Thoughts on the Minneapolis Rebellion and the White Liberal Problem

Updated: Aug 15, 2020

By Todd M. Mealy, Ph.D.

May 29, 2020, Lancaster, Pennsylvania

The looting in Minneapolis and St. Paul is unfortunate. But I get it and I want you to understand too.

What is occurring in the Twin Cities—or Baltimore in ’15, Ferguson in ‘14, or even in Los Angeles in ’92, or 100 cities in ’68, or Detroit in ’67, or Watts in ’65—is not solely because of State violence. It is because of systemic violence that has always occurred in the backyard of White America: at our homes, at our jobs, at our social gatherings, at our churches, and at our schools. Why the looting? One reason is that almost nothing about American society and culture, except for a few short-lived victories, has told Black and other non-Black people of color that this is their country too. Not long ago the President of the United States told Black and Brown congresswomen to “go back” to another country that wasn’t even theirs. The line “Go back to your country” was then parroted by Whites spitting racist venom at people of color for reasons as simple as speaking another language. It is a line that dates back to Antebellum, when slaveholders and White racist lawmakers found the colonization of free-Blacks (born in the United States) to Africa as a solution to newly emerging populations of color challenging White political and economic power before the Civil War. African Americans have been treated as a colonized group for the duration of American history, first as enslaved persons, then told by the highest court in the land that they weren’t citizens, then trapped by lower courts, redlining, and policing policy into racialized zones that we have long called ghettos, and where we have called generational problems of poverty and crime results of their own doing.

Another reason is the justified frustration that White America has never listened to appeals for change, supposing that this nation had overcome generations of oppression simply because the 14th and 15th Amendments were finally enforced with the passage of the civil rights and voting rights acts in 1964 and 1965, respectively; and that state bans on interracial marriage were ruled unconstitutional almost a decade earlier. Why the looting? Why urban disruptions? A few days after visiting Watts in the midst of tumult in August 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. told CBS’s Mike Wallace, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” He said further that rebellion is “a reaction to the reluctance of White power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality for the Negro.” This has held true in the urban disruptions of my lifetime: Los Angeles, Ferguson, Baltimore, and now in two cities in Minnesota.

What protest advocating for the valuing of Black lives hasn’t upset White people? In 1960, non-violent activists sitting in at lunch counters were too extreme for Whites? Peaceful bus riders were also too much for Whites in 1961. King’s marches in 1963 were considered by most Whites as the wrong way to go about protesting for civil rights. In 1966, just 32% of the public supported King’s nonviolent movement. Tommy Smith and John Carlos throwing up fists at the 1968 Olympics was called an unthinkable display of anti-Americanism. So was Muhammad Ali’s protest of the war in Vietnam, when he was derided by White America for not choosing to sacrifice his life for a country that refused to grant him and his Black brothers and sisters full citizenship. Of course, Colin Kaepernick’s “take a knee” movement was too disrespectful to the flag—the same flag that existed when racialized terror in the form of lynching Black bodies was legal. All were non-violent demonstrations. On the other side of each one was both White virtuousness and White ignorance. The feigning of White people not knowing the extent of racially incentivized violence against Black people is no longer bearable. That’s why there is looting.

The truth is 82% of America’s history has seen some form of systemic anti-Black racism. In 1960, King said to an audience of White and Black people at the annual National Urban League conference in New York City that no person “can afford to be apathetic about the problem of racial justice.” Racism, he said, “is a problem that meets every man at his front door.” In a year that saw mostly college-age activists sitting in on a national scale to desegregate public lunch counters, King grew weary of White liberal fence-sitters that feigned ire at national stories about some type of racial abuse but kept silent about the inequality and prejudice existent in their own backyard. King criticized White liberals for performing a version of polite racism, a parade of moral goodness instead of actually combating racial injustice. He spoke about the “pressing need” for more vocal White-liberals-turned-white-antiracist-co-conspirators that “firmly believes in integration in its own community as well as in the deep South.” The civil rights movement needed the White liberal to “not only rise up with righteous indignation when a Negro is lynched in Mississippi, but will be equally incensed when a Negro is denied the right to live in his neighborhood, or join his professional association, or secure a top position in his business.” This speech is so powerful and continues to resonate in American society because it goes to the heart of the White liberal problem: that Whites are blinded to their own prejudices.

Critical race scholar Shannon Sullivan calls “Good White People” those White folks who draw clean ontological lines between overt White racist Ku Kluxers and antiracist Whites, while skipping over White liberals stuck in the middle that actually cause more harm in less spectacular ways. In similar fashion, Joe Feagin calls an organizing principle, or ideas, images, feelings, dispositions, assumptions, perspectives, and worldview about race the “White Racial Frame.” This white, Eurocentric, racial framing of the world is fostered by the media, schools, peer groups, social archetypes, color-blind child rearing, places of worship, the workplace, and other cultural institutions where ideas are commonly transmitted. It is a deep and inescapable influence on how White people see the world as a fishbowl, assuming everyone’s lived experiences are the same, that everyone in this country should be intractably indivisible and uniform. The news that has surfaced in May 2020—in New York’s Central Park, in Brunswick, Georgia, and in Minneapolis—show how Whites consciously and unconsciously use this color-evasive frame in accenting the privileges and virtues of whiteness while devaluing blackness.

For my White brothers and sisters feeling compelled to say something negative about what is happening in Minneapolis and other places across the United States, I say, “Just stop.” It’s our fault. Can we all finally accept that responsibility?


Todd Mealy is the founder of the Equity Institute for Race Conscious Pedagogy, the author of Race Conscious Pedagogy: Disrupting Racism at Majority White Schools (forthcoming Nov. 2020), and Instant Karma: John Lennon, the White Liberal Problem, and the N-word (forthcoming 2021). Twitter and Facebook: @ToddMealy / Website:

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