The White Comfort of Settling for Less Racism

By Will Hudson

After the 2016 presidential election, a diverse group of residents came together to strategize on ways to build community power for immigrant and racial justice in Berwyn. This group became Berwyn Comunidad en Acción / Berwyn Community Action (BCA). Since then, we have helped pass a strong Welcoming City ordinance to prevent local law enforcement from cooperating with ICE, and convinced our city government to not opt out of the Cook County minimum wage increase and sick leave legislation. 

Right now we’re addressing racial profiling in our town, a campaign that began when the city published a community watch newsletter that (amongst other things) described certain “transient” criminals as “dark-skinned” and “often mistaken for Hispanic.” We called out the racist language, started looking at traffic stop data in Berwyn, and began talking to community members who had been victims of racial profiling by Berwyn police. While the city issued a retraction, the backlash to our campaign has been intense, especially in Facebook groups. Everything from name calling to insults to obscenities. Mostly from white men. 

I grew up in the South, in North Carolina and Texas. Racism was part of the fabric of my life, but as a child and young adult, I didn’t know it was there. It wasn’t until many years later that I began to understand how much I had absorbed. Uncovering my own biases and interrogating my whiteness has taken time and the process is far from over. Through this campaign, I’ve come to see the racism in my town more clearly. It’s there. Plainly from those who spew hate and obscenities, but also from those who call themselves advocates and allies. I have come to better understand MLK’s disappointment with the white moderate “who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” 

I recently broke my Facebook vow of silence to push back against statements aiming to delegitimize the findings of the Illinois Traffic Stop Study, which aims to identify racial bias through data collection on traffic stops. After posting a lengthy response, a person in a community forum thanked me for my “rigor and nuance” with how I was looking at the data. Nuance? This bothered me. I try to be a strong ally, but I am wary of my own reliability. Was I falling into the same trap as so many other white advocates and self-proclaimed allies? 

Being nuanced is a luxury I have. I don’t live in a reality where I have to be fearful of the police or afraid of what might happen to me if I’m forced to interact with them. I also don’t have to consider how I should act, or how people may react to me when I walk down the street, drive my car, or walk into a store. I should not be thanked for my nuance. That is not a compliment. 

It is easy to fixate on the numbers. But the reality of racism and racial profiling is not about numbers, it’s about people. For Berwyn residents on Facebook to try and delegitimize the data is, I think, a knee-jerk reaction. I’ll admit that I’ve felt it too. But that is the wrong tact to take. Instead of trying to prove the numbers wrong or disprove the whole study, people who say they care should take the time to look closely. Use the information to see if there is something we can learn and improve upon. 

The premise I work from is this: racism and bias exist, and they are perpetuated through our institutions, which are historically racist and biased. It doesn’t matter where you live or who is in charge. That may be my own bias, but so be it. 

And what I see is this – consistently, over the ten years of traffic reports I examined, “subjective” measures aside, people of color receive proportionally more citations and are subjected to more vehicular searches than white drivers. Many residents have asked, “Well, how much more? How does this compare to other similar communities?” My answer is that it doesn’t matter. More is more. People are not numbers, ratios, or percents. Even a difference of two to three percent indicates, yet again, that the overall experience and outcome for black and brown folks in this country tends to be more crappy.

The degree of crappiness varies depending on where you are, but to say that Berwyn is about average in terms of how many more people of color are stopped, ticketed, and searched, or that we’re in line with other similar communities doesn’t exonerate us in some way. It just means that we’re averagely racist or biased, or on par with the rest.

This, for me, is where the absurdity sets in, and it’s easy to miss. White moderates and liberals, who contend they are not racist, will likewise spin a less crappy place as better than another. They do this under the pretense that people of color should be grateful since the prejudice and racism here is not as bad as other places. Really? Is this what I, a white dude who lives in a world where things are fine pretty much everywhere, should say to my Black and Latinx friends: “It’s less crappy for you here, comparatively, so you should be happy that this is better than somewhere worse?” 

That’s being a crappy friend. 

The bottom line is that people I know felt targeted and hurt by a city publication; the state traffic data reveals racial discrepancies in citations and searches; and I have listened to people I trust share their fears and experiences of racial prejudice and profiling in our community. These stories repeat throughout our country, and though we have made great strides, there is still work to do. Berwyn is no exception.  

Will Hudson is the Middle Level Coordinator and 6th grade teacher at The Children’s School in Oak Park. His most recent work, “Calculating Justice? Using Mathematical Mindsets for Teaching From a Social Justice Perspective” with Angela Whitacre de Resendiz appears in Unsettling Education: Searching for Ethical Footing in a Time of Reform edited by Brian Charest & Kate Sjostrom. 

[Feature image: Wikimedia Commons]

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