The demonstrators who are stopping traffic, occupying public spaces, and marching through busy shopping streets want to disrupt business-as-usual in the hope of awakening conscience and action. The tags on every demonstration notice at Ferguson Response tell the story: #WeCantBreathe, #ThisStopsToday, #JusticeforEricGarner, #JusticeforMikeBrown.
Here in the San Francisco Bay Area—specifically in Berkeley and Oakland, two centers of activism—there have been incidents of vandalism, arrests, tear gas lobbed by police into crowds (and sometimes lobbed back). These loom very large in mainstream media coverage, of course: if it bleeds, it leads. They loom large in some people’s minds too. I’ve been hearing concern expressed that these demonstrations will discredit the movement for justice: if they turn violent, some have said, they lose moral force.
I want to parse that response because it reveals something about embedded cultural attitudes that are part of the problem. How do we become aware of and correct for racist frames that have shaped our perceptions and attitudes? Let me see if I can help to break it down.
Violence. It was violence that moved demonstrators to act in the first place: the deaths at police hands of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and so many other African Americans across the U.S. that #BlackLivesMatter is a heartbreakingly necessary assertion, countering so many policies and practices that treat black lives as disposable. Property damage is more likely to blow back on those who strike out at store windows than it is to stop those policies and practices. But a broken window is a broken window, not a threat to life and limb.
I was thinking about a post I kept seeing on Facebook and Buzzfeed in October. In Keene, NH, young people rioted, set fires, threw bottles, got tear-gassed and shot with rubber bullets at an annual pumpkin-carving festival. More than 30 people were injured, 20 transported to hospitals. Fifty arrests were reported. If you follow the link and scan the photos, you’ll see a largely white crowd. The response to this incident—basically condemning a basketful of bad apples for their behavior and threatening to canceling the annual event—led quite a few people of color to send out tweets like these:
White people in New Hampshire really need to do some self-reflection and regulate their animal impulses in the wake of #keenepumpkinfest.
“Why are they tearing up their own community?” #pumpkinfest
Where are the leaders in the white community? They need to speak out #keenepumpkinfest
What made people laugh at those tweets is the way they transpose common racist tropes to a category—“white”—that is widely considered immune from them. I frequently hear comments in much more benign contexts that encode the assumption that people of color ought to line up into communities defined by a few broad racial categories, and that those communities should adopt consensus leadership and congruent positions.
Why is it acceptable to apply this assumption to black people or Asian Americans; and so laughable to apply it to white people? Why is it so familiar to hear someone whose job is “community outreach” expect a person whose forbears emigrated from Haiti, someone from Zimbabwe, someone whose family goes generations back in the American South, and a dark-skinned Cuban-American to follow a single “representative” leader and agree on a single “representative” position? And so hilarious to imagine that community outreach person saying, “Why can’t you Irish, Poles, Italians, Southern Baptists, and Ashenazi Jews get it together: pick a white leader who speaks for the community?
Why don’t people who fear the current demonstrations have nightmares when they read about Pumpkinfest. Why aren’t they worried that marauding bands of white youth will discredit whites as a group? Why doesn’t the tale of 30 injured and 50 arrested in Keene, NH, trigger the same reaction as the six arrests in Berkeley Sunday night?
These are rhetorical questions, of course, because the difference in the two responses, in the two sets of commonplace statements, is race. Is racism.
Moral force. This one drives me crazy. I understand that the practice of nonviolent resistance calls for protesters to be far superior in conduct to those whose actions they protest. When this discipline was applied, as in Gandhi’s time or in the sixties civil rights movement in the south, the sight of protesters enduring abuse without returning it had tremendous moral and persuasive power. But not everyone chooses to adopt that discipline.
Demonstrations sometimes give expression to outrage. I wasn’t at the Berkeley protests, but there are lots of crowd shots in the local papers. The racial make-up of the crowds isn’t that different from PumpkinFest. And based on past history, it’s likely that African American protesters who take part in demonstrations where some people engage in rock-throwing and window-breaking risk far more serious punishments than their non-black counterparts. Young people’s protests—especially those arising spontaneously, as opposed to long-planned actions with well-trained monitors and codes of behavior—whatever else they express, they are likely to express some of the rebellion and some of the disdain for constituted authority their counterparts have felt at every moment in recent history. I may not like it, but no one asked for my approval.
A default assumption that needs examining here is that well-behaved, polite protesters are more likely to see their causes succeed. It would be really cool if this were true, but I see no proof. What vandalism, rock-throwing, and looting do—apart from endangering people and property—is give those who feel authorized to judge a movement’s worthiness a convenient excuse to dismiss it. “Well, maybe they have a point, but their methods—I can’t condone them.”
A movement’s moral force derives from the way its adherents express the claims of justice, seek to redress historic wrongs, promote freedom and equality, call out evil and cast shame on those who perpetrate it. This can no more be canceled by acts of vandalism than the immoral force of a movement that exists to oppress and persecute vilified groups can be canceled by a few good deeds some of its members may perform.
Calling racism what it is. This week in The New Yorker, Jelani Cobb writes about the euphemism “racial profiling.”
Nothing better illustrates the slick, manipulative power of euphemism than the fact that our dialogue takes seriously this non-term. There is no such thing as “racial profiling”—there is simply racism. What subsequent action, what logical end, does racial profiling produce that abject racism would not? The supposed definition of “racial profiling”—that the alleged behavior of any fragment of a population becomes the basis for categorizing it in its sum, that epidermal hues are a valid means of reflexively predicting character—is what we, in more honest moments in our past, simply referred to as racism.
He shows how evergreen—and baseless—has been the specious argument that “black crime is the cause of reactionary policing.” Among all the other things it is, racism is the sense of entitlement to say that human rights should be earned by exemplary conduct. But human rights are a universal entitlement, not a privilege. Even implying that they must be earned expresses power relationships racists would rather not acknowledge (who has to earn and who gets? who gets to judge and who be judged?).
Most tellingly for me, Cobb deconstructs national homicide figures to show how incredibly violent the United States is, crossing racial lines to stake our collective claim on murder, then notes that
The fact that Americans die at the hands of other Americans is, one would naïvely suspect, an American problem—but if those Americans are black, it is considered anything but. This is the alchemy by which racial category takes precedent, yet again, over supposed citizenship. This is the skewed thinking that forms the context in which black people die in the United States.
My friend posted a blog from The Washington Post about white people’s scores on an implicit bias test. The test is basically a sorting exercise. You have four categories: images of black faces, images of white faces, a set of “bad” words (sad, pain, etc.), and a set of “good” words (glorious, joy, etc.). Holding your index fingers over two computer keys, you sort as quickly as possible according to criteria on the screen. Sometimes you sort African American faces and positive words into the same bin; sometimes you sort white faces and good words. Speed is a key criterion. If you hesitate longer when you have to sort the categories “African American” and “good” than when you sort “European American” and “good,” your mind is bogged down with unconscious bias that confuses the categories.
The aggregate scores to date show that white people as a group, regardless of age, political affiliation, and place of residence have some implicit bias toward European Americans, ranging from slight to strong. My test showed slight bias. A friend who took the test at the same time (and who is not white) showed strong bias toward whites. Both of us are conscious anti-racists who have done extensive work on our own attitudes and behaviors.
What the Post blog didn’t mention is that approximately half of African Americans who take the test show a bias toward their own category, and half a bias toward whites. I’m not holding up this test as some sort of ultimate truth. But the results fit my sense of reality, which is that racism is a cultural issue that must be addressed as such. Human beings’ relationship to culture is pretty much as the relationship of water to fish: we swim in it, it forms the context for our lives, it is very difficult to step back from our immersion to make a critical assessment of the matrix in which we are embedded. The culture of racism is a culture precisely because it permeates unconscious attitudes and actions. When Jelani Cobb quotes Charles Barkley or alludes to Bill Cosby’s erstwhile “responsibility tirades,” he is highlighting distortions that shape some African Americans’ hearts and minds.
Regardless of which racial categories we fit, it takes a tremendous act of will to cultivate the level of awareness that can own and attempt to correct for that. We had better summon it now.
Queen Esther, “That Wall in Your Heart.”