism that granted law enforcement complete authority and power over the community. But the truly disturbing part of the press conference was the sheriffs ignoring and dismissing the foundational issue that protesters are asking for – which is an end to systemic and institutional racism and the brutality and violence that comes from it. The whole press conference was a red herring designed to divert attention from the issue of racism. The only mention to racism that was made, was a passing statement that it isn’t a problem in any of the counties represented (Broome, Chenango, Cortland, and Delaware). And that’s the problem. The sheriffs have refused to understand or acknowledge their communities’ demand for an end to brutality and injustice directed at people of color.
White people, particularly white men in power, are not the judges of whether racism exists – either within their community or within their police forces. They are not subjected to racism. They do not experience or even recognize it when it is occurring around them. The experts on racism, are the people who live with it every day, who deal with it every day, who experience it every day. People of color are the true authorities on where racism exists. People of color are the true authorities on their own lives and their own experiences. To deny that a person of color is the authority of their own experience, to deny them their feelings, thoughts and voice of that experience, to tell them that their experience isn’t true, is gaslighting and it is designed to silence and oppress people. To deny racism exists within ourselves, our communities, our institutions when the people who experience it every day, the experts, tell us it is there, is in fact racist.
The sheriffs state that they are here to protect public safety, but that means protecting everyone, especially those who are most vulnerable, those who face racism, oppression, and hatred, those members of our community who are marginalized, and those who have been silenced. Police are not here to protect white middle class Americans from everyone else and they must come to terms with that fact, just like white middle class Americans must come to terms with that fact. If the sheriffs serve at the pleasure of the people, as they tell us over and over again, then it is time that we, as the people, demand they protect all people, which means that must support the Black Lives Matter movement and join the fight to end police brutality and institutional racism.