Ben Jealous On Authoritative Brutality And How To End Racism In America
The nation is in shock over the vicious beating death of Tyre Nichols at the hands of police officers in Memphis, Tennessee. What’s even more perplexing is that the crime—all five officers have been charged with second-degree murder—was committed by five fellow Black men.
“It confuses a lot of people,” says Ben Jealous, author, advocate and former NAACP president. “A lot of people think abuse of policing is simply about racism. When we think about the Black experience with racism, it’s so traumatic for us as individuals that we often disconnect from its very colonial, authoritative system. The way kings built empires was to divide people in order to conquer them. The way they kept everybody in line, whether they were indentured Europeans or African slaves, was with authoritarian policing. This is an extension of that.”
Studies prove that officers who have a sense of higher authoritarianism, “results in you being killed even more than racism,” Jealous points out. He explores the root cause of racism and more in Never Forget Our People Were Always Free: A Parable of American Healing, inspired by Jealous’ own life experience of a biracial upbringing. “I was born on a bridge between Black and white, North and South, and even the old 13 colonies and the new world of California and the Pacific Rim,” Jealous declares. “And while much of my life that bridge has been on fire, never has it been more on fire than it is right now.”
Jealous’ book is a collection of parables that aim to heal America’s wounded heart and end the social caste system that established racism by strengthening the bonds among Americans of all races, creeds, colors and political ideologies. Jealous draws inspiring lessons and hope for restoring our country’s strength and unity from stories of his ancestors, and interweaves vivid anecdotes from family, friends, mentors, colleagues and strangers who have shaped his life’s mission and his faith in humanity.
“I grew up in a southern family with a long tradition of telling the same story over and over and over again, usually my grandparents. They were trying to teach you something,” shares Jealous. “So these are all stories with a lesson. They’re drawn from my lived experience and weave back into ancient history pretty fast. And maybe the hardest part is I had to dig into my own family history in order to really write this book.”
Living in the Chesapeake Bay area of Maryland, Jealous has been surrounded by conservative views, but his interactions have yielded a surprising conclusion. “Getting to know my neighbors better, fishing, drinking, and walking the dog with a lot of them who voted for Trump, what was top of my mind is how much we have in common: similar aspirations for our kids and values and families and a similar preference in whiskey,” he says. “The overwhelming majority of this country wants to be one nation, to see their kids raised with hope and have that hope turn into real prosperity. And that’s what this book is.”
One of the book’s most compelling parables centers around a minister/Ku Klux Klan member who had a nervous breakdown in the 1940s after participating in a heinous act. He left the klan and moved to a diverse area to regain his sanity, decency and command of his family. “This is a story that ultimately underscores the need for us to practice the Golden Rule,” Jealous notes, adding how the lesson was explained to him by the man’s son. “He said his dad would say, ‘ Any poor white man who has his hand on the neck of a Negro pulling them down in the ditch needs to recognize he’s down in the ditch with them. And a rich man walks down the middle of the road, laughing at them both.’ That’s ultimately what Dr. King was trying to teach us at the end of his life. Dr. King was not assassinated in the midst of a desegregation battle. Dr. King was assassinated trying to bring poor whites and poor Blacks together. That was the purpose of his Poor People’s Campaign.”
Jealous recalls how many leaders have lost their lives in that quest to unite Blacks and whites, including Black Panther’s Fred Hampton, who was assassinated in 1969 by the Chicago police department. “He was mostly focused on bringing poor whites and poor Blacks together through the Black Panther Party and the Young Patriots Organization,” Jealous exclaims. Another was NAACP leader Harry T. Moore, who was murdered in 1951 for his activism. “He was the president of Florida’s progressive party, which was seeking to unite whites and Blacks in Florida.”
At the end of this month, Jealous will become the first Black head of the Sierra Club, the nation’s oldest and largest environmentalist organization. “Our Black and Brown communities are the most likely to support environmental protection,” he shares. “Our family history is very close to the earth, historically we come from farms in rural communities. We come from Africa. We come from people who have been aware of their environment for centuries, even though we may have been for the last several decades in urban environments. And even there, we’re the most vulnerable to climate change. My hope with the Sierra Club is to build an even bigger coalition by opening the doors wider and making more strategic alliances with Black and Latino pastors and business people and those leading poor whites as well. The reality is, when it comes to planet Earth, we are truly all in the same boat. With climate change, we need to be doing everything we can to stop it. The fate of this planet is the fate of us all.”