All the blackness that’s fit to print. And some that isn’t.
Twenty-five years ago today, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing was released in theaters. Controversial then and still volatile now, it has since taken its place among the greatest American films ever made. It has a lot to say (it was written directed by Spike Lee, so of course it does) about race, class, power, sex and community. Any number of moments could be the topic of their own essay. But we mostly remember this movie for one scene: the flying trash can.
It’s the end of the hottest day of the year in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a predominantly black neighborhood in Brooklyn. Mookie (played by Lee himself), the delivery man for Sal’s Pizzeria, just wants to get paid and go home. His friends, Buggin’ Out and Radio Raheem, won’t let Mookie’s boss, Sal, close up shop until he makes right what they feel is his mistreatment of them as patrons of his restaurant. (Buggin’ Out is mad that Sal’s “Wall of Fame” has no black faces on it, while Radio Raheem didn’t appreciate being told to turn down the music on his larger-than-life boombox). Tempers flare, words are exchanged (including the infamous n-word), and Sal takes a bat to Radio Raheem’s prized possession. “I just killed your fucking radio,” he says. Enraged, Radio Raheem lunges at Sal and the entire pizzeria breaks out into a brawl. When the police arrive on the scene, they apprehend Radio Raheem. Using his baton, one of the officers applies a chokehold that stops Radio Raheem’s breathing. The officers put his body in the back of squad car and drive away, leaving the neighborhood’s black residents to assume Radio Raheem is dead and the police will get away with killing him, as they’ve done so many times before.
Mookie watches all of this. Moments after taking it all in, he walks toward a trash can, removes the lid and trash, picks it up, runs toward Sal’s Pizzeria, screams “HATE!” and hurls the trash can through a window. A riot ensues.
“I think all of black America threw that can,” Lee told People in 1989.
Lee noticed something about the criticism his film was receiving, particularly from those white critics who thought it might incite race riots. “They never talk about the death of Radio Raheem at the hands of the police,” he said, “They talk about Mookie smashing the window and the pizzeria burning down.” The property rights of a white business owner took precedence over the life of a black man. It’s in that context where small acts of rebellion, like Mookie’s throwing the trash can, come to represent all of the frustration, anguish, and rage that are products of having to live under a racist system. Did he “do the right thing?” What’s the “right” response to a society that refuses you humanity?
I ask that question while thinking about Ersula Ore. According to The Huffington Post, the Arizona State University English professor is being charged with “assaulting a police officer, resisting arrest, refusing to provide identification when requested to do so by an officer and obstructing a highway or public thoroughfare” after being stopped by university police while walking on campus on May 20. Video of the incident from the police car’s dashboard camera shows Officer Stewart Ferrin slamming Ore to the ground while handcuffing her. According to Ore, the officer pulled up next to her and asked whether she knew the difference between a sidewalk and a road. She replied, “Do you always accost women in the middle of the road and speak to them with such disrespect and so rudely as you did to me?”
“He throws the car door open actually, is what happens, and he’s towering over me,” she told CNN, “He’s intimidating. I don’t know why he’s so aggressive.” Ferrin demanded that Ore produce her ID.
Ferrin: “Let me see your ID or you will be arrested for failing to provide ID.”
Ore: “Are you serious?”
Ferrin: “Yes, I am serious. That is the law.”
Ore: “I never once saw a single solitary individual get pulled over by a cop for walking across a street on a campus, in a campus location. Everybody has been doing this because it is all obstructed. That’s the reason why. But you stop me in the middle of the street to pull me over and ask me, ‘Do you know what this is? This is a street.’”
Ferrin: “Are you aware that this is a street?”
Ore: “Let me finish.”
Ferrin: “OK, put your hands behind your back.”
Ore repeatedly tells Ferrin not to touch her. He tells her she’s going to slam her. She responded, “You really want to do that? Do you see what I’m wearing?” He replies that he doesn’t care what she has on. Ferrin, true to his word, slams Ore to the ground, leading to “expos[ure of] her anatomy to all onlookers,” according to her lawyer. When she’s back on her feet, Ore kicks Ferrin.
A statement from ASU said that authorities “have reviewed the circumstances surrounding the arrest and have found no evidence of inappropriate actions by the ASUPD officers involved.”
Did Ore “do the right thing?” I suppose it depends on your perspective. But the more pertinent question is why she was put in such a position to begin with.
This past Friday (June 27), the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences and BAMcinematek hosted a screening of Do the Right Thing to commemorate the film’s 25th anniversary. In a videotaped appearance, President Barack Obama (he and first lady Michelle Obama saw Do the Right Thing on their first date) said, “…Do the Right Thing still holds up a mirror to our society and it makes us laugh and think and challenges all of us to see ourselves in one another.”
From the fictional Radio Raheem to the real life Ersula Ore, to all the black people who have been harassed, assaulted, and killed by police and vigilantes in between, it’s pretty clear America still can’t see itself in black bodies. And it doesn’t seem to want to try.
My Brother’s Keeper, the $200 million public-private initiative spearheaded by President Barack Obama in February aimed at improving the quality of life for black and Latino boys, is notable because it’s the only time Obama has used the office of the presidency to directly address issues of racial injustice. That’s also part of why it has come under so much scrutiny.
As I said when it was first announced, I believe My Brother’s Keeper is admirable but deeply flawed. That the president sees the life outcomes of black and Latino boys as a personal responsibility he is willing to exert some presidential power over is to be commended. However, My Brother’s Keeper is steeped in the respectability politics that has been central to President Obama’s rhetoric surrounding black people. This program lacks an institutional analysis of racism and the legacy of white supremacy. It puts the onus on communities ravaged by centuries of racist public policy to undo damage they did not cause through education, mentorship and “hard work,” as if the barriers to accessing these things do not persist. It is insulting, in the face of this country’s history, to place the blame for the outcomes of racism on those victimized by it.
Moreover, this program gives me pause because it is gendered in a way that suggests the lives of these boys and young men matter more than girls and young women of color.
Yes, it’s true that black and Latino boys are disproportionately affected by issues such as incarceration rates and joblessness. When considering that, a program aimed specifically at them makes sense. And maybe I would be singing a different tune if I believed My Brother’s Keeper actually had the capacity to address those injustices.
As it stands, I simultaneously do not believe My Brother’s Keeper to be adequate for the young men it seeks to help and that it is unconscionable to leave young women out. If My Brother’s Keeper is going to be the racial justice initiative that President Obama stakes his legacy on, as flawed as it already is, it cannot also repeat the mistake of acting as if women of color are not also affected by racism.
The reason more than 1000 women of color and 200 black men came together to sign two letters asking for the inclusion of girls of color in My Brother’s Keeper (full disclosure: I am one of the signees) is not that anyone believes this particular initiative is the initiative to end all racism and suffering. It’s because racial justice movements of the past have consistently relied on the talent, skills, blood, sweat, time, money and silencing of women. They have fought diligently in the service of justice, only to be told that their specific concerns were either unworthy of attention or too divisive to be taken seriously.
This can’t be permissible at the grassroots or presidential level. Our girls matter, just as our boys matter. They matter to us, they matter to one another, they matter to this country. We can’t keep sending the message that they don’t.
Read Next: Gary Younge on the truth about race in America
I read and write about issues of racism on a near daily basis, so I probably didn’t need a study to tell me that people don’t understand how racism works. But it helps.
University of California, Berkeley, professor Clayton R. Critcher and University of Chicago professor Jane L. Risen have published a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that shows when “non-African-Americans—whites, Asians and Hispanics—who had seen images of successful black Americans were less likely to believe that systemic racism persists,” according to The Hufffington Post. The study’s abstract reads: “After incidental exposure to Blacks who succeeded in counterstereotypical domains (e.g., Brown University President Ruth Simmons, Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison), participants drew an automatic inference that race was not a success-inhibiting factor in modern society.”
Seeing images of successful black people makes others think racism doesn’t exist. That’s hardly surprising. Not much is when it comes to racism. But it underscores what’s so frustrating about our “national conversation on race.” People come to the table not understanding what racism is.
It’s not entirely their fault. Race Forward’s “Moving the Race Conversation Forward” report from January showed that “two-thirds of race-focused media coverage fails to consider how systemic racism factors into the story, instead typically focusing upon racial slurs and other types of personal prejudice and individual-level racism.” The result is the understanding of racism as a personal obstacle to be overcome, rather than a system of oppression rooted in white supremacy.
We aren’t closer to correcting that narrative when we celebrate the individuals who manage to “succeed” despite racism’s entrenchment. The impulse is understandable. Those individuals can serve as reminders of what is possible in the face of hopelessness. But individual symbols of progress seduce us into believing the system is fundamentally fair.
LeRoi Jones (later to be known as Amiri Baraka) addressed this in his 1962 essay “Tokenism: 300 Years for Five Cents”:
There are almost 20,000,000 Negroes in the United States. One of these 20 million has been given a two-dollar raise and promoted to a clerical job that my two-year-old daughter could probably work out without too much trouble. And we are told that this act is symbolic of the ‘gigantic strides the Negro has taken since slavery….
Somehow, and most especially in the United States, the fact that more Negroes can buy new Fords this year than they could in 1931 is supposed to represent some great stride forward. To where? How many new Fords will Negroes have to own before police in Mississippi stop using police dogs on them. How many television sets and refrigerators will these same Negroes have to own before they are allowed to vote without being made to live in tents, or their children allowed decent educations?
Symbols aren’t meaningless, but they are never strong enough to dismantle systems of oppression on their own. And as this recent study shows, they have the ability to convince people that those systems don’t even exist. If we’re having trouble getting to the first step acknowledging racism as a system of oppression, the prospects of actually undoing and replacing that system appear bleak.
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“For girls like us… it’s life or death.”
Laverne Cox is enjoying a moment of unprecedented and historic success. The actress is a star on the hit Netflix series Orange Is the New Black and recently graced the cover of Time magazine, becoming the first publicly identified trans woman to do so (this doesn’t include Chelsea Manning, who had not publicly identified as trans when she was on the cover). She’s at work on a memoir and a documentary to be produced by MTV and Logo about trans teens. Her visibility as a black trans woman is pushing our cultural notions of what womanhood looks like, and her activism reminds us just how many girls like her are left behind.
That’s what was so haunting when she spoke those words, “For girls like us… it’s life or death,” while receiving the 2014 Creative Change award a few weeks ago at a ceremony hosted in New York City. For all the success and accolades and praise that Cox has received, she knows all too well that, because she is a black trans woman, her life could be very different.
“Very easily, CeCe [McDonald] could have been me,” Cox said. CeCe McDonald is the black trans woman who served nineteen months in prison after defending herself during an attack in which she and a group of friends were subject to verbal assaults that included homophobic, transphobic and racist slurs, as well as a physical assault that resulted in McDonald’s face being lacerated by a glass bottle, an injury that required eleven stitches. In an act that McDonald maintains was self-defense, 47-year-old Dean Schmitz was killed after being stabbed with a pair of scissors. Cox has been a vocal supporter of McDonald and is producing a documentary about her case.
But it’s this type of harassment and violence that follows trans women wherever they go. “Walking while trans is often a contested act,” Cox told me, citing the case of Monica Jones, the black trans woman from Phoenix, Arizona, who was recently found guilty of “manifesting prostitution” after having accepted a ride in a car from two undercover police officers. There are presumptions we, as a society, hold about the bodies of black trans women, steeped in racism and transmisogyny, that make it unsafe for them to simply exist in public.
That’s what happened in Atlanta on May 20. Two black trans women were attacked on the city’s public transit system, MARTA, by men who demanded to know if they were real. Not only were they kicked, one was stripped, as other passengers did no more than break out their cellphones to capture the brutal incident on video. Trans woman are supposedly deceiving everyone, only pretending to be women (or are delusional, if you were to take National Review’s Kevin Williamson’s bigoted view) and somehow it’s the job of the public to expose them. Never mind that sex and gender are two different things; never mind that gender identity is an ever-evolving construct; never mind that gender expression doesn’t have any bearing on gender identity; and never mind that people should simply have the right to exist in their bodies as they so choose.
“Far too often trans women don’t have justice,” Cox said to me. “I’m obviously not one for locking people up, but we need some justice.” Perhaps justice starts with the recognition of trans women as women, and not just the most famous and visible. It is genuinely amazing to have Laverne Cox, New York Times bestselling author Janet Mock and a number of other black trans women being visible and shaping culture, but it’s not enough. It isn’t justice. When black trans women can walk the street without the fear of violence and harassment, then we’ll be on the right path.
Read Next: What white privilege looks like when you’re poor.
Inevitably, when you talk about white privilege someone will ask the question, “What about poor white people? What privilege do they have?”
In January 1961, John F. Kennedy was inagurated as the nation’s thirty-fifth president. In February 1961, he signed an executive order for a pilot food stamp program, one based on the model previously used during the Great Depression. During his campaign, Kennedy had spent much time in West Virginia, and according to his speechwriter Ted Sorensen, “was appalled by the pitiful conditions he saw, by the children of poverty, by the families living on surplus lard and corn meal, by the waste of human resources…. He called for better housing and better schools and better food distribution…. He held up a skimpy surplus food package and cited real-life cases of distress.” Kennedy saw people in need and used his power as president to address their crisis.
This week, the House Appropriations Committe released a draft of the 2015 Agriculture Appropriations bill. In it, $27 million is budgeted for a pilot program aimed at reducing child hunger in rural areas. “Sounds innocuous enough," writes MSNBC’s Ned Resnikoff, “except the $27 million program was actually the committee’s substitute for a White House proposal which would have allocated $30 million to child hunger across urban and rural areas.”
Resnikoff goes on to point out that this doesn’t mean children in urban areas will be completely left out of hunger reducing programs, as the “federal government spends hundreds of millions of dollars on the Summer Food Service Program, which provides meals to low-income children when school is not in session and they don’t have access to free or reduced school lunch,” and that there are specific challenges that face rural areas with regards to food insecurity. However, “the House committee’s proposal is likely to help fewer people of color than the White House proposal. And while rural areas may be unique in terms of the challenges they face, they’re not where most of America’s hungry are concentrated.”
They’re also among the whitest. “The Appalachian region,” which is where this money would go, writes Talking Points Memo’s Sahil Kapur, “is also more white (83.5 percent) than the United States overall (63.7 percent), according to the Appalachian Regional Commission—and much more so than urban areas, which have a disproportionately high share of minorities.”
It’s not that Kennedy or this current House subcommittee ever explicitly said “white hunger is more important than black hunger, white poverty is more important than black poverty.” But the seeming indifference toward black poverty, played out in their actions as elected officials, reflects the privileging of whiteness. It is indecent that any person go hungry, particularly in a country of such abundance. It is indecent to determine that some of those people are more worthy of our investment in their being fed than others. It is indecent to then pretend as if that’s not the case. All these indecencies add up to an injustice. We are a country that practices injustice as a way of life.
Yes, you can be poor and white and still benefit from white supremacy. That’s what privilege is.
Read Next: Gary Younge on America's renewed racial segregation.
I don’t know that there’s a writer out there who can release a trailer for a new magazine article as if it’s promotion for their new mixtape aside from Ta-Nehisi Coates. He has the Internet buzzing with this one. Behold, “The Case For Reparations”:
And why shouldn’t we be excited? The last time any prominent figure made an argument in favor of reparations, it was Dave Chappelle doing a sketch on his Comedy Central TV show. The idea has become more of a punch line than a serious policy debate.
Hopefully, Coates will be able to change that. If Thomas Piketty has us all thinking about massive wealth redistribution as an answer to growing inequality, let’s also put reparations back on the table. The descendants of enslaved Africans in America have endured a particular type of inequality, one based on an ideology of white supremacy and borne out in a racial caste system, that requires a particular type of corrective. The un- and underpaid labor of generations of black bodies created massive amounts of wealth for everyone but the peoples whose work was exploited. And we’ve continued to suffer the consequences.
The least the American government can do is cut a check.
Read Next: The tactics change, but the police state stays the same.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about how the stop-and-frisk numbers in New York City, as of March, had dramatically declined, but the NYPD was arresting increasing numbers of subway dancers, panhandlers and those caught on minor violations such as drinking beer in public. The long fight against the unconstitutional stopping, questioning and frisking of black and brown youth had yielded results, but the NYPD simply shifted strategies to ensure their continued criminalization.
The week before that, Anna Lekas Miller wrote here at The Nation about the disbanding of the NYPD’s Zone Assessment Unit—the outfit responsible for spying on Muslim communities. Again, the work of activists and grassroots organizers resulted in what appeared to be progress. But Lekas Miller wrote at the time:
Yet, as much as the demise of the Zone Assessment Unit signals a step in the right direction, many Muslim community members question how significant the move really is. They worry that the change is more cosmetic than actual, a splashy declaration that obscures the way surveillance continues by other names. And after more than a decade under the NYPD’s watchful eye, who can blame them for the suspicion?
And, as luck would have it, this weekend we learned about the Citywide Debriefing Team, described by The New York Times as “a squad of detectives [that] has combed the city’s jails for immigrants—predominantly Muslims—who might be persuaded to become police informants.” Here’s more:
Last month, the Police Department announced it had disbanded a controversial surveillance unit that had sent plainclothes detectives into Muslim communities to listen in on conversations and build detailed files on where people ate, prayed and shopped. But the continuing work of the debriefing team shows that the department has not backed away from other counterterrorism initiatives that it created in the years after the Sept. 11 attacks.
These informants differ from traditional police informants, who are often asked to provide police with information about criminal activity. The Citywide Debriefing Team recruited people solely on the basis of their Muslim identity, with no prior knowledge of any crimes necessary. So while the NYPD has ended its practice of mapping and spying on Muslims using plain clothes police officers, it’s producing the same results with a different tactic. Not much different from what has happened with stop-and-frisk.
And this keeps happening because we, as American citizens, refuse to question the fundamental goals of policing.
We often find ourselves caught in a debate about the particularities of certain egregious police tactics. And while it’s important to protect communities and people in the here and now, what we miss is a larger discussion about the role police should have in law enforcement. Right now, we seem to have conceded that the police ought to play a preventive role, pre-empting crime by aggressively seeking out potential lawbreakers. That means that the police are granted discretion to determine who constitutes a potential lawbreaker. In a country built on suspicion of the “other,” that more often than not means black and Latino youth, and in a post-9/11 world, Muslims of Middle Eastern descent. As such, police are given tools (stop-and-frisk, surveillance) that abuse the rights of the already marginalized, under the auspices of serving and protecting the greater good.
Then those communities fight back. They take to the streets and to the courtrooms in a fight to be treated like human beings and not presumed to be thugs or terrorists, under whatever definition of those terms that is being used to justify police overreach. And sometimes they win. But the wins are fleeting because the police adopt new, some may say more refined, approaches to doing the same job of terrorizing these communities.
The cosmetic changes to the police state give us the false impression that the nature of policing has changed, that somehow it isn’t about monitoring, arresting and locking away the “other” as a way of “protecting” the true citizenry. We honestly believe that if we do away with the most blatantly destructive, racist, xenophobic, sexist etc. police practices then we do away with the problems of police abuse. Not if the philosophy doesn’t change.
Yesterday, it was reported that the “New York Police Department will significantly limit the practice of seizing condoms for use as evidence in prostitution-related cases, ending a procedure that health officials had long criticized as undermining their efforts to protect [sex workers] from disease.” Now, how long before the police find a way around this, too?
Read Next: No one cares if you never apologize for your white male privilege.
A 20-year-old college freshman who wrote an essay for one of his college publications has been interviewed on Fox News, written about in The New York Times and had his essay republished by Time magazine. Yet he doesn’t understand why anyone thinks he benefits from white male privilege.
Tal Fortgang of Princeton University wrote the piece, “Why I’ll Never Apologize for My White Male Privilege,” as a response to the (according to him) many people on his campus who tell him to “check [his] privilege” when engaging in debates. But Fortgang doesn’t want to check his privilege. He doesn’t want to acknowledge that his privilege exists. He would like to keep going through life believing that everything he and other white men like him have achieved is the result of their own hard work.
Or, if not the result of their own hard work, then that of their ancestors. Fortgang’s rebuttal to the idea that he is privileged as a white man in America was to tell the story of his grandfather who escaped Poland after the Nazi invasion, as well as his grandmother who survived a concentration camp, then made it to the United States and started a “humble wicker basket business.” Fortgang’s father “worked hard enough in City College to earn a spot at a top graduate school, got a good job, and for 25 years got up well before the crack of dawn, sacrificing precious time he wanted to spend with those he valued most—his wife and kids—to earn that living.” He challenges us, after telling these stories, “Now would you say that we’ve been really privileged?”
Fortgang’s essay is part of the reason you can count me among the camp that believes we should spend less time discussing privilege. It’s not that it’s not a useful concept. There are clear and present advantages to being born and continuing to be recognized as a (cisgender heterosexual) white man in America. But the discussion has its limitations.
This paragraph from Fortgang is a prime example:
I do not accuse those who “check” me and my perspective of overt racism, although the phrase, which assumes that simply because I belong to a certain ethnic group I should be judged collectively with it, toes that line. But I do condemn them for diminishing everything I have personally accomplished, all the hard work I have done in my life, and for ascribing all the fruit I reap not to the seeds I sow but to some invisible patron saint of white maleness who places it out for me before I even arrive. Furthermore, I condemn them for casting the equal protection clause, indeed the very idea of a meritocracy, as a myth, and for declaring that we are all governed by invisible forces (some would call them “stigmas” or “societal norms”), that our nation runs on racist and sexist conspiracies. Forget “you didn’t build that;” check your privilege and realize that nothing you have accomplished is real.
When people with privilege hear that they have privilege, what they hear is not, “Our society is structured so that your life is more valued than others.” They hear, “Everything, no matter what, will be handed to you. You have done nothing to achieve what you have.” That’s not strictly true, and hardly anyone who points out another’s privilege is making that accusation. There are privileged people who work very hard. The privilege they experience is the absence of barriers that exist for other people.
In Fortgang’s telling of his family’s history, he fails to recognize that it is his grandfather’s proximity to whiteness that afforded him his opportunities here in America. It made his story possible. It doesn’t mean there has never been any discrimination or hatred of Jewish people, but that Jewish identity doesn’t present the same obstacles to whiteness, and therefore power and privilege, as, say, if Fortgang’s grandparents had been fleeing German occupation in Namibia.
There are no American institutions of power that are, whether by law or by custom, founded on wholesale discrimination against white men. That’s not the case for the rest of us. For white men born in or welcomed into this system, it is an unearned privilege.
Fortgang can go through his years at Princeton—or better, the rest of his life—and never have to acknowledge that, let alone apologize for it. But no one is asking him to. An apology would be useless. If a discussion about privilege serves any purpose, it is so that the privileged recognize their own and are then compelled to work to dismantle the structures that have bestowed privilege upon them. In order to do so, one would have to recognize the call to “check your privilege” as less of a personal attack, because it is not. It’s a wake-up call to action.
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In March, we learned that under the new NYPD police commissioner, Bill Bratton, the number of stop-and-frisks police were making dramatically decreased. The New York Times reported that in the first two months of 2014 “police officers recorded making 353 stops for behavior deemed suspicious, compared with 5,983 last year.” And while that’s a welcome change from the sky-high number of racist and unconstitutional stop-and-frisks the city saw under Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, it does not spell the end of an overly aggressive police force. The Times also reported that “the arrests of peddlers and panhandlers on subways have more than tripled over the same period last year, with the police recording 274 such arrests as of March 2. By this point last year, they had made 90 such arrests.” Arrests like these effectively penalize the poor and homeless for the ways in which they survive. Additionally, notes the Times, “Police statistics also indicate a noticeable spike in arrests for low-level violations in public housing developments.” While felony arrests were down 5 percent and misdemeanors flat, the number of arrests for violations, “a category that includes drinking beer in public and riding a bike on the sidewalk,” were up 21 percent.
One of the groups targeted in this new crackdown: subway break dancers. Almost anyone who has taken the subway in NYC has seen them, usually a crew of about four or five, typically young black men, who play loud music and perform in the subway car in hopes that passengers will be generous enough to tip them afterward.
So far this year, NYPD has arrested forty-six of them and charged them with reckless endangerment.
Admittedly, the dancers can be, at times, a little annoying. The instant they shout “Showtime!” and turn on the music, what could have been a quiet train ride is transformed into a party, whether you signed up for it or not. But the minor inconvenience they may pose for the few minutes they dance is certainly not worth an arrest. I also find it hard to be mad at them, knowing that school budgets, particularly for the arts, have been slashed to the point that few creative outlets exist for these kids, and we make next to no effort to create the jobs that would replace the money they earn from their dancing. If subway riders are complaining about the disturbance they cause, there must be another way to deal with them that doesn’t involve giving them arrest records.
Commissioner Bratton said of the subway dancers, “Those activities create a sense of fear, or that we’re not paying attention to disorder.” Those scary, disorderly, dancing young black bodies. Always causing fear.
And how long before that fear results in what happened to Nubia Bowe in Oakland?
On March 21, 19-year-old Bowe was arrested and sent to a county jail for four days after BART police (now infamous for the killing of Oscar Grant in 2009) responded to a complaint of loud music and dancing. After a witness who initially identified Bowe and two of her friends as the people who played the music recanted and told officers they weren’t the right group of people, the police still proceeded with the arrest. Bowe told Oakland’s Post News Group, “Once they pulled me off the train, I was first slammed to the ground and then thrown against the wall. The officers pushed me back down and continued to elbow and knee me in my back. My mouth was full of blood by then. The whole time this was happening, I repeatedly said ‘I am not resisting arrest. You are violating my civil rights.’”
Bowe says the aggression didn’t stop with the arrest, but continued when she reached Santa Rita jail, where “three male guards and one female guard came in my cell and beat me up. They hit me and then said that I assaulted one of them. So they chained my wrists to my ankles and tipped me over onto the urine-soaked ground so I couldn’t get up.”
The ease with which we criminalize and abuse black youth in this country would be astounding if it weren’t so routine.
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By now you’ve no doubt heard about the recordings of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling (allegedly) saying some pretty disgustingly racist things. In his latest vlog, Jay Smooth raises an important question about the aftermath: “Why do racist words bring more accountability than racist practices?”
I believe the answer to that question is that Donald Sterling broke the rules of politeness when it comes to American racism. The lesson that this country has gleaned from centuries of freedom fighting and resistance and pushback to slavery, Jim Crow, lynching, economic exploitation, rape, theft and cultural/historical erasure is that you shouldn’t say mean things about black people. So long as you don’t say mean things, everything else is fine. Everything else, in fact, is necessary, in order that the United States remains a place where white supremacy thrives.
In the recording, Sterling tells his girlfriend, V. Stiviano, that he doesn’t want her to be seen at Clippers game (the word he uses is “my” games, as if he plays in the games himself) with black people. With that, he crosses the line with which Americans are comfortable. You shouldn’t judge anyone by the color of their skin, we’re all the same, etc. etc. His impolite racism breaks the rules of decorum. But it also sets the incredibly low bar by which Americans can judge themselves and their own adherence to racism. Now, if you’ve ever sat next to a black person at a basketball game, your antiracist cred is solid, because those are the terms on which we’re holding the discussion around racism. Are you polite enough to share a social event with a black person? Congratulations, you’re not a racist. As long as you’re not Cliven Bundy, or Paula Dean, or Bill O’Reilly, you’re not a racist. Sterling’s (alleged) comments absolve the system and everyone else complicit therein.
Luckily, or as lucky as these things get, this incident has shed light on Sterling’s more insidious racist practices, like the housing discrimination suit he had to settle in 2009. But the tapes offer more insight into the structure of American racism and the way it justifies itself. From the transcript provided by Deadspin:
Stiviano: Do you know that you have a whole team that’s black, that plays for you?
Sterling: You just, do I know? I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them?… Who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game? Is there 30 owners that created the league?
Sterling (allegedly) doesn’t see the Clippers players as employees. He (allegedly) hardly sees them as human beings. He (allegedly) thinks he, because of his money, makes the game possible, not the hard work and talent of the people who go out there and play. They’re no more than the recipients of Sterling’s beneficent philanthropy.
It’s the insufferable marriage between racism and capitalism that allows both systems to continuing functioning and oppressing. According to the recording, Sterling, a wealthy white man, sees no issue with profiting from the labor of “his” black players, because he provides for them the basics of survival. The premium is placed on ownership. Granted, because these are men making millions of dollars it’s hard to see how this relates to trials of the average worker. But as it is at the top of the income scale, so it is at the bottom, where labor is extracted from people and they are expected to be grateful for whatever they receive, even if it’s not enough to provide for themselves. For people of color, that work is devalued even further and the level of gratitude expected even higher. And pretty much everyone is OK with that.
At one point on the tape, Sterling (allegedly) says to Stiviano, about black people, “I want you to love them—privately.” “Love” us privately, exploit us publicly. Just another day in America.
Read Next: Donald Sterling’s willing enablers.