Erica Wunderlich Majumder, Olin Fellow, Washington University Graduate Student, Chemistry
Today there is great pain in my city. A long-simmering pain that has boiled over in recent weeks.
St. Louis is a very segregated city; not legally enforced, of course, but very segregated. We’ve had a sad, long history of racism and segregation. The very founding of Missouri was based on a compromise to extend slavery. St. Louis is also home to the Dred Scott case, which denied a freed slave freedom, and, well, things haven’t changed much in terms of race relations since then. There were race riots around 1910, and the post-WWII “white flight” to the suburbs left St. Louis, along with several other cities in America, devastated. Unofficial lines were drawn along economic status, which tends to follow racial status. The cycle of poverty is hard to escape, even with prosperity, integration and peace a couple miles away. In St. Louis, a few blocks can feel like a whole new planet, and it is immediately obvious when you’re the alien.
I’m a white girl from an upper-middle class white suburb of St. Louis. I went to public school and thanks to the “Voluntary Transfer Program,” a.k.a. desegregation measures still in effect from the 1950s, I had many classmates who were black and from the inner city or North County. I never really noticed or was aware of it until high school. Suddenly, there weren’t any VTP kids in my honors classes like there had been before and the 11-girl brawl in the English Hallway didn’t have one white girl in there. Anyway, I could tell stories of visiting schools in the inner city or driving my friend Fred home from the PSAT to a neighborhood where he warned me not to stop at the stop signs so I wouldn’t get shot, but I think you get the point.
My life was a lot different than the VTP kids’. I can’t control the fact that I was born to a white family with money, but I can acknowledge something rather taboo around here: white privilege. It is not legislated privilege, but it is real, it exists and it has helped me get to where I am today. Race relations in the U.S. would take a huge positive step if white people acknowledged our privilege and thought about what life would be like without it. Personally, I’ve done some reflecting on this after experiencing racism myself. I married a man from India and quickly learned that even in the 2010s, not everyone is okay with interracial couples. Getting to know him and his life experiences, I began to see how and where white privilege was in my life. I now live in a middle class, well-integrated suburb very close to the city. It’s better here, but white privilege still exists.
One aspect of white privilege is believing and having it actually be true that the police are your friends and that they are there to protect you. Police brutality, profiling or racially charged police shootings are sources of pain in my city today. Yet another unarmed black teenager was fatally shot by police in an ambiguous or seemingly innocent situation. Gangs and gun violence and violent crime are big problems in my city. Racial unrest from decades of enforced and unenforced segregation is a problem. The FBI is investigating this shooting so I can’t say exactly what happened, but enough is enough. We need to end the war on the young black male. They are being shot in our streets and rotting in our prisons. They are abandoned by our education system and ignored by opportunity. Peace and justice are needed here.
After a peaceful protest calling for justice, violent and selfish riots broke out – looting stores and leading to more shootings. I by no means condone these violent acts. They are no better than the first act of violence and do not redeem the community. This behavior, in fact, sets back efforts to achieve justice in the situation because people have retaliated with violence.
My city needs to acknowledge our past, our privilege and our transgressions. We only have success when there is victory for the least of us. Let’s put down our weapons and really make justice for Michael Brown by healing the racial wounds in this city and living in an integrated and peaceful tomorrow.