From Ferguson to Fishing Communities, Racial Inequity is Real

This post comes to us from Brett Tolley, NAMA’s fishing community organizer.

I think by now we’ve all heard about Michael Brown, the 18-year African-American young man, who last week was crossing the street in broad daylight, unarmed, and was shot to death by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.

Amidst the whirlwind of news that I’ve absorbed in desperate search to make sense of this tragedy as well as the ongoing violence, I was shocked to hear the Ferguson Mayor James Knowles recently say, “there’s not a racial divide in the city of Ferguson.”


I was also shocked to read the PEW Research Center’s national survey that found blacks and whites had sharply different reactions to the police shooting of Michael Brown. By about four-to-one, 80% of African Americans said the shooting in Ferguson raised important issues about race that merit discussion, compared to only 18% of whites. 

Another way to put it – 82% of white people surveyed believe this event does not merit a discussion around race.

I struggled to comprehend that so few white people believed race did not even merit a discussion. Seriously? Even in the wake of several other recent and senseless racially charged killings such as Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, and Oscar Grant? Even despite growing racial inequities in our schools, prisons, healthcare, government, food, and the list goes on and on? Really? 82% of white people don’t believe this merits a conversation about race?

But then I thought more and realized that 82% is probably right on the mark.

I’m a white male who grew up in a predominately white community and was granted privileges that I did nothing to earn. And although I’ve worked and lived for years in communities of color, right now I work mostly in white communities and amongst mostly white people. It’s been my experience that my white friends and colleagues struggle to talk about race.


In the fishing communities where I work, there are also small minorities of white people who don’t struggle to talk about race. And then, unfortunately, there are some who are straight up ignorant and racist. My guess is that neither make up the 82%. I think the majority of white people fall somewhere in the middle.

At a recent food systems conference, I participated in a workshop about dismantling racism. One of my white colleagues said, “My community is nearly all white people, we are not affected by racism, and I’m not sure where to go with this discussion.” 

To me this reflected much of what I hear in the communities where I work. And my take away is not that my white friends and colleagues are unwilling to acknowledge racism, but rather they struggle to enter the conversation in a meaningful way and they don’t necessarily see themselves as connected to the racially-charged aspects of our society.

Part of the challenge white people face entering the fight against racism is personal: we reject overt acts of racism and/or we don’t see or experience racism on a daily basis. 

What we are learning is that even if we don’t identify ourselves in these ways, there is something called implicit bias, a physiological element of our brains that tends to favor one group of people over others almost without our explicit consent. 

Maybe it’s that we are blind to our unearned privileges? Or perhaps we fear saying the wrong thing and want to avoid making things worse. Or perhaps we fear getting ostracized by other white people for standing in solidarity with people of color. And then there is the issue of white people not realizing some of the limitations placed on them is rooted in racism. Maybe it’s all, none, or much more than that.

But lets pretend those fears are true for some people. I’m not discounting the fears, but I would like to challenge other white people to go deeper. Become more aware of how you benefit from white privilege. Be brave to enter into the conversation. And question whether or not failing to speak out or act is the right course of action when inaction might mean the oppression or even death of innocent people.

At NAMA we’re taking up the challenge, especially as part of our role within the New England Food Solutions Network and the US Food Sovereignty Alliance where dismantling racial inequity in our food system is an explicit network value.

I imagine not everyone reading this will understand why NAMA or any group that works on marine conservation or food justice issues would be discussing racism. But I’m reminded of what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” 

And to our allies and colleagues who are committed to advancing justice for the ocean, fishing communities, and the seafood system, I’d say Michael Brown’s death is highly relevant. I appeal to the white community to go deeper in our collective dialogue, remembering that we’re part of a much larger community of people, and to lean into the challenging discussions of our time.

If you want to go deeper, here are a couple additional articles that may help you start thinking about race differently:

  • Does Money Make You Mean? TED Talk by Paul Piff who has done research on privilege and how even those who know the deck is stacked in their favor tend to ascribe success to personal effort)