MEDFORD, Mass. (AP) — An attorney in Oregon is supporting political candidates who promise to address racial profiling in policing. In suburban Ohio, a mother says she and her friends will push for better racial integration in their children’s high school. And in rural Massachusetts, a young father has launched a Facebook group called “White Men for Black Lives.”
After standing silently on the sidelines, some whites who agree with demands by civil rights activists for greater police reforms say they’re being spurred to action following this summer’s fatal shootings of black men by officers in Minnesota and Louisiana and the deadly retaliation attacks on police in Texas and Louisiana.
“I was tired of every discussion on Facebook turning into a debate between Black Lives Matter versus All Lives Matter,” said Colin Allen, a 30-year-old Bernardston, Massachusetts, resident. “I wanted to start a conversation specifically with white men who know that something has to be done.”
Robert Milesnick, a 39-year-old civil attorney in Portland, Oregon, penned a sharply worded essay titled “My White Male Privilege Is Complicit In Black Male Killing” that ran in the local African-American newspaper this month.
“At some point, to not do or say anything is complicit,” Milesnick told The Associated Press. “These things keep happening because people that look like me don’t do or say anything.”
He said he’ll be putting that frustration into action by supporting local candidates who pledge to address racial profiling and other policing issues that disproportionately affect people of color, issues he would not have necessarily made priorities in years past.
In Shaker Heights, a diverse and wealthy suburb of Cleveland, 50-year-old Lisa Vahey said she and other mothers at her son’s high school are looking to turn an informal Facebook discussion about race into more concrete action.
The group, calling itself Shaker Heights High School CommUnity Builders, will be pushing administrators this school year to better integrate sports and other extracurricular activities that tend to get segregated along racial lines, she said.
“We come to this as parents,” Vahey said. “So we’re thinking about what message we’re sending to our kids by our actions or by our inaction.”
But not everyone has been able to turn their sympathy into action.
At a Whole Foods store in the Boston suburb of Medford, Joanne Meehan said she would never consider speaking out on social media or attending a rally or protest – basic actions many activists are imploring of supportive whites.
She said her comments haven’t been warmly received the few times she has tried to broach the shootings with friends.
“My white friends say, ‘All lives matter,’ and I try to tell them we can say that because we’re not black,” said the Boston mother of three grown children. “Their lives have meant less to a lot of people.”
The recent killings of police officers complicate matters for some whites, who feel they have to choose sides and don’t want to come across as against police, said Barbara Simmons, executive director of the Peace Center, a social justice organization in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia suburb.
But Allen, the creator of “White Men for Black Lives,” said it’s critical for more whites to fight through their personal discomfort. Before this summer’s shootings, Allen says he also tended to avoid difficult conversations about race and never attended rallies by Black Lives Matter or other groups.
“There are too many of us just trying to live in our own little, private world, away from all the bad stuff out there,” Allen says. “Empathy is vitally important.”
Civil rights activists and religious leaders suggest action doesn’t always have to mean marching in the streets. More modest steps for reticent whites could include speaking about one’s conflicted emotions to a black colleague or friend, building authentic relationships with black people through dinners or other social interaction, or even reflecting during prayer on their individual role in perpetuating racial violence.
“It’s a humility thing,” said Andrew Mook, pastor at Sanctuary Church in downtown Providence, Rhode Island. “It’s about asking: Where is the racism in my heart? What is my complicity in the brokenness around me?”
Only when a critical mass overcomes the so-called “white silence” and takes action can change truly take root, said Michael Curry, president of the Boston chapter of the NAACP.
“There wouldn’t be a Civil Rights Act or a Voting Rights Act without people from broad racial and ethnic groups lending their advocacy, their support and their money to get those landmark pieces of legislation passed,” he said. “This is no different.”