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We all have watched When They See Us. It has galvanized us to speak/say/commit ourselves to witnessing/damning white supremacy, openly and aggressively. Ava DuVernay explodes the horrors of white supremacy in white people’s faces, if we will look. We feel the need to respond to her generosity.
In response, we—white women activists, writers, and scholars—say:
We want white supremacy to end, no matter what it means for us or other white people. We know it will be better than the white privilege and punishing system of white supremacy that keep white womanhood in place as a site for disciplining and erasing people of color.
Rape is the often-charged crime that creates the furious punishment of people of color, most especially Black men. The rape of Black enslaved women was the law of the land during chattel slavery. Black women could not be officially raped because they had no legal standing in the law. Only the rape of white women was viewed as criminal; white rapists were protected and the usual foil was Black men, and in this case, Black boys.
It is too damning to us that two white women prosecutors were primarily responsible for the lies and fabrications that condemned five Black boys and their families to hell. It is time – well past time – that white women say we completely condemn the legal carceral system for its racist and misogynist practices.
When They See Us—reminds us of James Baldwin. In order to really see these boys and their families, white people have to see us as participatory in racism. So, to see their innocence, “we” must see our own part, our complicity, our responsibility in the newest forms of slavery, no longer chattel, but carceral. We wonder if we are making this too much about ourselves, and white people—but we are pretty sure that in order to really see and love black people, we must absorb the atrocities and promise to change them.
When They See Us makes white people see themselves when white privilege always gives us the option of not seeing, avoiding, silencing, pretending, doing nothing. People of color always are in the presence of white privilege—they know how it feels, and smells, and sounds. They do not have the choice that whites have—to ignore or deny white supremacy. Their lives depend on knowing and navigating whiteness.
We despise what the district attorney Linda Fairstein and prosecutor Elizabeth Lederer, along with the police, did in this case. They led with their prejudices and anger, and Fairstein did so as head of the Manhattan District Attorney’s sex crimes unit. We are feminists and abhor the rape of any woman, let alone the viciousness of this one. But we condemn the astounding/damning disregard for evidence and proof and the ruined lives of the five accused. She/they could not see their racism so she could not see them. She knew time lines were askew, she/they knew there was no DNA evidence, she knew there were multiple inconsistencies. And she did not care.
We are hoping for a public shaming of every racist act documented in this story. Although Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise, and Kevin Richardson were exonerated of the crime—the real rapist confessed in 2002—there has been no apology for the terrible wrongs done. Trump held firm when recently asked about his initial inflammatory racist remarks and actions regarding the guilt of these boys, now men. He put a bounty on their heads. There still needs to be a public acknowledgement of this unconscionable injustice, and proposed remedies to redress the suffering.
Already in these first weeks following the airing of When They See Us, Fairstein has been asked to and has resigned her seat on Vassar’s board of Trustees. Fairstein’s publisher has cut ties with her. A petition was circulated calling for the firing of Lederer at Columbia Law School, and she has also resigned. But we caution singularizing the problem to any two individuals. Rather, this entire case should be used to shed light on the corruption and terrorism of the carceral system at its structural roots. Remedies, more than punishments, are needed for all the Eric Garners and Kalief Browders, Sandra Blands and Cyntoia Browns.
Justice is still needed for those falsely accused and behind bars.
Our visor is individual and structural, personal and political. Our debt is to Black women and women of color who fight hard against injustice: the Black women who did not vote for Trump; who bring us Stacey Abrams and Senator Barbara Lee; the Black women and women of color who work hard to repair racist injustices, and struggle for us all, daily.
DuVernay has succeeded: “we” are the they and we see you and offer a new promise: to interrupt, undermine, uncover, dismember the injustice that makes us complicit and keeps white supremacy in place.
We want to be more than allies in this struggle. We will strive to become trusted comrades. We commit to being sisters under the skin. We will not stand idly by.
We commit to taking action against the racist injustice in the criminal system. Some of these efforts include providing support for the many organizations already doing this work, like WINNING JUSTICE through Color of Change, and the Nia Project in Atlanta. We will read, and continue to learn everything we can from Black women who have been in this struggle for decades: Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Angela Davis, Andrea Ritchie, and Mariame Kaba, to name a few. And in the spirit of reparations, we have made donations and will continue to give to Survived and Punished, #Free Black Mamas, BYP100, The Innocence Project, the Korey Wise Innocence Project, Equal Justice Initiative, and other organizations engaged in this work.
Sign this letter if you will and/or please circulate widely throughout your networks. Commit to making all white people uncomfortable with white supremacy while doing so—the sharing of this letter is meant to be a small step in interrupting the silences of white supremacy. This is a dispersed action, with moments of camaraderie as you read and commit.
Let us see what we can do, together.
Monica J. Casper
Heather Laine Talley
Catherine A. Tietjen
Rev. Dr. Joelle Colville-Hanson
Rev. Carol Tompkins
Anne M. Burns
Anna M. Stalter
Barbara A. Barnes