The deaths of several unarmed Black men at the hands of police officers and grand jury decisions to not indict them have set off a spate of protests in cities across the world – and on the Internet.
Ferguson Protestor’s rally at Gallery Place in D.C. Nov. 30. (Photo by Travis Riddick)
“This activism definitely indicates a palpable concern within a range of communities with these verdicts,” said Darnell Hunt, an expert on race relations and director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. “The fragility of Black life…that Black people, especially Black men, can be attacked and the people who perpetrate these killings get away without an indictment speaks to the existing racial problems in our society.”
Cyberactivsm has defined this new movement. Thousands have taken to Twitter and other social platforms, trending hashtags such as #Can’tBreathe, #HandsUpDontShoot and #BlackLivesMatters, which speak to the public’s outrage with the blatant injustice of the United States’ justice system.
But there’s a new, somewhat different, hashtag on the scene – #CrimingWhileWhite – which draws attention to the inconsistencies and double standards in the system.
#CrimingWhileWhite is sort of the flipside to #BlackLivesMatter, said Lester Spence, political analyst, Johns Hopkins University.
“If #BlackLivesMatter is an attempt to say Black people are human too and should be treated fairly as citizens, #CrimingWhileWhite is making public the concept of White privilege,” he said. “It enriches the conversation.”
And the concept is being publicized by those in the best position to know about White privilege – Whites.
“Arrested for DUI, cop took me to drive through ATM so I’d have money to bail myself out. #crimingwhilewhite,” wrote a Twitter user with the handle @Dr24hours.
User Alex Halpern posted, “Played with realistic toy guns my entire childhood, wherever we wanted. #CrimingWhileWhite,” referencing the recent cop killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland.
“I was 20. Stopped by cop at gas station. Under the influence & underage. He flirted with me then let me drive home. #CrimingWhileWhite,” tweeted Cassie Fox.
“My 13yo son and his friends were loitering at Walgreens recently. Only his black friend got searched for shoplifting. ~ #CrimingWhileWhite,” wrote Dave Hoover.
Howard University political analyst Michael Fauntroy said he doesn’t buy into the significance of this movement since it simply acknowledges an ugly and well-known reality.
“I don’t think it is that big a deal because we already knew that. It is like acknowledging the sun is in the sky every morning,” he said.
Hunt, the UCLA race relations expert said #CrimingWhileWhite helps explain, for example, the disparate perceptions of the situation in Ferguson, Mo., where Darren Wilson, a White officer, was not charged for killing unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown. “When you’re White you see the police as a force to protect and to serve. When you’re Black you see the police as an occupying force,” he said. “We’re talking about divergent realities.”
Acknowledging White privilege is “fundamental” to aligning those realities and fostering true racial reconciliation, Hunt added.
“The problem is this nation has never really atoned for slavery or the oppression of Black, Brown, and Native American people,” he said. “And until we atone for the past and acknowledge what’s happening in the present, I don’t think we’ll be on the same page; we’ll be talking past each other.”
All the experts agree that this new tide of activism will mean nothing if the movement does not outlast the moment and translate into concrete change. “It is one thing to have the tools to engage, but ultimately, we need to have that activism result in change,” Fauntroy said. And it begins with activism at the ballot box in 2016, he added. “These troubling policies are there because officials put them in place. So we can’t change the policies without changing the officials.”
Spence, however, said the new level of advocacy and outspokenness among the younger generation is, itself, a significant accomplishment. “We’re talking about tens of thousands of students across the country and hundreds of thousands of students around the world who now know there is a space to protest and that they don’t have to keep their mouth shut if they see something wrong,” he said.
“I hope this leads to institutional change,” he added, “but even if it does not, this has been tremendous.”