DeRay McKesson Explains What White People Still Don't Get About Racism

The activist talked to us about his new book, Ferguson, and how white supremacy hurts the country.
August 29, 2018, 4:00am
Deray McKesson in St. Louis in 2015. Photo by Michael B. Thomas/AFP/Getty

Four years ago, DeRay McKesson was a school administrator in Minneapolis when he saw the protests against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, on the news and thought, as he told me, This is wild. The least he could do, he figured, was go see what’s up, help out, and be present. His planned weekend trip led to him quitting his job and moving to Ferguson, spawning a career as an activist that (so far) has included a run for mayor in his hometown of Baltimore, a meeting with Barack Obama, and his current gig as a host for liberal podcast behemoth Crooked Media. Along the way he’s become a leading voice for Black Lives Matter and also had his social media monitored by the Department of Homeland Security.


In a new book, On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope, out September 4, McKesson details his upbringing in Baltimore; his life as an educator, organizer, and protestor; and race relations in the US. VICE talked to McKesson to find out why he decided to write a book, what most white people don’t get about racism, and how the legacy of white supremacy is crippling America. Here’s what he had to say:

VICE: How did the book come about?
DeRay McKesson: People had asked me to write a book like two years ago. If I had written a book two years ago, it literally would have been a book recounting what happened in the street because that was what I was closest to. I was at a point recently where I wanted to look back and think about the lessons I’ve learned. I've been to a lot of places. I've talked to a lot of people. [It’s about] how we got to where we are, how we get to the other side of freedom, and what that means and looks like. I was [finally] at a place where I could do that reflection. Most of the writing that I've done up until now has been on Twitter. This is my first offering where I could have the space to think through the ideas, reflect, and offer insight based on what I've seen and what I've done.

You were very instrumental in the beginning of Black Lives Matter and the protests in Ferguson. What was that like?
When we were in the street during the protests in St. Louis, in Ferguson, there was no organization that started the protests. There were a lot of incredible organizers who aren't a part of any organization, and have never been a part of one, but they've been a part of the work. What's beautiful about Ferguson and all the protests in St. Louis through the initial phases of the movement was that you didn't need a membership card to do the work. You didn't need to be validated by somebody. You didn't have to be chosen. You just had to follow the call. There was so many people who came out every single night and stayed out because they knew it was the right work to do.

You write in your book that Twitter helped to save your life. Can you explain that?
You can publicly ask questions about the police now and that literally wasn't happening in 2014. Even in Baltimore, they’re so critical of the police now, rightly critical, the same way they're critical of all city agencies. That rigor just wasn't there four years ago. The people asking the tough questions and really challenging were the protestors. Those were the people in the street. Those were the people on Twitter and Facebook. That was us. In no small way, Twitter saved us. Twitter helped us to tell our own story in real time. Twitter helped us build community [without having] to be physically proximate to people all the time.

I knew so many people before I ever saw their face. But I knew them. I saw them online all day. I knew how they engaged in the world. And vice-versa, people knew me. They didn't have to be around me all day. When we were in the street, it was like, “Oh, that's you." We really felt connections and relationships so much quicker that it kept us all together. Even if we weren't all best friends, we knew each other's hearts. We knew how each other operated in a way that actually allowed us to sustain the first wave of protest for a really long time.

What don't most white people get about racism?
I think that there are people who feel that because they didn't personally do something egregiously racist that they don't benefit from racism or that they have no responsibility to help fix it. We know that wealth in this country is inequitably distributed, not because white people worked harder, but because the system did it at the structural level. We all have a responsibility to correct that. You think about white wealth and it’s the result of systemic racism. I think people engage in denial. Denial is a big part of it. Avoidance is another big part of it. There are a lot of things that people just want to move past. The truth [must] come before the reconciliation. There's no way to engage in honest conversation about how to move forward if we don't actually talk about how we got here.

Author photo by Blair Caldwell. Images courtesy of the publisher.

How do you think the legacy of racism and white supremacy hurts the country?
If the promise of the country is that people can live in their gifts, then what you see right now is that there are a lot of people who can't access those gifts at all because they can't eat, they don't have anywhere to sleep, they're in jail for things that make no sense, they're in a criminal justice system that isn't about rehabilitation and growth, that's just about punishment. I think you see a host of things happening where there are people who have immense talent and gifts, and they're not able to share those gifts, they're not able to live in those gifts, they're not able to be the fullness of who they are because they are literally just trying to survive. We have resources to provide, but we at large, we made a choice not to. We can make different choices.

What can we do as a society to work to get rid of racism?
One is never let the system off the hook. The way people are experiencing our system in their day-to-day lives is always rooted in some systemic thing. I encourage people to learn an issue well. Whatever their thing is gonna be, they should learn that well. Because when you learn one thing well, it actually opens you up so you can think about a lot of other things and see how the system works in turn. You have more power than anybody will ever want you to believe. The status quo continues to be the status quo when you don't think that you can make a difference. It's designed so that you, as an individual, feel powerless and small. But you'd be surprised at how many huge things happen because of one email, one call, two calls, three calls. The best organizers always started small. It started in people's living rooms, started in a random meeting. That's how this work starts.

On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope comes out September 4.

Follow Seth Ferranti on Twitter and Instagram.