Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Don’t be shocked. Don’t be surprised. Be aware.

In the wake of the George Zimmerman verdict the day before yesterday, and the Melissa Alexander verdict (who received 20 years for firing a warning shot, in her own home, to try and warn off her abusive estranged husband who was violating his restraining order), my Facebook and Twitter feeds and email inbox exploded with expressions of shock and outrage from many of my (mostly white and Jewish) acquaintances.

And I confess, I am shocked. Not at the verdicts. At my acquaintances.

I understand anger at the verdicts: both were manifestly miscarriages of justice, products of a broken system. But shock? Outcries of surprise that these things could happen? Really?

I want to ask these people where they’ve been living, because if they’re surprised that these things happened in America, they clearly haven’t been living here. Ever.

Injustices like these verdicts don’t happen in a vacuum. They don’t spring forth, sudden incursions from some obscure hell of malicious occurrences. They are inevitabilities in a society where the powerful and wealthy upper classes of one skin color and gender persistently curb, restrain, oppress, harass, and subjugate the lower classes, the other skin colors, and the opposite gender.

I question the shock and outrage on anyone’s Facebook status or email or tweet or anything else if they aren’t consistently-- if not daily-- posting or tweeting their shock and outrage over things like:

  • Egregious disparities in the funding of education for minority and low-income areas and students.

  • An unconscionably high prison population disproportionately made up of people of color.

  • The under-funding and under-maintaining of hospitals and public health care in low-income areas.

  • The media bias on reporting crimes against white people vigorously, and ignoring crimes against people of color unless they can be sensationalized for some other reason.

  • The double-edged sword of affirmative action, wherein students of color who so seek to improve their chances of bettering themselves through education are then questioned by all and sundry as to their intellectual or professional qualifications.

  • The consistent defunding and underfunding of social services geared toward providing aid to low-income citizens, who are disproportionately people of color-- from food assistance to housing assistance to employment assistance.

  • Extreme toleration of corporations abusing low-income labor-- which is disproportionately made up of people of color, immigrants, and women.

  • Toleration of suppression of organized labor, which disproportionately affects the poor and the lower middle classes, who are disproportionately of color.

  • Draconian mandatory minimums for crimes which unfairly target low-income and minority demographics, often selectively enforced either as a result of cronyism or simply the result of inadequate public defender or free legal aid services. This is especially true of drug-related offenses, for which white, upper middle-class or wealthy defendants more often get reduced sentences and opportunities for addiction counseling and rehabilitation, and poor defendants of color more often get harsh prison sentences.

  • Disproportionate lack of people of color and women in high levels of government and of corporate administration.

  • Tolerance of financial crises created by wealthy institutions dominated by white men, which disproportionately affect poor people, especially people of color.
If these things and a giant panoply of others like them aren’t on your daily radar, and discussion of them doesn’t constitute part of your regular set of publicly vocalized sociopolitical opinions, then your posted outrage over the occasional more dramatic injustice that the media is willing to cover rings a little hollow.

I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t comment on what’s going on, or condemn it, unless we fit an incredibly vigorous profile of activism-- that just isn’t a reasonable expectation for most people’s lives. But don’t be shocked. Don’t be surprised. Be aware.

Maybe there’s not much many of us can do about it-- sign some petitions, give to some causes, try to be unprejudiced in our daily lives-- but let’s not fool ourselves about the society we live in. Even if we can’t do much on a daily basis, we can at least walk around with open eyes, and teach our children to do the same. We can at least not pretend that our society is just, and that intolerance in America is something we read about in history books, or that only happens in far-flung rural areas.

Most of us aren’t full-time activists or even part-time movers and shakers for social change-- myself absolutely included. And I’m not necessarily suggesting we should be. But true change requires more than activism and fundraising and political lobbying. True change requires a shift in the worldview of the majority of Americans. And like any problem, the solution begins by accepting the truth of the problem. American society is unjust. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t more unjust societies out there-- there are. But their existence doesn’t obviate the injustice in America. And if we do nothing else, let’s at least admit that that’s the truth, and not be surprised when we see it in action.


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