Sunday, December 4, 2016

Liberalism's Last Chance U



























I’ve been meaning to watch Last Chance U, a documentary series about junior college football at Eastern Mississippi Community College, since it came out this summer, but each time I’ve gotten sidetracked by shows I'd hoped would provide clues, signposts, explanations of the times, and such, for the anthropological anomaly that has been 2016. Shows like Black Mirror, Westworld, and Stranger Things, if you feel me?

But then I watched all six episodes of Last Chance U this week and realized my mistake. Not only was it some of the best television I’ve seen in a long time—it’s honestly hard to believe all this stuff happened while the cameras were rolling for the documentary—but the show contained more answers and clues about the recent demise of liberalism in America than all of those other shows combined.

If you haven’t watched it yet, SPOILERS COMING. The show profiles a junior college that serves as a last refuge for aspiring football athletes that have hit roadblocks on the path to D-1. The reasons include bad grades, arrests, and in a few cases, players getting stuck riding pine behind older, more experienced players. Many of the young men on the team have overcome immense challenges to get to EMCC, and though a good many are traumatized and bearing their scars openly, they're making it despite odds stacked against them. And, man, can the kids on this team play football.

The season gets rolling and the drama is intense. The head coach, Buddy Stephens, a husky white man with a goatee and an unapologetically foul mouth, warns his squad: We run over teams. We shove the ball up their nose. They hate us as a result, so be prepared. By the final game of the regular season, the squad has only lost once and they are in contention for the national championship. The rankings are in large part based on score, so the team does not hold back, piling on points, calling timeouts in garbage time, remorselessly, and shamelessly, scoring touchdown after touchdown.

Coach Stephens again warns his squad. These guys, Mississippi Delta, the final opponent before the playoffs, are going to play dirty. Be ready. Don’t respond. The only way you can lose is if you let them get inside your head. Before the game one of the Delta players punches an EMCC assistant coach off camera, and Stephens’s players pace back and forth apoplectic while a staff trainer sews five stitches into his face. 

The game starts and out of the gate Delta is playing like their coach has assigned Conrad Dobler’s autobiography for English and asked them to act it out on the field in lieu of writing book reports. Low hits, late hits, out of bounds hits—it gets ugly fast. Each and every time Coach Stephens urges his players to hold back, don’t engage them, don’t let them get to you, they nod and somehow superhumanly comply.

But the other team wants a fight and they are not going to stop until they get it. After an incomplete pass attempt to running back DJ Law, a first-class talent who’s a virtual lock for a prestigious D-1 school, a Delta player hits him helmet-to-helmet while he’s prone and vulnerable on the ground, seemingly trying to concuss or decapitate him. Law pops up and shoves him by reflex, and it's the moment Delta's been waiting for. They clear the bench and crowd over Law, who’s on the ground, stomping and kicking with cleats.

Coach Stephens is screaming at his players to hold back, while they are watching their friend and teammate curl up in the fetal position at the bottom of a stampede. Delta players pick up trashcans and hurl them and swing their helmets like balls and chains. The Delta coaching staff meanwhile stand by and do nothing. At this point Stephens’s players decide that saving Law is more important than anything else, including making it to the title game, and they rush into the scrum to retrieve him and bring him to safety.

Finally it breaks up and Law's in bad shape. Coach Stephens stands over his group of players, young mostly black men on one knee, except for Law, who is teetering and wobbling with a trainer in the background. Coach begins berating them, calling them thugs and labeling their behavior "gangster shit." He seems—and clearly is—angrier about his players clearing the bench than about the other team trying to kill DJ Law. It’s the show’s moment of truth, and in this moment Coach uses the bulk of his energy, and words, speaking about decorum, rules, how his team isn’t like the other team, and that they are better than that. He never once stops his tirade to check in on DJ Law.

Predictably, the players can’t believe it. Law walks out of the locker room during the coach’s screaming and boards the bus alone, reeling and distraught. The rest of the players leave and begin grumbling about racism, self-defense, white men, and how the white man simply does not and will never care about them—Coach has lost his team.

Which all leads me back to liberals, who're in the aftermath of a similar drubbing. We played a dirty opponent, one who refused to play by the rules, one who came for a fight and refused to settle for less, and, who, as a result, ended up kicking our sissy liberal asses Mississippi Delta-style. And after the fight, rather than stopping to check in on DJ Law, or in this case, the many people of color who're being targeted by acts of racial violence and terror all across the country, we’re lording over them and lecturing, too.

Finding no quarter anywhere else, people of color have come to the Democratic Party—much like Stephens’s players arrived at Eastern Mississippi Community College. Yet during the campaign, when students asked us for protection against feces swastikas, n-words, KKK and blackface costumes on campus, we said police it yourselves. When they asked for safe spaces, we lectured them about the importance of free speech.

Instead of validating their concerns about safety and promising them protection, which in light of the nearly 900 incidents of racial violence since the election, are very real, we huddle them up for a lecture on “identity politics.” Rather than saying, “You got it, we'll protect you even if it means we lose the next ten games, or in this case, elections,” we lecture about how liberals are “over-defending” minorities. Instead of saying, “Wait, white supremacists are rallying behind Donald Trump and moving into the White House?", we double down, devising ever-more creative ways to say the same thing.

So as I sat in horror as Last Chance U came to a close, so I sit in horror at white liberals. Our black and brown brothers and sisters are telling us they’re in danger, surrounded by angry people who, like Delta's players, are openly demonstrating a desire to hurt them. They’re telling us we’re wrong to lecture about identity politics and wrong to give a pass to people who don’t think racial violence is a deal-breaker—but like Stephens our only focus is on making the next game, decorum, and winning.

But in the end Coach had an epiphany. He listened, if a bit reluctantly, and went back to the film room to re-watch the tape. Coach Stephens was smart enough to suspect he may have been wrong, to admit his first and only response should’ve been to protect Law, and afterwards, his players when they went to protect him. Coach Stephens was smart enough to get his team together, apologize, tell them they were right, that he was proud of them. The question is, liberals, will we ever be smart enough to do the same?

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

LIBERAL WHITE GENOCIDE AND WHY I'M SO MAD


I had a great conversation with a friend who's visiting from out of town last night, and one of the things he mentioned was how angry I seem on social media all the time: "Like, do you have to be SUCH a dick?" he said to me, probably hoping it would go down as a kind of intervention on behalf of all of the other white people in my life who're probably thinking the same thing at the moment.

He was talking about why I'm always lumping white people together in the same boat, calling ALL of us, YES, ALL of us, racist--basically that use of caps right there was what he was referring to, why I specifically and it seems deliberately opt for all caps in such situations, to strike nerves, rather than pausing and taking the time to make critical distinctions for strategic diplomatic purposes and feelings.

What I realized throughout the course of our conversation was that not even the people closest to me, people who've been like surrogate family to me, people who I know and love, and who know and love me, understand why it is that I or anyone else with a brain would ever choose to do such a thing.

So I thought this would be a good opportunity to explain. Here is what happens when you do the latter, when you make nuanced distinctions over tea with your pinky finger in the air in order to respect people's feelings: Not a single, boot-licking, phone-call-making, petition-signing, social-media-sharing, goddamned fucking thing.

You might not believe me, and such, so I'll prove it: I've already written this post. Nicely. A dozen times. I'm not exaggerating. Wrote about it in the Guardian. Wrote about it in the Boston Globe. Wrote about it on my blog and social media. Basically for the last ten years or so I've been telling anyone and everyone who'll listen that a genocide has been ongoing in our cities for 20 years, and right now, rather than thinking to yourself, holy shit, there's a genocide going on in our very own liberal ass Bernie ass Sanders ass leg humping ass cities, you're thinking to yourself that I'm merely using this post as a pretext to show off how great I am because of all of the stuff I've written, telling yourself that I'm doing it because I want a cookie from black people, because I want to be special. 

This is why I'm mad. Because much like the AIDS crisis in the 80s, hundreds of thousands of mostly young men are dying from something we've known how to stop for decades, and all you can do is sit there and point out how much of a narcissist and white savior I am for trying to tell you about it.

And it's not just me, either. Pro Publica told you. So did Leana Wen. So did Sanjay Gupta. So did a billion other others that I could cite, but it doesn't matter to you and it won't matter to you. How do I know it won't matter? Are you suddenly jumping up to do something? Are you picking up the phone? Are you donating money? Are you rushing to City Hall and refusing to leave until your mayor scales these lifesaving programs citywide? No, you aren't. You don't give a fuck. You're more mad about me lumping those of you who think you give a fuck in with those that don't give a fuck than you are about a goddamn genocide of neglect that's been underway since 1996.

This is why I'm mad, white people. Because you aren't mad. Because you haven't been for 20 years. Because I've asked you to care about this nicely a thousand times and you've done nothing but ignore me, tell me I have an agenda, call me a narcissist, a martyr, putting myself on a cross, I'm mentally ill--literally, you've said anything and everything--and I'm being literal when I say anything and everything--other than: "holy shit Batman a genocide has been going on for 20 years we need to stop it!" 

Thursday, November 10, 2016

A TANGIBLE WAY TO STOP TRUMP SUPPORTER RACISM RIGHT NOW


Four years ago, in 2012, I tried an experiment. I'd spent the last 12 years bouncing around America's political and justice systems, trying every conceivable strategy in the book to reform the things I'd seen the nice way, the diplomatic way, the way I'd been taught good, conscientious citizens achieved reform in school: by playing by the rules, appealing to the best in people, employing diplomacy, logic, persuasion, reason, rule of law. I'd written reports full of data, cited national best practices, published op-eds, blog posts, Venn Diagrams, pie charts, legislation, presentations with fancy slides--name the measure, I tried it. Only none of it, ever, had worked.

So I decided to try something different. I planned a lobby-in at City Hall and invited all of my friends, family, and former colleagues to join me. We'd refuse to leave until the mayor stopped breaking the law and violating millions of New Yorkers' rights with Stop and Frisk. Reformers and criminal justice heads in the city had tried everything under the sun already to stop the mayor, but he'd refused. He believed breaking the law was a necessary means to an end, and that was that. I'd hoped that a group of white people, lawyers, former business executives, and such, people who used to work with him and his staff, sitting out front and refusing to leave, would shame him for this conduct, make him change his mind.

On the day of the action, no one, not a single family member, friend, loved one, or colleague, joined me, so I audibled and switched up the plan. If they didn't want to engage I'd make them. Part of me was hurt, annoyed, wanted to lash out, sure, but part of me we was also tired of the apathy, the disinterest, the talk about how we were such exceptional people but at the same time could allow such cruel, illegal things to happen. And lastly, after failing in the system for so long, part of me was hungry to find strategies that actually worked. So I grabbed a can of spray-paint and aimed at the one thing I knew the people in my life cared about, my relationship with them, my future, my safety. I told everyone in my life that since they weren't going to come with me I was going to paint graffiti all over the mayor's office alone, get arrested, released, repeat, until either they engaged and forced the mayor to end Stop and Frisk or until I racked up a criminal record 20 pages long and got sent away to prison. I posted the news in my blog and told everyone who to call and what to say when they got through.

For years in that space, this space, my blog, I'd been sharing stories of the young men I'd worked with in Dorchester and Roxbury. I'd once posted about one of the men in my program in Roxbury, who I likened to Will Hunting. Reggie was a guy who'd gotten caught up in the court system and who was one of the smartest kids I'd ever met. Everything he said was so on-point, poised, and nuanced. I'd asked for help with job leads, old cell phones, stipends for meeting benchmarks, and so on, and not a single person had responded, except Sue, who was our program's employment coordinator.

But now, now that it was me, my life, my future, suddenly all of my friends and family came out of the woodwork, hundreds of them, to rubberneck. Where my blog posts had gotten 2 or 3 hits until then, suddenly they were all clicking, reading, devouring every update, wanting to know what the hell was going on, why I was throwing my life away, racking up a criminal record. In a word, it worked. Their racism wouldn't let them see Reggie, wouldn't let me center his experience for them, but they sure as hell could still see me.

Which brings me back to Donald Trump, and more importantly, to his supporters who are acting openly on the racism and xenophobia that his campaign rhetoric has inspired. Yesterday, in response to the bombshell news that Donald Trump had actually won the election, a writer named Damon Young, editor of Very Smart Brothas, wrote the following:

"This is on ALL White people. Who are complicit even if they didn’t vote for Trump. Because they obviously haven’t done enough to repudiate the mindsets existing in their families and amongst their friends; possessed by their co-workers and neighbors; shared during private holiday gatherings and public city townhalls."

I'm mentioning my experiment strong-arming loved ones into action now because for years I'd tried everything in the book to do what Damon said, to repudiate the mindset of my family and friends, the nice way, through emotional pleas, love, dialogue, engagement--it never worked. My father, sister, and I think even my mother, who I saw post a reasons to vote for Trump article on Facebook, by an evangelical minister of all people, the day before the election, all supported Donald Trump though my daughter, their granddaughter and niece, is mixed race and thus one of the very people that Trump's followers have decided to scapegoat and target. 

How they could do this I'll never understand, but despite all of my efforts, and despite the thrust of my entire life's work, they did it anyway, so now it's time to hold them accountable for corking this bottle the only way that I've found works. If there's one thing all people have in common, no matter where they fall on the racism spectrum--unwitting and wholly implicit, or explicit full-on costume wearers who drop n-bombs and wave confederate flags--it's that they love their families. Often I have found that the most virulent racists are the most doting and protective of their children and grandchildren. 

So, if we truly want to repudiate such mindsets, like Damon Young said, or at least force people who supported Trump to hold the overt racists who act on their racism among them accountable, this is what we'll have to take away from them: the thing they care about most, their family members, us, because if my experiences have taught me anything, it's that nothing short of this will accomplish a damn thing. 

Today I saw video on social media of kids chanting "Build the Wall!" in a school cafeteria, and pictures of a transgendered Veteran's car burned and vandalized with the word "Trump." So this is what I'm proposing: For every one of these incidents that happens, mom, dad, sis, and everyone else that supported Trump despite knowing he was inviting these behaviors into the open, I'm adding a day to the time I'm not coming home to visit. Every single time one of these incidents happens, I'll add another day, and another. It's two weeks until Thanksgiving, and a month until Christmas, so if you want to see me and your granddaughter over the holidays, watch football, exchange presents, or see us ever again for that matter, you better get to work before too many more of these incidents add up. 

You might say this is unfair, but honestly, when Islamic terrorists commit acts of violence, aren't you the first to call for moderate Muslims to round up their people, get their house in order? So now it's time for you to apply the same logic to your new friends: Go get your people, the racist psychopaths you've gotten yourselves into bed with, or enjoy Thanksgiving turkey, eggnog, and Easter egg hunting without us.

It's not that I don't want to see you, or for you to not have a relationship with me and my daughter, by the way. It's quite the opposite, really. I love you, and I know you love her. I want her to know this side of her family, and to have a good relationship with you. It's just that this is too important, for her and people like her, to play nice with you anymore, to gloss over it, pretend like everything's okay--it's not.

                            [This post was edited on Friday, November 11, at 0922 EST]

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

THE NEW MEANING OF "FREE SPEECH"

Is #freespeechmatters the new #alllivesmatter?  (Daily Beast)
















Trouble is brewing at America’s colleges and universities, and I'm not talking about shrinking enrollment, state legislators with budget axes, or recent student protests on campuses from Connecticut to California. I’m talking about something stealthier, and more sinister: A broad consensus of academics, school administrators, faculty, journalists, and political commentators using coded constitutional arguments to dismiss student protests and drown their legitimate grievances with academic debate.
  
It started back in August, during summer break, when a group of Black Lives Matter protesters took over a Bernie Sanders rally. Commentators of all political stripes, far left to far right, lambasted them, not on the merits, but with lectures about free political discourse. Next, in September, a white student at Wesleyan wrote an op-ed criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement. When students of color demanded sanctions against the paper, they were lectured again, this time on the importance of a free press.

In October, Yale tried to spare its students of color the daily racial indignities—n-words, feces Swastikas, “Kanye Western” parties—that students at the University of Missouri, UCLA, and other schools were experiencing. School administrators sent students an email urging them to make conscientious Halloween attire choices. In response, another lecture (albeit employing perfected gold-butter euphemism) from a resident teacher. She hit reply all, told students more censorship wasn’t the answer, and basically said lighten up and police such trivial things as costumes yourselves.

When Yalies protested and demanded her resignation, Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic called the students “misguided.” Jonathan Chait at New York Magazine was more critical, likening students to Marxist Fascists who were hell-bent on crushing any and all opposing viewpoints. Ben Carson and Megyn Kelly had an hysterical exchange on Fox News. Columnists from USA Today to Washington Post piled on, decrying free speech on America’s college campuses in danger of imminent annihilation.

It should go without saying that students at Yale and anywhere else they protest are not trying to destroy free speech, a free press, or suppress the exchange of ideas. What they are trying to tell us is that they've had enough. They've had all of the n-words, feces Swastikas, blackface parties, George Zimmerman costumes, and school police officers profiling them and throwing them to the ground that they can take. Things that we might think are minor, like Halloween costumes, are not minor. They are a constant reminder that students of color are not safe anywhere on American soil—and perhaps especially not on their very own college campuses.

Yet when they ask us to take these concerns seriously and police such incidents to avoid their experience of further trauma, we hide in our cars. When they ask us to police mayor’s husbands in KKK costumes, we say police it yourselves. When they tell us they can't handle another school police officer throwing them to the ground, as at Brown, we call them petulant toddlers and liken them to lawless foreign mobs. 

Racism, like any pathology, must be policed. If there are no consequences for minor incidents, they escalate. Police in Chicago are presently murdering teenagers while City Hall helps them hide the video because they've learned they can upgrade all the way without consequence. When Bill Bratton and Rudy Giuliani employed this logic in the 1990s, we signed up to arrest and prosecute minorities at higher rates for 20 years. It was common sense. The ends of safe cities justified suspending Equal Protection. Today, however, when students tell us that the ends of safe campuses justify the aggressive policing of racism—whose end logic is genocide—the Constitution is transmogrified into an inviolable tablet of bedrock and used to pummel them.

Our students are letting us know they've been seeking protection in America's halls of democracy for the last 60 years. They are trying to tell us that our police, Supreme Court, Congress, and Justice Department aren’t getting the job done. Our schools are more segregated than they were before Brown v. Board, housing discrimination as rampant as it was prior to the Fair Housing Act, lynchings outsourced to police, security guards, and neighborhood watchmen, and oversight agencies refusing to do their jobs.

They are telling us if we love free speech, order, college football, and the many other things that make America great, we'll start owning these legitimate grievances. And if we don't, they're putting us on notice we don't belong on campus teaching them, in deans' offices advising them, in presidents' offices representing them, or on newspaper editorial boards writing for them. They are putting us on notice that they are willing to do what it takes to replace us with people who take protecting them seriously.  

When compelling interests collide, the Supreme Court has often held that there are exceptions to constitutional speech protections. Try exercising your 1st Amendment right to protest on the Court's front steps, for example, and you will quickly find yourself moved across the street or wearing steel bracelets in a transport wagon. This is because the safety of the Court’s clerks, lawyers and justices warrants exception. America's college students should be treated no differently. There is no more compelling interest than protecting students from ubiquitous racial trauma on campus.

Yelling #freespeechmatters!—or anything other than “you got it” in response to such demands for protection—and doubling down when it is brought to our attention that we’re dead wrong, is little more than a genteel academic version of showing up to Black Lives Matter rallies and drowning students out with chants of #alllivesmatter!

Sunday, January 11, 2015

BLACK-ON-BLACK VIOLENCE IS NOT REAL



























I've been wanting to say something about "black-on-black" violence for a while now, but I've kept quiet because it's generally not my place. But week after week my people, white people, somehow get themselves on television and ply the same lies and misconceptions absent any pointed rebuttal from their own. So I'm breaking my silence in the hope that some prominent white person, somewhere, will read this, crumple it up, and figuratively stick it in Rudy Giuliani's craw the next time he broaches the topic. 

For some reason us white folks go years without caring about "black-on-black" violence. Then, suddenly, after a white cop kills a black kid with his hands up, or another strangles an unarmed man to death, those of us who haven’t cared about the topic for 27,000 consecutive days are suddenly huffing and puffing on television while black people are at the funerals. Why aren’t black people marching? Why don’t black people care more? Why aren’t they protesting what's happening in Chicago?

As Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, MO, black people do care. They are marching. They are doing everything they can. The reason why "black-on-black" violence continues is because white people want it to.

Sounds crazy, right? I once thought so, too. 

In 1996 Boston switched "black-on-black" violence "off." It was called the Boston Miracle. In the nineties in Boston a number of young children and a prosecutor were killed in a gruesome spate of violence. City officials said enough. They forged a partnership between police, community leaders and clergy and rounded up 1,000 of the city’s 100,000 15- to 24-year-olds. Specifically, the one percent on the corners. 

Go through this door, which is jobs and services, and you will have a good life. Go through this one, which is back the way you came, and we will round you up and throw you in jail. Forever. Most chose the first door, a few chose the second, and before anyone could say, wait, you’re about to debunk the most legitimate pretext for racism we have!, zero black teens were killed over a twenty-nine month period in Boston. Yes, you read that correctly. Zero.

Now, if you’re like me, and you believe that your government, the police, and the American people, honestly want "black-on-black" violence to stop, then you would assume, as I did, that nobody would ever, in a thousand years, allow the "black-on-black" violence switch to be flipped back "on" again. 

Don't worry, I fell for it, too. This is from the brains across the river at Harvard, who wrote the Miracle's autopsy report:

"The highly successful "Operation Ceasefire" program ended when then-Lieutenant Detective Gary French, who was the operational steward of the approach...left the YVSF...The new commander did not continue the weekly Ceasefire meetings, and YVSF operations devolved into chiefly law enforcement approaches."

You see, as the "new commander," kindly left unnamed, quickly became aware, homicide-free cities don’t require you to hire new recruits. They require you to retire police early (Boston was slated to lose 200 officers following the Miracle) and not hire new ones, because the police have nothing to do when the kids they were chasing over fences go to work. Homicide-free cities don’t require tech upgrades to keep pace with the N.Y.P.D. and other elite forces, who in the 2000s were gearing up with assault rifles, armored carriers, and a ton of other awesome SWAT gear that "black-on-black" violence in the "on" position makes white people scared enough to underwrite with blank checks. 

Just as fast as they turned "black-on-black" violence "off," city leaders realized their mistake and quickly switched it back "on." No more jobs. No more social services. No more nothing except warrants and ass kickings. As the chart below makes clear, complaints for disrespect and use of force suddenly exploded, while youth homicides increased to 15 in 2000, 26 in 2001, and 39 in 2006. Total homicides increased from 31 in 1999 to 69 in 2001. In order to combat this resurgence, the city hired more recruits, purchased citywide gunshot detection, hired a chopper with night vision, tanks, SWAT gear, and other crime-fighting essentials.


Which brings me to my point: "black-on-black" violence is not a real, race-specific thing that exists independently of the policy levers and power actors that turn it "on" and "off" at will. As Philippe Bourgois wrote in the 80s:

The streets of East Harlem have always produced violent, substance-abusing felons, no matter which ethnic immigrant group happened to be living there.

Intra-racial violence (excluding, obviously, crimes of passion) typically arises out of the need to protect illicit income from local competitors. And because ethnic and racial groups historically stick together in hostile environments -- think "Irish need not apply" signs -- Whitey Bulger’s local competitors in Southie were Irish, John Gotti's were Italian, and so on. 


The elected officials in charge of the economic levers in this country control "black-on-black" violence today the same way they controlled "Irish-on-Irish" and "Italian-on-Italian" violence back in the day. As soon as they incorporated those groups into the economy and allowed them to access the jobs and services available to everyone else, intra-racial crime disappeared. Thus it is today you don't hear people talking about "Irish-on-Irish" or "Italian-on-Italian" violence. They aren't real things. 

It's no different for other ethnic and racial groups. Time and again, when black Americans were offered the same jobs and services as everyone else, "black-on-black" homicides vanished. High Point, NC. Richmond, CA. Most recently in Chicago

So next time you hear hear Rudy Giuliani, Ray Kelly, Bill O'Reilly, or any other misinformed white person claiming that the only way to stop "black-on-black" violence is to heavily police, stop and frisk, and shoot-to-kill black men, please call them out on their bullshit. The data defies them. Reason defies them. Cost savings defy them. Saving lives defies them. History defies them. 

Don't make Russell Simmons remind him, white people. You tell him. It's your lie. Our lie. We started it. And now we have to clean up our mess. Because the more this lie proliferates, and spreads unchecked among our people, the more the gullible, scared, and precious among us are tricked into thinking that the Darren Wilsons and Daniel Pantaleos of the world are keeping America safe from a threat that we have been turning "on" and "off" again, at our leisure, for decades.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

ON ALLIES AND EATING SHIT

“You’re from Occupy! You’re not from here!” a woman named Mary screamed at me on the street, in front of several dozen news cameras in March of 2012.

The first part was incorrect. That I was part of the Occupy movement. The second part, however, was true. We were in the East Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. I was not born or raised there, nor had I ever lived there. 

Mary directed her frustration at me because I’d spoken up and said something when it wasn't my place. We were at a press conference following the killing of Kimani Gray, an East Flatbush teen who witnesses say was not holding a gun when he was shot by police who claim that he was.

In the aftermath of the killing, a number of youth took to the streets. Some rioting ensued and several dozen protestors were arrested. A claque of national media descended and put local leaders on the defensive. A dozen clergy and community leaders pinned the riots on “outside agitators,” sharply condemning those responsible, demanding that the youth remain peaceful. Meanwhile, a man named Jose, one of the "outside agitators" referred to at the presser, was busy making plans to march another contingent of two or three hundred youth into the jaws of a police line later that night. Tensions were high, and more arrests seemed certain.

During the presser there was judgment and no alternatives. Not one church was made available. Not one community space was given to the youth to vent, and strategize, so that instead of marching into certain arrest and gaining nothing strategically, save maybe a much-needed release of frustration, they might devise a more strategic plan. Arrests are finite in quantity. You only get so many.

“Where and when are they able to vent, then?” I interjected.

At this Mary beelined over to me, to put me in my place. A crowd of reporters crushed in, to get a taste of what they they'd come for, finally. Division. Trauma. Insiders vs. outsiders. Us vs. them. I quickly apologized and tucked tail home, so as to honor her wishes, and make peace, without giving the vultures what they wanted.

I’ve been wanting to write something about the experience ever since that day, but there are so many reasons why not. The main one being that being an ally means knowing when it is not your place to speak. And knowing that it belies all credibility to sit down at the table with people you've been feeding shit to for centuries, only to turn up your nose when your steaming portion arrives.

Yet turn up our noses we do. It’s how we’re programmed to act as white people in America. As the dominant people group we have weapons at our disposal and we use them. This is why Piers Morgan made a grand ass of himself when Janet Mock insisted that he’d caused her offense. It’s why Vicky Beeching (who I’ve since learned a great deal about and like very much) fell into the same trap. It’s why people freaked out over the #cancelcolbert hashtag and tried to bludgeon Suey Park into submission.

It’s hard to blame white people for reacting this way. In our minds, and hearts, this is how we respond to challenge. We use our weapons, and our privilege, to fend it off. Defame me and I will sue you. Criticize me and I will tear you apart. By responding to people of color this way, in our minds we are treating them as perfect equals. It’s how we treat everyone else. Colorblind. Post-racial.

This is, of course, where things get tricky. With white people this is fine, so long as they’ve not been systematically or individually denied use of the same weapons. But with people of color it’s a different story. It’s perhaps the pinnacle of inequity to wield an arsenal of weapons against people that have been structurally denied access to the same weapons. In such situations, the proper response is to put down your weapons, sit at the table, and be quiet. Listen. Hear why your actions caused offense, in spite of your intentions, and strive to avoid committing reoffense.

In my case, with Mary, I strived for months to understand her point of view. Intellectually, I understood it completely. I was a white man, not from Flatbush, asking questions that it wasn’t my place to ask. I should have kept my mouth shut and watched. I knew this then and I know it know. At least intellectually.

But here’s the thing. While I agree that it wasn’t/isn’t my place to speak up, is there, at some point, a tipping point? Is there some point, in the escalation of a situation, or in the strategy involved, a time when it becomes appropriate to speak up? Does at some point the need to be strategic as a movement supersede my primary role as a quiet, supportive, bystanding ally? As the conference was ending, there were still no alternatives on the table. Should I have talked quietly with some of the clergy members, and asked them to open up a space for the youth, or should I have honored Mary's wishes and gone home? 

In the two years since that day, it seems my question has been answered. Emphatically. In May of 2014, a guy named Alex Hardy wrote a piece about White Saviors, and how it is our role to shut up and eat shit. Many others, most of them far less biting, followed. In response to Alex's piece, I was tempted to pull a Piers Morgan. I was tempted to tell him—you see, I’m even tempted to do it now. But that would make me a bad ally. So I remain quiet.

But should I? Is there some point at which I should push back, as someone that knows the heart of white racism inside and out, because it's who I am? Shouldn't I tell Alex that I've been amplifying the voices of people directly affected for over a decade, and that my people can't hear them. Can't see them.

Shouldn't I tell him that the social and geographic distances that white people have created have precluded the ability of our empathy to reach back across. That in order for it to cross this chasm, which is, admittedly, a problem of our own doing, I have learned, after years of trying, that the great majority of white people must see and hear from their own, and observe the system's abuses vicariously, before they can firstly believe they are real, and secondly empathize with those harmed. 

Should I point out, tactically, that any chance we have at extirpating the racism and fear that have supplanted the Constitution as the driving force behind American democracy depends in large part on successfully recruiting this silent white moderate, frustrating and downright painful as that may be? Should I push back and tell Alex that I’ve been trying, unsuccessfully, to reach this contingent for years, and when I finally found something that worked, he piped up told me eat shit?

In November, after a Staten Island grand jury decided not to indict the officer that killed Eric Garner, a number of hashtags popped up on Twitter. Some to mourn. Some to vent. One, #crimingwhilewhite, started trending, and white people began using it to explain to their own that they’re able to get away with crimes that black people could never dream of getting away with.

Right away the calls came out to be quiet. Now is not the time. Stop showing off. Stop performing your privilege. Which brings up my next question: Is there ever a time? Will people of color ever be able to watch white people school their own, using the only method that seems to work – personal, vicarious examples that evoke empathy – and allow us to continue, or will it always be too painful to watch? Getting white people to acknowledge the structural forces that their forebears expertly programmed into America's systems, in order to "dismantle the power obtained through our privilege" (which the author of the above article posits is the one true goal) contradicts the hardwiring installed in us at birth. Reversing the programming of white supremacy, I have learned, is perhaps the single hardest thing to accomplish on earth. In order to convince people like me, in places where I grew up, to do this, you must first convince them that their privilege is real--no small feat.

The author above makes the mistake of imputing her evolution to the rest of the white race. What I have learned over the last fourteen years of trying is that the overwhelming majority of the white race is nowhere near this level of race consciousness. I once invited every white person I knew--family, friends, and colleagues in the criminal justice system--to go down to City Hall and refuse to leave until the mayor stopped trampling the United States Constitution. Not only did not one of them join me, but they told me I was nuts. Throwing away my future. For nothing. To finally see a hashtag that pierced through this denial, to show them that I wasn't nuts, and that our privilege is/was very real, only to have it criticized as yet another selfish performance, was maddening. 

The final straw, which made me break down and finally write this piece, happened yesterday. Ava DuVernay, the director of the new film Selma, was criticized for her depiction of President Lyndon Johnson. She responded that she did not want to focus on the White Savior angle, and that Johnson had been a “reluctant hero,” if at all.

I think that this reveals something important. Something that shows that this movement has become dangerously splintered. Ms. DuVernay surely has every right not to focus on the White Savior angle. Indeed, she could have left out Johnson entirely, if she’d wanted, and instead focused on Mayor Joe Smitherman, or Sheriff Jim Clark, Selma’s true foils. Instead, the film turned Johnson into an antagonist of sorts, which is an epic historical distortion. 

Johnson’s entire southern voting bloc, specifically on account of his positions on civil rights, defected from the Democratic Party and joined the Republican Party at the GOP convention in 1964. Such an en masse political defection was, and remains, unheard of in modern history. Ronald Reagan, who was working on segregationist candidate Barry Goldwater’s campaign at the time, introduced him as the GOP candidate for president as the new converts erupted with racist jeers and applause. It was one of the most shameful moments in American history, proving that LBJ faced catastrophic political fallout for his positions on civil rights. Yet he stuck with them. 

If you don’t want to focus on that angle of the story, because his courage detracts from that of the marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, then by all means don’t. But if you smear him, and distort history, you may as well stoop to the level of the textbooks that cravenly omit this sordid chapter from American history altogether.

Which leads to my last question. Must white people, including the ones that wish to be allies, be turned into villains to move forward? Does history have to be distorted for commiseration and healing to occur? Do white people need to go through the same hell we put others through before we can work together? Do we need to sit down, and shut up, forever, to make a pluralistic, multicultural nation work?

If the answer to these questions is yes, it will surely be warranted. Deserved. And then some. Hell, we insist upon rule of law, in a nation of laws, and yet we have never, not once, come face to face with our nation's racial crimes--the height of hypocrisy. But is it possible, knowing all of that, and knowing what we do about human nature, that we can strive for accountability, restitution, and progress, together? That we can come to an understanding that when I am trying to reach my people, in the only way that I have found works, I might be granted a little bit of latitude? And that when you are trying to teach us, converts and not-yet-converts alike, and heal from the trauma that we have caused you, might we agree that there are times and places (many, many, many times and places) when it is our place to sit down and shut up? That in such situations, on both sides, we might give each other the benefit of the doubt, in the name of strategy, to move forward, ever mindful of the past, while striving to make things right? Without wagging fingers? Without patronizing? Without derision, deserved as it may be?

If the answer to these questions is no, then I, personally, will try and learn to live with it, as will many others who hope to stand united against oppression in all of its forms. But before I do, I need to have an honest moment with the members of this movement. What this will mean, tactically, in terms of numbers, is that this movement, at this moment in American history, is doomed. If we distort history in an effort to commiserate, if we tell people to eat shit as a matter of course, in order to heal from the many traumas visited by white supremacy, if we masquerade as allies and use the word as a pretext to rip each other down, while the liars that insist on the status quo maintain a heavily armed, completely integrated, unified front, then from a demographic, moral, and strategic standpoint, this movement is doomed for another three decades, at least, until the majority in America tips. And what then? 

Sunday, March 30, 2014

THE LIBERAL RACE BLIND SPOT

I don’t normally wade into Twitter shitstorms unless white people are behaving badly, and need to be checked by one of their own, and I've definitely never written about one outside of Twitter. But what's going on in the case of #cancelcolbert right now demands some immediate attention.

A writer named Bob Cesca, managing editor of the Daily Banter, took an activist named Suey Park to task for suggesting that Comedy Central should cancel the Colbert Report because the host Stephen Colbert made a joke about the “Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.”

Cesca annihilates Park, telling her that she doesn’t understand satire, that the joke was made in a racial context that Park either wasn't aware of or doesn't get. He then asks her on his Twitter timeline whether she has seen the show, again implying that maybe she isn't sophisticated enough to get Colbert's brand of humor. 

Piers Morgan mini-me Josh Zepps did the same on Friday during a HuffPo segment, calling Park's opinion "stupid" and dismissing her much like Morgan dismissed Janet Mock in February. 

I'm writing to tell you, Mr. Cesca, Mr. Zepps, and white people who say you are against racism everywhere, that Colbert and his writers could have easily made the same exact point, with identical context, and achieved the same comedic effect with: “I’m going to start the Cracka' Ass Cracker Barrel Foundation to Combat Reverse Racism Against White People.” 

When I find myself laughing at sketches like Colbert’s -- even when I understand the context and agree with his larger point (probably hard for Mr. Cesca to believe) -- I am also often cringing at the same time because it reminds me of my own cruelty as a kid: A hurt, wretched little creature hurling slurs around to make myself feel better while pointing and laughing at my many victims.

And if it makes me wince as a former perp, it's not much of a stretch of empathic imagination to suspect that it would reconjure the inverse for Ms. Park. There she is, sitting quietly on the sidelines, nodding and agreeing substantively with everything Mr. Colbert is saying about Snyder's refusal to understand the offensiveness of his football team's name towards Native Americans, when -- POOF -- suddenly words redolent of the same slurs Ms. Park has experienced throughout her life as an Asian woman are up on the screen while an audience that looks strikingly similar to the people that typically hurl them is roaring with laughter. 

The decision of Colbert and his team to poke fun at a real, historically marginalized group instead of targeting a fictional marginalized group, that included the host, and would have likely been just as funny, is a clean glimpse at the blind spot in the race consciousness of white liberals. That they get to choose to bring a second marginalized group into the scrum, or not, and that they go for it, rather than erring on the side of caution, and that they and the many supporters that rally to their defense unleash their intentions as if they are invincible weapons that disprove claims of harm and delegitimize responsive measures by the marginalized group itself, undermines the entire point of being on the right side and perpetuates a far more insidious and hurtful brand of racism than the open coded attempts of buffoons like Paul Ryan.  

When something like this happens, and someone like Ms. Park, who has experienced these things firsthand -- unlike Cesca, Zepps and me -- we have a stark choice as people who claim to be on the "right" side of racism, ignorance and hate. We can take her word for it, whether or not we agree with, believe in, or understand her injury, because we acknowledge that she has standing that we lack (because we have never personally experienced the pain of such slurs, nor will we). 

Or, on the other hand, we can throw a collective fit and dismiss her, insisting on our right to use the group that she is a member of as a pawn in our satire, though we could have easily refrained. And then, rather than humbly listening, or giving her the benefit of the doubt, we insist that we did not -- and could never -- hurt her because intentions, because context, and because satire is an important tool, as though we are explaining these concepts to a child rather than a woman who at age twenty-three understands the complexity and nuance of race, class and history in America better than the majority of us ever will in our lifetimes. 

Choosing the nuclear hissy fit option proves to Ms. Park, and others like her, beyond any doubt that we as liberal white people with public platforms don't value her emotional well being or her intellect. More tellingly, it demonstrates to her that we are definitively on the "right" side of racism right up until the moment we are asked to change any of our behaviors or humbly entertain the possibility that we may have, despite our very high opinions of ourselves, offended someone. That the Morgans, Cescas and Zeppses of the world continue to operate smack in the middle of such a massive blind spot, without seeming to be aware of it, is tragic proof that we are nowhere near the level of race consciousness needed to identify and eradicate racism in all of its ugly forms in America.