To Protect and Serve

written by AMANDA GROSS

Unlike 17-year-old Antwon Rose II, I have never been targeted by the police in a way that made me fear for my life. My three and a half decades of personal experience with the criminal justice system can be counted on one hand: jury duty + 4 traffic stops, only one of which resulted in a ticket.

Upon further examination, though, my involvement with the system goes deeper. My above list omits the times I have initiated contact with the system, like the one time I called the police when my neighbors were having a domestic dispute so loudly, I could hear chairs being broken through the thin apartment walls. I was afraid; terrified really, as my neighbor screamed for mercy. I felt both powerless and convicted that something must be done. And so I did what I had been taught to do: I called 9-1-1.

There are also the numerous other times that I have considered that option but not followed through, sitting on the front porch or peeking out through the blinds while clutching my cell phone as I struggled with the moral dilemma of whether or not to call the cops. I still struggle with the urge to call even though I am now aware that law enforcement disproportionately targets Black and brown communities and that police involvement can harm more than it helps. I still struggle internally even though I know that the police force as an institution was never intended to protect and serve my neighbors. I know now that the police force we have today began originally as slave patrols. In 1857, the Supreme Court declared that under the Constitution, a Black person “has no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” A 17th century Virginia law proclaimed that if an enslaved person was ever killed in an attempted arrest, the person who killed them “shall be free and acquit of all punishment and accusation for the same, as if such accident had never happened…,” as if Antwon Rose II’s murder had never had happened.

I know now too that enslavement is still legally sanctioned through incarceration, that we disproportionately incarcerate Black and Indigenous people, that Black students are disproportionately pushed out of education and into the criminal justice system, that in Allegheny County, Black students are suspended at 5.6 times that of white students, and that white women are the frontline offenders in upholding this dynamic termed the School-to-Prison Pipeline.

If you haven’t guessed already by my traffic-stop-to-ticket ratio, I am a cis white lady. And as one of many such white ladies who have been entrusted with the education of young people, it would be easy for me to obscure my relationship to the systemic violence of racism. It would be convenient for me to point to the violence of white men: the police officer who pulled the trigger, the attorney who represented him, the first and then second judge who presided over the trial, the majority of the jury responsible for Officer Rosfeld’s acquittal, the D.A. who failed to present a strong case. It is so much more comfortable for me to gloss over the long-lasting history of white ladies organizing for racism and my connection to it.

White Middle-Class Neighborhood; Digital Image by Amanda K Gross

To Protect…

There have always been white women rallying for the cause of racism. Since the early 20th Century, Women of the Ku Klux Klan and its predecessor Ladies of the Invisible Empire have had reach beyond their base in southern states, spanning from Portland, Oregon, to Baltimore, Maryland.[1]White mothers were on the front lines against school desegregation both in the Jim Crow South and also against integrated busing practices in Boston.[2]Closer to home, white women took on leadership roles in organizing against the 1981 court order that merged the then-predominantly white school districts of Churchill, Edgewood, Swissvale, and Turtle Creek with the predominantly Black districts of Braddock, North Braddock, and Rankin to become the Woodland Hills school district, the district where Antwon would eventually attend.

Despite recent calls to “stand against hate”, our history of racist organizing at its root is more about fear than hate. This fear exploits a patriarchal narrative that presumes an innocent victim status for white women and white children in need of protection from the violent pathology that has been projected onto Black and brown people. The fear that has me gripping the telephone is not disconnected from the fear tactics used in crime reporting on the local news, in commercials for home security systems, on the NextDoor East Liberty listserv asking if anyone heard gunfire 20 minutes ago, or from the weekly Pittsburgh Police Zone 5 email blast, which lists names, ages, and descriptions of people who have been arrested and reminds us to stay vigilant. My persistent urge to call points to a very deeply instilled belief that for every time I feel helpless, there should be a hero ready and waiting to protect me from an outside danger or at least protect me from my own feelings of helplessness.

College Classroom; Digital Image by Amanda K Gross

…and to Serve

I wholeheartedly believe that of Pennsylvania educators, 96% who are white women,[3]get into education because they want the best for their students. I believe that these same educators went to teacher school with vision, integrity, and the intention to nurture all young learners and to help prepare their students for brilliant futures. I have witnessed many of these white lady teachers put in countless, unpaid extra hours, spend their own salaries on classroom supplies, and advocate for their students within a system bent on pushing out students of color. I don’t believe that any teacher enters the field eager to disproportionately fail, discipline, and suspend their Black and brown students while disproportionately passing, promoting, and graduating their white ones. And in a system where teachers are so often stripped of institutional agency and scapegoated as the problem, I also don’t believe that any teacher joins the teacher’s union planning to organize for their own best interest to the detriment of their students’. Yet, these are the dynamics we have today. Pennsylvania teachers, 96% of whom are white ladies, are the ones making decisions in the classroom that lead to racial disproportionality while teachers unions frequently stand with the institutional status quo instead of with student of color-led organizing, such as in the case of siding with the administration during the recent student walkout and in opposing an extension of the moratorium on out-of-school suspension.

As a fellow white lady, I want to know how our good intentions have become so distanced from the collective negative impact we have on the young people we say we serve. As a student of history, I am seeking answers to how we have come so unaligned with organizing that would actually make life better for our students andfor us.

A brief history lesson shows that this is not the first time we have used whiteness to advance an agenda for white women at the expense of People of Color. The end of the Civil War opened up a whole field of work in education to white women who had previously been discouraged from working outside the home. Northern white women descended in droves upon the South to teach Black children to read. Around the same time, white women gained employment and status through government jobs working on Indian reservations, teaching at Native American boarding schools, and doing church work as missionaries in other countries.[4]White women assumed these roles under the guise of benevolent caretakers and cultural workers who would guide their young charges away from their home cultures and towards a “more civilized” white way of being. These teaching opportunities were steeped in a racism that promoted the superiority of white culture and was built on a false narrative that Black and Indigenous children needed white women to help, fix, and save them. It is so important that we know our history. This history helps explain how white women have come to dominate the field of education. It also helps explain how we as white women inflict violence when we don’t recognize our power as white people. Like the white mothers protecting their white children from going to school with children of color, like me clutching the phone, like teacher unions inadvertently organizing against their students, we are most effective at organizing for white supremacy when we carry our victim mentality with us into the halls of institutional power.

Only You Can Prevent Racism; Digital Image by Amanda K Gross

When I see injustice or harm, I am moved by a loud voice in my head to JUST DO SOMETHING and so the idea of not doing something – of not calling the police, or of not discipling students, for example, seems contrary to the parts of me that want to spring towards action, to the parts of me that have learned that I too should protect and serve. And I am learning that there are so many ways towards action that challenge racism. It’s just that those actions are not as simple as a phone call. Those actions reject the historical claim for white women as righteous victim/saviors. Those actions take a whole lot of unlearning and learning anew. Those actions require creativity and are grounded in humility and relationship. Those actions call on a type of persistent collective courage we rarely see in heroic films. Those actions require self-study and a long term lifelong strategy that acknowledges the extensive power we currently hold through institutional positions, cultural access, and proximity to cis white men. There are so many ways for us to refuse to collude with white supremacy. Above all, those actions require us to center the humanity of Antwon Rose II and of his peers.

[1]Women of the Klan by Kathleen M. Blee

[2]Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy by Elizabeth Gillespie McRae

[3]Public Source Reporting

[4]White Women’s Rights: The Racial Origins of Feminism in the United States, Louise Michele Newman

Would the Real White Nationalist Please Stand Up

Why do they allow us to have drivers licenses?

After the initial shock of Charlottesville cleared, after I quickly thought on all the people I knew in Virginia who might have been at the counter protest, after I waded through the many times I’ve attended protests and wondered if my parents understood that this could have been me, after I avoided media coverage, and then binged on it, after many murky and mixed emotions – I considered that white people are still allowed to drive.

Like the increased surveillance of Muslims at the airport and Latinos at the border, a parallel response requires a no-nonsense, cautionary, preemptive approach. Clearly white supremacists should not have access to vehicles and permits sanctioned by the state.*  Where are the calls for more stringent screenings at the DMV? Did your ancestors own slaves? Did your grandparents benefit from Jim Crow? Did your family acquire land via the Homestead Act? Or build its legacy off the backs of exploited immigrants? Have you amassed intergenerational wealth off of the GI Bill or from the implications of redlining? We hand white supremacists tools of violence and wrap it up in an American flag and add a bow called Liberty and then get dismayed when they shoot up schools and churches and plow into a crowd. And by we I mean me and you.

White Self, by Amanda K Gross

Recently I was listening to a This American Life podcast about magicians and it made me think about magic tricks and culture. We live lives of distraction. The distraction of whether or not to condemn hate or label an act as racist is easier to chew than the all-encompassing insidious multi-headed, multi-armed beast that has birthed such moments. I have often chosen the cookie over cooking, the pill over the pain, the car over the walk. Because it is convenient. I’m wondering in this moment how convenient is it for white folks to condemn hate, while writing off this violence as an exception to love. Naming love as the rule of the land is a best-intentioned sleight of hand.

And so I hold up a mirror and ask somewhat reluctantly: How am I choosing convenience in my life, in my relationships, in my work situation? How am I choosing the daily convenience of white supremacy? How are you?

The false science of racism was built on othering and hierarchy. In the hierarchy of white people this “White Nationalist” class allows us good white people to condemn their humanity while elevating ourselves, receiving moral crumbs in the doing. Ironically, this repeats the construction and institutionalization of race, which rather than propelling poor Europeans to the status of gentry, most immediately lowered the bottom for People of Color, winning us the promise of winning. Aren’t all white people who call ourselves Americans White Nationalists in some way or another?

I keep thinking about one piece from the People’s Institute’s Undoing Racism training when the facilitator asked, “If we put all the members of the KKK on a rocket ship and sent them to outer space, would we still have racism in this country?”** It’s a funny visual and a deep question.

What seems more useful than outright condemnation is condemnation + connection. So I’ve been thinking about the Many Arms of White Supremacy, set up intentionally so the left hand doesn’t know what the right one is doing. I’ve been thinking about what the Non-Profit Industrial Complex (which pays my bills) has to do with an allegiance to the Confederacy. It seems like America is getting a do-over of the Civil War.

The Many Arms of White Supremacy; Digital Collage by Amanda K Gross

Contrary to the myth of Abraham Lincoln as the great emancipator, the 16th president of the USA did not regard Black folks as equal to whites and was just fine with keeping slavery around, so long as the Union held strong. The dualistic history I learned in my Atlanta City school type-casted good guys (the Union)/bad guys (the Confederacy), which translated neatly to good guys (Democrats)/bad guys (Republicans) and then again to good people (white anti-racists)/bad people (all other white folks).

Along with killing more Americans than any other war in history, the US Civil War was a critical marker in the development of Mistress Syndrome, bringing white women…”into public view in record numbers – a breakdown at least in the rigid ideology of separate spheres. Increasing numbers of [white] women found employment in northern factories. Northern white women also got posts with the Union government and roughly three thousand women became army nurses. The most important women’s organization to come out of the war was the Sanitary Commission (later name the Red Cross), which raised millions of dollars to furnish supplies to soldiers, widows, and orphans, and helped train nurses for work in hospitals and on battlefields.” (Louise Michelle Newman, White Women’s Rights)***

The Suffragist movement gained momentum from white women’s newfound access to white spheres and catapulted itself forward through the appropriation and transformation of the ideology of Lincoln’s white male liberator “into the ideology of white female civilizer…” whether it be bringing civilized education to Native American children through forced boarding schools or successfully bringing “civilization to the Negro. ‘An army of [self]-sacrificing Northern missionaries, with Bible in one hand and spelling books in the other, scarcely waiting for the smoke [of] battle to scatter, followed in the march of the Union army, sought the freedmen, extended the help which they so much needed, but which the poverty and temper of the South at that time could not afford. Northern benevolence then and since has planted over $25,000,000 in this Southland, and has furnished an army of her best men and women to assist the negro in his dire necessity.’” (Louise Michelle Newman, White Women’s Rights)

Enter white ladies in civilized capes laying the cornerstone of Non-Profits, Charity, and Philanthropy. We wear capes (and hoods) too.

We Sent the Klan to Mars; Mixed Media by Amanda K Gross

The aesthetics of Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan seek control through fear, but at the end of the day, so too does the Non-Profit Industrial Complex. An entire system established around the measurement and control of change, of planned outcomes and intended results, of indicators and measures of success, of budgeting and reporting. Like healthcare systems profit off of illness, I am paid to undo racism because… racism. Within these institutions there is fear of speaking up, fear of speaking differently, fear of alienating the donor base, fear of making mistakes, but especially there is fear of loss of control. Fear and control and fear of loss of control are detrimental to creativity.

Without salaried positions in bettering the world, would well-intentioned white ladies like me be waiving Confederate flags and bearing torches? Condemning the hatred serves us and we can do so safely from our computers and from our blogging platforms in denial of the White Nationalist within.

*Accidents (high majority vehicular) are the #1 cause of death for people in the US under the age of 44. White people make up the majority of drivers so taking away white people’s access to vehicles and drivers licenses (an idea shared here to prove a point) might actually be an extraordinary idea for reducing violence and death across the US. We know it would be helpful for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions that are charting a path of death of the planet (and subsequently us too).

**A shout out to Martin Friedman, a core trainer with the People’s Institute who shared this story during the training. You can read more of his work here.

***Louise Michelle Newman is the author of White Women’s Rights, which is a fascinating and helpful examination of how white women used the tools of white supremacy to gain collective rights under the guise of feminism.

How the Blatant Segregation of The North Made Me Realize the Subtle Segregation of The South

written by AMANDA GROSS

There is a myth in white America that white southerners are responsible for the racism of this country.

Spilt Milk; Mixed Media by Amanda K Gross

Despite being raised in the South, I grew up with some of this messaging too. After all, I wasn’t really from from Atlanta and neither were a lot of the white people around me. My mama grew up deep in the mountains of Appalachia, but she wasn’t really from from there either. One generation back her parents were solidly from Amish Mennonite Pennsylvania. My dad came directly from north of Philly, so there was no question on his side. And with both lines being from from Swiss German Anabaptist pacifist roots, we were in the clear when it came to being on the side of racism=bad and besides no slaveholding (whew!). So when Ms. Sylvia told me stories of mean white boys at the bus stop and taught me to be a different kind of white person, I knew there was some connection between them and me. I knew I was white. But I also knew I wasn’t Southern in that way.

Cue Scarlett O’Hara.

Despite “not being Southern in that way”, upon reflection a number of curious circumstances stand out. On one hand, I was given all sorts of concrete examples of how not to be like the mean, angry lynch mobs and slaveholders of Southern history. On the other, Gone with the Wind made a very short list of approved films for my childhood viewing. This encouragement included tours of the Margaret Mitchell home and a general sense of pride that she was from Atlanta – a white woman role model and artist/writer who succeeded in her field despite the sexism of the day. When I watched the film for the 3rd time (I loved the dresses), maybe Ms. Sylvia silently shook her head in disapproval while doing the dishes, but not one adult indicated that this was a problematic narrative. When I was confused that things didn’t match up – why were the white men all eager to go off to war when white men in my church said war was bad? why was Prissy screaming hysterically in the midst of crisis when Black women I knew were composed and knowledgeable? why did enslaved people stick around when in all the other stories I read they were trying to get the Hell out? – there wasn’t any critical discussion to help me process it. When my precocious second grade self read the book and then wanted a “Gone with the Wind”-themed birthday party (complete with hoop skirts), not only was this idea supported (by my parentals), but also people sent their children (mostly white) (also in hoop skirts). (Note: Of the birthday party goers, maybe one of my peers was from from the South.)

Squilt (detail); Hand pieced and quilted by Amanda K Gross

Cue 7 Scarletts (in hoop skirts) and 1 Rhett Butler.

Many other Southern cultural things slipped in un-complexified. Like Uncle Remus stories and field trips to Joel Chandler Harris’s house. Also visits to the Cyclorama (practically in my backyard), many picnics at the Stone Mountain (highly patriotic/Confederate leaning) laser show, and that one time, a trip to a plantation outside of Charleston.

Squilt (detail); Hand pieced and quilted by Amanda K Gross

Now I also was steeped in Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Junior’s legacy. Eighth Grade Georgia History was a semester on the evils of slavery and the wickedness of the Confederacy and then a semester on the Civil Rights Movement. Black History Month lasted the entire school year. However, somehow Southern white overt racist culture ended up kitschified by our Atlanta Yankee parents – not totally taken seriously yet not totally dismissed. Like your cute kid brother, on a good day. Harmlessly annoying, but you’re feeling generous and proud of yourself for your generosity.

Cue Pittsburgh, PA.

Upon my arrival to the North, I was totally unprepared for the level of scapegoating and denial of responsibility for things like racism. I was not prepared for how casually white folks in Pittsburgh dismissed the South as that racist place and used white southerners as a contrast to prop up their own home towns as very much not racist. The more I got to know Pittsburgh with its clear cut segregation, with its racist workplace hierarchies, with its appalling infant mortality rates for children of color, with its segregated neighborhoods, and severe lack of Black folks in positions of city and county power and authority, the more I got irritated about the Southern dissing. While Atlanta wasn’t perfect, never had I lived in a more clearly and overtly racially segregated place as Pittsburgh. I heard liberal white Pittsburghers talk about the ills of Southern racial segregation and continue on in their white bubbles without ever thinking anything of it.*

Poet’s Voice. Birds Song; Hand pieced and Quilted by Amanda K Gross

Cue self-reflective thought.

Once I moved through my irritation and initial defensiveness, this insight became a gift that has allowed me to reflect back on my growing up in Atlanta and reflect on my experiences with more honesty about how certain aspects reinforced my internalization of racism and other dynamics challenged and complexified those. Atlanta was no utopia, but the complexity of my narrative is that it gave me exposure to anti-racist ways of thinking and being in the world at the same time as giving me the potential to be just another ignorant white person.

Interestingly, growing up in inner city Atlanta, much like growing up in suburban Pittsburgh, offers the illusion of non-responsibility. In Atlanta, a white person can be literally surrounded by Black folks at work, at church, at the club, at school and yet have no – or at least very few -authentic relationships. Despite being surrounded by Black cultures, a white person can keep that bubble intact. In Pittsburgh, a white person can live their entire life without having to interact with a Person of Color in non-transactional ways, yet never connect their own history to the history of racism in this country. A white person can give the gift of full racist responsibility to our Southern cousins, giftwrap included. And so both ecologies offer the tempting deception of whew! At least it wasn’t us…

Grandmother’s Dream; Acrylic on Paper by Amanda K Gross

Let us not be swayed by a theism of whew! It takes courage and a practice of self-discipline to keep coming back to an honest mirror of our life histories. It takes attempt after attempt to delve deeper into the truths that have been covered up for us and covered up by us. It also takes a level of courage and maturity to not get stuck in a pool of self-pity and/or self-loathing and to use an honest look to inform how we change. Let us know our own pasts in order to move into the present and plan for a different future.** Let us talk acknowledge our Gone with the Wind birthday parties so that we might enter into hard, challenging, life-long dialogues with our children about racism and their connection to it. Let us ask ourselves, what are the repressed stories that need to come to light? What is the truth from our own histories that need to be resurrected and exhumed so that we can know, so that we can learn, and so that we can do different?

 

For more on the intentional Federal housing segregation policies that came out of the New Deal Era, listen to this interview on Fresh Air and read this article by Ta-Nehsi Coates.

**I just finished reading “The Present” by Spencer Johnson, which significantly influenced this blog post.