By David M. Greenwald
Yesterday I was honored to be presented by Rev. Timothy Malone, President of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Scholarship Fund with the “OUTSTANDING ADVOCATE FOR JUSTICE AWARD” for 2021.
Here is the text of my acceptance speech.
Never Again – Obligations of Whites To Oppose Racism
I want to thank Tim Malone—a man whose work I have always greatly admired.
I also want to thank my wife, my daughter Jasmine and Jeremiah for allowing me to do the work that I do even when it’s more difficult on them than it is on me.
I have joked a lot of times over the past year that my job is actually very simple—convince a bunch of 60-something white men that such a thing as systemic racism exists. Some days that is an impossible job.
The problem that we face in 2021 is not simply that we have had a demagogue for the past five years who has inflamed racial tensions—because we have—but rather that his act worked as long as it did BECAUSE there were racial tensions to inflame.
Until white people are willing to recognize that none of us can be free until we are all free, there will be no justice. Until white people are willing to recognize that income inequality, concentrated poverty and mass incarceration are threats to all, we will have no justice.
It is an overused statement from MLK—but one that gets to the point—injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere that must drive our thinking.
When I give these talks I always talk about how I began the Vanguard in 2006 based on my education on police reform issues or how I started the court watch project based on the injustice of the Ajay Dev case in 2009.
But I have never talked about the story of where my passion for racial and, indeed, social justice comes from. I was thinking about this recently—here I am, a middle aged white man, raised in white, upper middle class San Luis Obispo, fighting for police accountability and criminal justice reform.
Where does this passion and drive come from? In 1990, I was heading into my senior year of high school and I went to Israel and took a course in Jewish history and, of course, eventually you get to the Holocaust.
I was well aware of the Holocaust but I had never taken it from a Jewish perspective and had never taken it in the totality of historical mistreatment of the Jews.
What upset me beyond anything was stories like that of the Voyage of the Missouri where hundreds of Jews were turned away from this country and consigned to their deaths.
The lesson I learned is the lesson taught by Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Or to put it into the Holocaust context, “When they came for me, there was no one left to speak up,” because they had done nothing to fight injustice when it might have made a difference.
The true lesson of the Holocaust is that there are bad people, but good people have the obligation to speak out against injustice. We are not going to create a just society by white people of privilege standing on the sideline—they must forcefully engage in the fight.
As Ibram Kendi argues, it is not simply enough these days to be non-racist, one must be an anti-racist.
That is the lesson that I have learned and that I take with me each day and drives me through long hard hours and, at times, withering criticism.
Let’s look at my passion the criminal justice system. Policing as society has seen first hand is in need of change. I remember watching the Rodney King beating when I was still in high school, marching to the police station in college after the acquittal, and the subsequent riots and the transformative nature of video evidence that has over the last 30 years convinced many that police disproportionately beat and kill people of color.
Mass incarceration is underpinned by mind-boggling inequities. In San Francisco, where we started court watch in 2019, 6 percent of the SF population is Black, but 55 percent of the jail population is black.
Here in Yolo County Tracie Olson, the Public Defender, dared to point out that 28 percent of the jail one day last April was Black even though Yolo County was 3 percent Black and, when she did, the system, in the form of DA Jeff Reisig, lashed back at her. How dare she hold up a mirror and point out the inequities of the system?
Wrongful Convictions are not evenly distributed across the races. Black and people of color systematically have less resources, less access to quality defense, and end up being wrongly convicted at huge disparities.
One thing people do not fully appreciate is the extent to which a system of injustice enslaves us all—not merely the people who are subjugated by the system.
Former President Barack Obama made an astute point at Mandela’s funeral: “It took a man like Mandela to free not only the prisoner bu the jailer, too.”
Indeed, just as slavery dehumanizes the slave and master both, a system of oppression, whether it is Jim Crow or the New Jim Crow—i.e. the system of mass incarceration—keeps both the public and those incarcerated locked up together.
The last year has really been a tale of two cities—the best of times and the worst of times. We have seen the ugly in the last month.
But we are also reminded of just how far we have come.
When giving the eulogy for George Floyd, Al Sharpton told the story of him being at a march years ago when a young white women told him “n-word” go home. But he noted recently that he was headed to the airport and, talking to a reporter, he explained that “a young white girl—she didn’t look any older than 11 years old. She tugged my suit jacket and I looked around and I braced myself, and she looked at me and said, ‘No justice, no peace.'”
He said, “It’s a different time. It’s a different season.”
That’s what we have to keep reminding ourselves. We have made progress, but we must keep fighting—all of us, together.
Thank you for joining me.
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