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Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Wesley Lowery addresses the Westminster Town Hall Forum

Ahead of the fourth anniversary of George Floyd’s murder, Lowery talks up building a multiracial democracy in a multicultural society

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Wesley Lowery (Photo courtesy of Wesley Lowery)

LOUISVILLE — The Westminster Town Hall Forum at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis called on Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Wesley Lowery  to deliver its annual Arc Toward Justice talk Thursday to mark the fourth anniversary of the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25, 2020.

Lowery, the author of “American Whitelash: A Changing Nation and the Cost of Progress,” won the Pulitzer Prize and George Polk Award in 2016 for developing Fatal Force, a real-time national database of people shot and killed by the police. The Washington Post has tracked nearly 9,700 fatal police shootings since 2015.

Watch Lowery’s talk followed by a question-and-answer session hosted by Kyndell Harkness, assistant managing editor of diversity and community at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, by going here. Lowery is introduced by Westminster Town Hall Forum’s outgoing director, Tane Danger, at the 45:10 mark.

Lowery said he’s been thinking recently about the arc of justice in both Minneapolis and St. Louis, where he arrived three days after an unarmed Black teenager, Michael Brown, was killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri, on Aug. 9, 2014. Lowery figured he’d spend three days there, write a weekend piece for the Washington Post, and then return home. “I ended up spending three months in Ferguson and the next decade writing about race and policing,” Lowery said. “We have lived a lot of lifetimes together since 2014.”

“No matter your politics, no one likes watching” videos of people being killed by police, Lowery said. When we see them, we have “a visceral response,” either accepting that this happened or determining “this isn’t what really happened,” he said. “It’s very human in so many ways. It comes from a place of belief that something so terrible couldn’t happen today.”

“Very often, mirrors don’t show us the picture we’d like to see,” Lowery said. Ten years ago, he talked to a number of everyday people in Ferguson who called their community “an epicenter of violence.” He also talked to the police chief and the local police officers’ union who assured him it was not.

Then Lowery turned to the U.S. Department of Justice, where a statistician told him the department had figures on how many people have died at the hands of police, but the number was not adequate, since only a few hundred of the nation’s 18,000 police departments responded to an annual DOJ survey.

“This offended our sensibility,” Lowery recalled. “2014 was not the Stone Age.” We know, for example, how many people die each year in shark attacks, Lowery noted, but not how many people have been killed each year by police.

“There was blowback” to the reporting that followed, he recalled. “Even asking the question was anti-police. What I’d say is, there was a purity in the inquiry. We all want to live in a world where police don’t kill people, police included.”

Lowery and his team set up a system of “complex” Google alerts to bring attention whenever a local news outlet reported on the death of a person in their community that resulted from a police shooting. While the under-reported federal data had the figure at around 400 per year, Lowery’s team found at least 1,000 were dying annually.

“The majority were white and armed. That shouldn’t surprise us,” Lowery said. But “we found when you start looking at the rate that Black Americans are killed, it is disproportionate.” That’s why Ferguson residents “felt it was happening all the time,” Lowery said. Across the nation, a Black person is killed by police every 18 days or so, “and almost no one gets arrested for it.”

“I’d like to say that’s the end of the story. We defeated racism and moved on,” Lowery said. But the work is ongoing. “We spent years doing big, complex investigations,” Lowery said. “We know we live in a society where some are forced to think and talk about race all the time. Others are uncomfortable they might be accountable for what other people might have done. There is a defensiveness about whiteness.”

Lowery briefly explained the scale developed by psychologist Gordon Allport to show how prejudice can lead to violence. “A key component to prejudice is when it’s externally validated and voiced. It justifies fear and allows me to start taking action, like self-segregation,” Lowery said. “I will worship here while you worship over there.” On the Allport Scale, that progresses to active discrimination, then interpersonal violence and eventually societal violence. “It provides a permission structure,” Lowery said. “A challenge of this moment is being willing to look at ourselves in the mirror and see the truth of what we’re looking at.”

“I think our challenge, those of us who are committed to a vision of multiracial democracy and a multicultural society,” he said at the close of his presentation, “is to engage in that truth, because by looking in that mirror, it allows us to actually locate, identify and carry out the program that helps us build the world we want to live in — if not for us, at least for the children who are going to come behind us.”

During the question-and-answer session, Lowery noted that the definition of “whiteness” was established during the colonial era in the century before the Revolutionary War. “You started to see armed rebellions because of income inequality,” Lowery told Harkness. During Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676, “Virginia is almost overthrown,” according to Lowery. Afterward, rights for white people began to be written into law.

“New groups arrive at our shores, and when they arrive, they immediately suss out that we live in a racialized caste system,” Lowery said. Groups including Italian-, Irish- and Jewish-Americans “arrived, and all acclimated themselves into American whiteness,” Lowery said. “They faced overt discrimination, and we see time and time again them trying to get accepted into whiteness and thus accessing the benefits of full citizenship.”

Asked what a single individual can do to support multiracial democracy, Lowery suggested that the person first “endeavor to live inside the multiracial democracy. Very few of us spend that much time interacting with people who are actually deeply different than us.” As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his final book, Lowery said, “our choice is to be in real community with each other, or to have real chaos.”

“What I would suggest is, we didn’t make the good choice,” Lowery said. “That’s why I love spaces like this,” he said, referring to the Westminster Town Hall Forum. “I get to yell at what we’ve done wrong for an hour, and then we say, ‘Alright! Same time next week?’”

“If we are going to be a multiracial democracy and multicultural society, that requires us to be pretty constantly uncomfortable,” said Lowery, who’s the grandson of both a Black Baptist minister and a white Baptist minister. “It requires us to find a way to coexist without disparaging each other and committing violence against each other.”

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