How can I be well, when my sister is not well; how can I not be well if my brother has found love? […] in this concept, when one person is diminished, everybody is diminished. When one person is triumphant, we are all triumphant. This is what it means to be truly human; to know that you are bound up in the bond of life.
— Rabbi Sharon Brous
Historical amnesia and incuriousness about the violence of the past is the luxury of the oppressor.
— Simon Critchley, The Faith of the Faithless
They hate the one who rebukes at the gate and they abhor the one who speaks uprightly […] therefore the prudent keep silent at that time, for it is an evil time. [Therefore] Hate evil, love good; establish justice at the gates.
— Amos, A Sheepherder
I RECENTLY SPOKE with a social justice activist who works with LGBTQIA students on conservative evangelical Christian university campuses. She told me that the day before, an LGBTQIA student had attempted to take his life. She then asked if she could be frank when talking about the university and its oppressive policies. “Of course,” I replied. “Good,” she said, lowering her voice. “People are dying out here and I don’t have time for bullshit.”
Conversations about race in America often suffer, I feel, from the same problem. They quickly devolve from a dialogue about the subject of racism itself into an argument about the way in which that subject is being discussed — this becomes a form of policing people’s tone, a practice which ultimately polices dissent. I think many of us, often without thinking, attempt to silence those who have the courage to speak frankly on issues of race, oppression, and systems of white supremacy in this country. In America, oppressed groups angry about something are often told they shouldn’t be. They are told — we are told — that our words are too strong.
If you feel marginalized, hurt, or outcast by this frankness, you may very well be one of the fortunate ones for whom frankness does little more than offend. For others, that frankness could very well mean lying dead in the street for four and a half hours. Perhaps this kind of frankness is threatening because it forces you to move out of your obliviousness into a conscious space where you may actually have to do something about what we’re pointing out. That something you feel compelled to do may now also come with an actual sense of urgency, free of charge, that you may not have felt before. Perhaps you may even feel like people’s lives are in your hands as a citizen of this country.
If so, then consider what you’re feeling as a new frame of mind: People are dying out here; we don’t have time for bullshit.
I attended the protest at LAPD headquarters to stand in solidarity with those who were expressing outrage at the killing of yet another black man by representatives of the state. This man’s name was Charley Saturmin Robinet, and he was a houseless brother, living on Skid Row. The story from the police is that Charley reached for an officer’s gun, even though a video shows he was being tased at the time he allegedly reached for it. Perhaps Robinet was endowed by his maker with supernatural strength — the kind surging through Michael Brown when he was shot in the head by Darren Wilson.
As my friend and I arrived at the protest, we felt small standing before the monolithic glass building that represented state power and violence. If we were ever tempted into doubting the effectiveness of protest for effecting change, our doubts dissipated as soon as we left police headquarters and hit the streets, walking in the middle of the road, shutting down traffic on all sides. In the middle of the march, there was a die-in at the intersection of Spring and Fifth, right in front of the Last Bookstore. Just by walking, and showing up, we disrupted the status quo of hundreds of Angelenos, if even for a few minutes, in the memory of Charley Robinet.
This march is a perfect example of why respectability must be exorcised from the politics of the oppressed. The only way change will come is if the status quo is disrupted. Frankness seeks to establish justice at the gates of our polity. Respectability maintains systems of oppression as they are. Frankness gives you a moral rash that you can’t help but scratch. Respectability is a balm that soothes the symptoms of the rash but doesn’t remove the problem at its source.
As a society, we need to relearn the courage to be frank about race. We lack this courage because many of us, myself included, have been drained of our empathy, like corpses lying on a mortician’s table. We consent to this embalming process because deep down we know that if we had empathy flowing through our veins, we would actually have to do something when police kill an unarmed black homeless ex-convict while tasering him senseless in broad daylight on a downtown Los Angeles street.
Jean-Paul Sartre once said that “one of the terrifying things about human life is that when we die, our lives become the property of others to do with as they will.” The cognitive dissonance that arises from our lack of empathy is why we must control the narratives of the people for whom we are unsympathetic. It’s why we must point out their criminal or immigration history. Just ask the family of any person of color killed by the police; the character assassinations begin before the blood has even dried in the streets.
Our lack of collective empathy for human pain and suffering is why many people in America can look at Mike Brown lying in a pool of blood in the street, Eric Garner gasping on the sidewalk, and Brother Africa flailing in the Southern California sun, and — whether they think it consciously or not — see just another dead black body in the street. They are often the same people who still have the audacity to ask: Why are people in the streets, and why are they so mad?
To be clear, the frankness for which I’m advocating is not a form of “reverse racism.” There is actually no such thing. To quote the comedian Aamer Rahman from his viral video sensation entitled “Reverse Racism”:
I think if you ask some black people they’ll tell you flat out, “There’s no such thing as reverse racism.” I don’t agree with that. I think there is such a thing as reverse racism, and I can be a reverse racist if I wanted to. All I would need would be a time machine, right? And what I’d do is I would get in my time machine and I’d go back in time to before Europe colonized the world, right? And I’d convince the leaders of Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Central and South America to invade and colonize Europe, right?
Just occupy them, steal their land and resources. Set up some kind of like, I don’t know, Trans-Asian slave trade, where we exported white people to work on giant rice plantations in China. Just ruin Europe over the course of a couple centuries, so all their descendants would want migrate out and live in the places where black and brown people come from.
Of course in that time, I’d make sure I set up systems that privilege black and brown people at every conceivable social, political, and economic opportunity. And white people will never have any hope of real self-determination. Every couple of decades make up some fake war as an excuse to go bomb them back to the Stone Age and say it’s for their own good because their culture’s inferior. And just for kicks, subject white people to colored people’s standards of beauty, so they end up hating the color of their own skin, eyes, and hair.
If after hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years of that, I got on stage at a comedy show and said, “Hey, what’s the deal with White people? Why can’t they dance?” That would be reverse racism.
If what Rahman described was our social reality, then perhaps our frankness could be considered reverse racism. As many of us can attest, this obviously is not the case.
My mother is a junior high English teacher. She is the chair of her department at a school that services a mostly white population in North Orange County. My father is an engineer who builds spaceships for a living. I went to private evangelical Christian schools from preschool to college. I was never stopped and frisked while walking to school because my mother drove me there in our black 2001 Chevy Suburban. I did get pulled over as a teenager by a white police officer, but it was because I ran a red light while turning onto the freeway. Most of my extended family members have stable careers and live above the poverty line. I’d have to call quite a few people to find someone I personally know who has been imprisoned or killed by the police or gang violence. I did go to church in Watts, Los Angeles, an area known for its towers and its riots more than anything else. But these were weekly excursions into the urban unknown.
I was able, for a long time, to call myself a black Angeleno, and still only know of impoverished places in Los Angeles like stops on a jungle cruise adventure tour: “Over there we have the city of Compton, made famous by ‘Niggers with Attitudes.’ To our left, you’ll see the projects where they filmed Training Day. Yes, the natives actually live there!”
For me, the people of the city were hidden behind the concrete walls that lined the freeways on the way to church. Some said the walls were built to block the sound of traffic coming from the freeway. Deep down, I felt they were built to protect us from the natives, and their unpredictable violence.
For a long time, I looked at the people living off the freeway and wondered why they couldn’t seem to pull themselves out of poverty like my grandparents were able to do. Why did these people insist on gunning each other down outside my grandfather’s house on Grape Street? Why couldn’t they get it together and act right?
I say all these things now with a profound sense of shame. As a young man, I failed to see, as Rabbi Sharon Brous so eloquently said, “when one person is diminished, everybody is diminished. When one person is triumphant, we are all triumphant.” I failed to see myself as part of the whole.
I believe I am a product of one of the first attempts to fully implement the theory of respectability in the post–Civil Rights Movement. Because my parents grew up with images of Birmingham and Selma on their black-and-white television screens, the fates of their children would determine whether or not the Movement was successful in terms of establishing justice at the gates of our society. This theory is intimately tied to the idea that Michelle Alexander put forth called “black exceptionalism”:
Today, the public consensus is that not all black people are bad, not all black people are inferior, but some, and if only they make good choices like Barack Obama, then they wouldn’t be part of the under caste. […] This isn’t just a phenomenon that goes on among white folks, it goes on in the black community as well, where black folks say, “Well, if you just pulled up your pants, if you just stay in school, if you just act right.” And it allows us to become blind to the structures that are in place that trap people at the bottom.
A younger version of me was, as Alexander says, “blind to the structures that are in place that trap people at the bottom.” My wife, who happens to be of Irish and German descent, and I live a comfortable life. Our son is well fed; we are able to pay our rent. We could be tempted into thinking that respectability works. As I’ve watched how people in this country refuse to talk about its racialized past and present, I realized I was wrong. I cannot afford to live as though I am not Mike Brown, Eric Garner, or Charley Robinet, if I want my son to grow up with a father. Even my own well-spoken engineer father, in this America, is one blown taillight away from being sprawled on the pavement with a gun pointed in his direction because he matched the description of a suspect in a crime.
Many of us well-off black folks think that we are immune to state violence in this country. We think that as long as we are respectable, and know our place, white supremacy will leave us alone. This is categorically untrue. As Ta-Nehisi Coates said recently in his excellent essay “The Gangsters of Ferguson,”
white supremacy — as evidenced in Ferguson — is not ultimately interested in how responsible you are, nor how respectable you look. White supremacy is neither a misunderstanding nor a failure of manners. White supremacy is the machinery of Galactus which allows for the potential devouring of everything you own. White supremacy is the technology, patented in this enlightened era, to ensure that what is yours inevitably becomes mine.
White supremacy either devours you — white, black, or otherwise — or drains you of your empathy for those who are systematically consumed. Systemic white supremacy is the reason why you were able to watch the protests in Ferguson, and wonder why people were so mad.
The reason why they were and still are mad is because of 600 years of white supremacy systematically enshrined in the institutions we all love and celebrate every Fourth of July. Unbeknownst to most Americans, white or otherwise, whiteness is “a legal concept established by colonial slave owners to separate poor Europeans from Africans giving legal privileges to Europeans while constructing a system of chattel slavery for Africans.” In other words, as Dr. Joy DeGruy has said, talking about race as a biological fact will be treated with the same type of intellectual pity 200 years from now that we use when we talk about those who thought the world was flat. And yet, both whiteness and non-whiteness have been mistakenly accepted by generations of Americans as natural law.
Middle-class and poor people of European descent have been just as duped by the lie that wealthy elites in our country have constructed and maintained from the beginning, as the work of the theologian Thandeka and others support. This is because the lie has benefited those of European descent. They divested themselves of their unique ancestries in favor of the opaque identifier of whiteness that meant and still means social acceptance and prestige.
Whiteness today still functions much as it did in its inception. For example, the myth of whiteness deceives Americans of European descent into thinking the corporate elites have their best interests at heart because the corporate look like they do, racially. They force smiles and continue to vote for officials backed by billionaires when all that trickles down from the 1% is not green but brown and putrid. They think, as those poor white bondsmen did in the 1600s, that their interests are different than that of their fellow workers of color.
If you’re not yet asking yourself how a country, built on what we’ve been taught to believe were democratic principles, continues to systematically oppress many of the groups upon which its existence depends, you’re not asking the right questions. If you’re not asking questions at all, then you’re as far away from the answer to why people are in the streets, and mad, as ever.
When we do ask questions, often we ask them as though the marginalization of nonwhite, non-male, non-straight, non-Christian people in this country is an aberration — a twisting of the Founding Fathers’ original political plan for this country. We are perplexed by the gap in income and wealth between the rich and the rest in an economic system that’s supposed to provide opportunities for all.
The reality is the problems we see today are not aberrations; the world in which we live exists as a direct result of the intentions of the colonial elites who founded this country. Only six percent of the population was able to vote when George Washington was elected president. The ones who did vote were landowning straight “white” males. Coincidence? I think not.
We are not where we are by accident. People of color have known this for centuries. Since we are not here by accident, dismantling both racial attitudes and institutions must be much a white, middle-class problem as it is the problem of the poor person of color lying dead in the street. Those who have been killed are no longer able to control their story. But you and I are still here, still alive, still able to get that empathy transfusion and ultimately fight systems of white supremacist oppression.
For me, seeing Eric Garner lying on the ground, pleading for his life, his cries going unheard by the officers that eventually took his life, forced me to realize that the respectability experiment in this country was an abject failure thanks to institutionalized white supremacy. Garner was a father, like me; a worker like me; and like me he was bold enough to not be compliant with the officers who were attempting to remove him from his livelihood. If he is killable, simply for resistance, a trait that I would argue is natural in all human beings, then so am I. So is my father. So is my son. This is the social reality of the world in which we all inhabit. This is why we must be frank. This is why we must continue to agitate, resist, and seek, perhaps through the use of our very bodies, to attempt to establish justice at the gates.