What it means to be black in America: Activist DeRay Mckesson explores injustice in new book

September 7, 2018 | 'Pointing out racism has always been divisive' (DeRay Mckesson with WTOP)

WASHINGTON — It has been four years since unarmed black teen Michael Brown was shot to death in Ferguson, Missouri, after a confrontation with white police officer Darren Wilson. Brown’s death sparked racial unrest in the city and nationwide and helped give rise to the Black Lives Matter movement.

One of the many civil rights activists drawn to Ferguson as protests erupted was DeRay Mckesson, a Baltimore native.

In his new memoir, On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope, Mckesson dives deep into the chaos in the streets, the violent militarization of police, what it means to be black in America and how to address the gulf between races.

Mckesson, who also hosts the Crooked Media podcast Pod Save the People, told WTOP that embarking on the trip to observe the protests in person changed his life.

“I saw what was happening in St. Louis and I was like, ‘This doesn’t seem right,'” Mckesson said. “So the least I could do was go with my own eyes and check it out.”

He decided to go for the weekend and was tear-gassed his first night there.

“I was like, ‘This is really wild. That’s like a wild thing,'” Mckesson told WTOP. “So I said, ‘I’ll do whatever I can to make sure people never have to experience this.'”

Protests spread all throughout the U.S. and birthed a movement.

“We see how that has changed the landscape of how we talk about justice in this country and then how other people have thought about their own activism,” Mckesson said.

Throughout the book, he peels back the differences between black and white experiences in America. One particular focus is police and criminal justice.

One example he gave: In Florida, theft of $300 or more is a felony.

“When you become a felon, you permanently lose the right to vote,” Mckesson explained. “And when people think of felons, they don’t think about somebody who stole one expensive thing … they think about an axe murder or something.”

Mckesson says the way the United States’ system of “mass incarceration” became “mass” was through “seemingly minute ways that have a huge impact.”

Investigations into police misconduct have their own problems as well.

“What we learned about the police … In California, there’s a law that says that any investigation of an officer that lasts more than a year can never result in discipline,” Mckesson said. “There’re all these things that we realized almost guarantee that the police won’t be held accountable.”

Black Lives Matter took off in Ferguson. It continued to grow after prosecutors — both state and federal — said evidence cleared Wilson in the shooting of Brown and did not indict him.

But some believe Black Lives Matter does more to divide Americans rather than heal.

“It’s true that the movement is a big space — just like the civil rights movement was made up of many different people and organizations and groups,” Mckesson said. “But in general we know that pointing out racism has always been divisive in this country for some people.”

He said some people benefit from keeping the status quo as it is.

“And those people will always say that any conversation about equity and justice is a bad thing,” Mckesson said.

He makes note of the situation in which NFL free agent Colin Kaepernick finds himself.

“Colin didn’t say anything radical,” Mckesson said. “The radical part of Colin is that he has to say it in the first place. Colin’s saying that racism is alive and present, that it shows up in the criminal justice system, in society and the way that wealth is distributed. …

“That’s true. We know that the wealth gap for black and white people is going to hit historic levels by 2053. The median wealth for black people will be $0.”

Mckesson also points to research indicating that more black men are in jail today than were enslaved.

“These things are just true. So the only people outraged by that are people who benefit from the current status quo,” Mckesson said.

He gives a lot of credit to Twitter for helping give black people a voice, though he knows the social media site has an ugly side as well.

“I am under no illusions. I am one of the people who has learned the good and bad of the platform,” Mckesson said. “The first person ever permanently banned from Twitter was banned for raising money to try and get me killed.”

But he said the real power of Twitter stems from using it as a tool to tell the truth.

“Missouri would have tried to convince you we didn’t exist,” Mckesson told WTOP. “The first city that you saw aerial footage of was Baltimore because in Missouri there was a no-fly zone. So without our footage, our tweets, you wouldn’t have seen anything.”

He also believes that the social media giants have a responsibility to make sure their platforms don’t become a haven for hate.

Beyond the movement and shifting the American zeitgeist, Mckesson discusses how his life experiences have shaped his current efforts.

“We show up in the fullness of who we are. We bring our lives to our work,” he said. “So I write about what it means to be a gay man; I write about my parents and my mother. … All these things are important, and the book is a meditation on the most important lessons I’ve learned and the stories that I’ve seen and lived.”

Does Mckesson think white people understand what it means to be black?

“The real question is: Do white people understand the way that race works in this country and how they benefit from it and what we have to do to dismantle the supremacy of whiteness?” Mckesson said.

“I think that a lot of people understand injustice. I think that a lot of people understand racism. I think there are less people who understand what to do about it or how to attack it, but that’s what the work of activism is.”

He said he’s seen white people do fantastic work in the name of equality.

“You don’t have to identify as an activist to do the work, but I’ve seen incredible white people who say, ‘I get my privilege, I get that it comes from a system, and we should dismantle the system,'” Mckesson told WTOP. “And those are the requirements.”

Ultimately, Mckesson said, his goal is to get people to think deeper.

“I hope that people read the chapter on policing and are like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that.’ I hope that people read about identity and the chapter on my mother and start to think about their own lives in a deeper way,” Mckesson said.

“And the ‘Letter to an Activist’ at the end is important to me because it’s all the things I wish someone had told me in 2014 when we were in the street before anyone was reaching out to us.”

On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope is available now.

Will Vitka

William Vitka is a Digital Writer/Editor for WTOP.com. He's been in the news industry for over a decade. Before joining WTOP, he worked for CBS News, Stuff Magazine, The New York Post and wrote a variety of books—about a dozen of them, with more to come.

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