On Madison, Tony Robinson, and White Liberal Defensiveness

Last weekend Tony Robinson, 19, was shot five times by a police officer and killed. This happened just blocks from where I live.

The last week has been a flurry of protests, press conferences, demonstrations, and local and national news coverage. It’s been surreal for me to see activists I follow as far away as Palestine tweeting pictures of my neighborhood as they connected Robinson’s death with the many shootings of young men of color by police that have received media attention since the killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson last August.

Madison is a segregated community. In the Willy Street neighborhood, where I live and where Robinson was killed, the stereotypical resident is white with a yoga mat and a co-op membership and a “Recall Scott Walker” bumper sticker. As a city we have dialogues about race and we have alarming racial disparities. In my coverage of the local music scene I’ve found deep-seated racial tensions on the subject of hip hop, which was all but banned from Madison’s top venues until very recently.

Madison is also a very politically aware community. There are protests at the state capitol almost every week, and between the vibrant UW campus and the large number of retired activists—Madison’s beloved “old hippies”—this is a place where taking to the streets is as commonplace as a food truck in Asheville. It’s the Berkeley of the Midwest, they like to say.

What’s become evident to me as a relative Madison newcomer is that it’s the perfect microcosm of well-meaning white liberal America. The intentions are good. The execution, however, has problems born of that very insidious white privilege: the assumption that one’s own lived experience is universal.

@DetoursfromHome put it perfectly:


Quoted with permission
Quoted with permission


I’ve observed the following attitudes over the last week from white Madisonians (and I’m certainly not the first to do so), and I’d like to connect them with the larger issue of how we white folks should react to the upheaval of our comfort zone that the Black Lives Matter movement has brought.


“We Shall Overcome”

We should be at rallies. We should show support for racial equality activism. But if there were not fundamental differences between us and Americans of color, we wouldn’t need these protests at all. And a white person holding a sign that says “We Shall Overcome” misses that point entirely. We do not need to “overcome.” We need to acknowledge that we benefit every day from a system from which others have not yet overcome. Holding up that sign doesn’t help to dismantle the system; instead, it reinforces the false notion that white people can somehow understand what it’s like to be black in America.

This goes for white people chanting “Hands Up—Don’t Shoot” and holding signs that say “I am [Mike Brown/Eric Garner/insert name of young black victim of police violence]” too. You’re not these men. You will never know what it’s like to be pulled over and wonder if it’s because of your race. Recognize that.


“This doesn’t happen here.”

Madisonians have as much city pride as a Scandinavian-influenced Midwestern culture will allow. I saw many initial responses to Tony Robinson’s death along the lines of “there must be some explanation” and “Madison isn’t like Ferguson” and “Don’t condemn a whole community.”

This is erasure.

This did happen here. It does happen here. And Madison is so segregated and so steeped in respectability politics—Princess Ojiaku wrote that, here, she’s expected to hide her experiences with racism to ensure the comfort of others—that white people are often truly oblivious to the actual racism that goes on here every day. Loving African art and voting Democrat does not make you immune to systemic anti-Blackness, and in Madison we seem to have this idea that being liberal exonerates you in every specific instance of racism. Wisconsin’s statistics paint a far different story.


“This happens everywhere.”

Yes. But so does unemployment; so do pollution, crime, and other issues that communities regularly consider to be worthy of action. Something doesn’t have to be unique to our hometown for us to talk about how to address it.


“Why aren’t we talking about [something else]?”

At every Madison rally I’ve attended on the subject of racial inequality, a white person has grabbed the mic to demand we talk about their pet issue of choice. They think they’re helping and showing solidarity, and they will likely attempt to draw parallels with the issue at hand. But they’re literally stealing the spotlight, when white folks have a multitude of venues for the issues we care about. The importance of your issue is irrelevant. Fight for it on your own time. If you truly believe that black lives matter, believe that black voices matter, and listen.


“This isn’t the time to be angry/divisive/militant.”

This is well covered territory on Skepchick, especially as it pertains to feminism. But when the lives of children are on the line, it’s even more egregious conceit to tell a community to “calm down.” You are being made to feel uncomfortable about your privilege. People of color are made to feel unsafe in their own homes and neighborhoods. These are not the same.


“I support the police.”

Literally no one is suggesting we as a nation dismantle the police force. You can support law enforcement while thinking critically about how racism, which runs through our entire culture, manifests in police practices, and discussing how to address that. If you support the police, hold them to a standard of excellence, and treat the murders of children—and the Department of Justice’s report confirming the testimony of Ferguson activists that law enforcement is racially biased—as an outrage rather than a protected status quo.



Julia Burke

Julia is a wine educator with an interest in labor and politics in the wine industry. She has also written about fitness and exercise science, mental health, beer, and a variety of other topics for Skepchick. She has been known to drink Amaro Montenegro with PB&J.

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  1. Clearly these kinds of shootings can happen anywhere and it’s not about who’s living in any particular town or city. More often than not it seems to me that it has to do with local law enforcement and who becomes a police officer and how committed a given community is to the principles of community engagement and ongoing training for officers. In most liberal progressive communities you’ll probably find that most of your local officers are not the children of old hippies and are from neighboring towns and cities because it’s too expensive to live in said liberal progressive city/town and the officers live down the highway where houses are cheaper and rent is lower and the kids of hippies and professors have other career plans.

    Another factor is training. The more an officer is trained in engagement and avoiding confrontation and the better an officer’s relationship is with their community the less likely it is that situations will escalate into violence. Fear and being anxious about getting shot or seriously hurt are real things for law enforcement officers. However high quality and frequent training is what makes the difference and given the national trend of reducing municipal and law enforcement budgets we often get what we pay for; or we allow internal and reactive decision making within law enforcement to determine the best course of action which has led to decreased transparency and the increased militarization of how police departments practice. I work for a state agency where we social worker types are generally liberal, mostly women and fairly diverse racially and culturally. We also have a problem with removing children from homes of color at a disproportionate rate to white homes as do most all state child welfare agencies. We need and get training so that we think about how we deal with our clients and how we make decisions so that differences are respected but not part of the decision making and risk assessment.

    I suspect that political polarization is also a factor when members of law enforcement tend toward conservative “law and order” views and better more progressive police practice is often viewed as soft liberal hug a criminal bullshit. These kinds of thinking errors on their own can lead to unreasonable police shootings, and when racism, fear, and unchallenged stereotypes and perceptions are part of the mix the risks can only be compounded.

    We know how to improve the functioning and practice of law enforcement and reduce the deaths of people of color at the hands of those dedicated to protect them, and it involves money and political will at a local and national level. President Obama initiated a Task Force on 21st Century Policing that hopefully will get this process moving. Also more and more law enforcement agencies are recognizing a need to have specialized officers trained in dealing with folk with mental health issues. Small steps but at least steps in the right direction.

    I also live in a small progressive liberal university city and have worked with the local law enforcement departments for 28 years. It’s been my experience that as our city mayors have typically reflected the progressive nature of the community there has been a commiserate expectation that our police department will reflect the community in diversity and attitude as well. It’s a work in progress and over a year ago they started a neighborhood policing outreach. Time will tell if this is successful but at least there is a public and political expectation that the effort will be made.

  2. “Literally no one is suggesting we as a nation dismantle the police force.”

    Not quite no one. No one relevant is, but there’s always someone who shows up at these rallies, always white, upper-middle-class, and a college student (IOW, privilege personified), who advocates abolishing the police force, or other so-radical-it’ll-never-happen-and-thank-the-FSM-for-that options. Naturally, this person will be the one the media focuses on.

    On a Facebook group for skeptics of color, I actually ran afoul of that person a few months back.

    I saw this quite a bit wrt: MMIW too. Erasure, and ‘can’t we talk about something else?’ (Or, ‘it’s not a priority’.) Also with police brutality. (Look up starlight tours, if you want to learn about something really messed up.)

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