February 17, 2014
So picture this: April 1992. People running through the streets—gaggles, throngs of people running. Men jumping on the outsides of white women in their cars, rocking the cars back and forth. People falling out of cars. I ran into a Pep Boys, my heart was thudding. I was frightened. I searched for a back door. Television cameras were everywhere. Microphones and news anchors and helicopters. A box fell over. I ran outside and there were Korean men with rifles on the tops of liquor stores and some buildings were being lit on fire. The air was stinging. Sparks and pieces of blackened paper floated everywhere. People’s hands grazed my thighs as they clambered back in the direction from which I came. Some came out of the Pep Boys with tires, and oil for their cars, and there was a solid mass of flame across the street. Someone shot up into the sky. There were other shots. A dog ran past me in a hurry, looking like it knew where it wanted to go. Dogs. What about all the dogs? I adored dogs. The noise must have freaked them as it freaked me. I tried to think of where I would not die.
On one burnt-out block, people got some food left behind on smashed shelves. Sticky buns. A helicopter passed overhead, at some distance. I began to feel a little sick. Surely everything in here could go bad. Some people hoarded food and diapers under their shirts. But there was no need to be slick then. It was a riot. Or civil unrest. Or an uprising. People were looting everywhere. I crossed to an alley … very much alone, in all this noise … A police cruiser spotted me but did not pause. What was I? I could feel the police officer wonder, confused by my ethnicity. Was I white? Was I black? Mulatto? Best not to bother me. And here in this mass of people I felt free. I felt invisible. The freest I’d ever been. The roofless buildings, opened and outstretched to the heavens.
I passed a Ralphs that was still being looted. Women were using shopping carts and taking their time. I paused to watch the ladies shopping, stomping back and forth through the big broken windows. They took baby formula. They took diapers. They took bread. They took milk. I watched them and I thought of one sad day when my own mom was struck with the hard choice at a cash register: Juice or milk? Our food stamps could not cover both. We had to choose. She put back the milk and replaced it with a box of powdered.
It wasn’t until two days later, when my thoughtful history teacher paused and replayed the news coverage that we were able to catalog what was being taken. It wasn’t just television sets and radios and VCRs. It was baby food, diapers, milk. It was in watching this footage that I felt it happen—at that moment my life kind of hurt. We were reacting to an acquittal despite outright footage of police brutality on Rodney King.
There’s a story I like to teach to my students by Ursula Le Guin, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, and this story is an allegory of privilege. She begins in great detail describing a utopia of a place. She opens with a description of a festival and bells and horses and then reveals the unfortunate thing about Omelas, and this unfortunate thing, is that in order for it to exist there is a small child that is used as a sacrificial lamb. A miserable child who is locked in a basement, a child so wretched you cannot discern the kid’s gender.
They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.
This story is about the narcotic of privilege, as well as the brutal reality that by definition, privilege always has to exist at someone else’s expense. The horror of this allegory is that the sacrifice is a small defenseless child.
In the U.S., we cloak the reality of privilege with bootstrap myths, and dreams of overcoming inequities and racism, and unlike the people of Omelas, we embrace both the myth and the cloaking—never even taking that painful step of opening the closet door to face ourselves.
And who will be here to perpetuate these myths but its victims? Racism in America is not merely a set of beliefs but has become a tradition. Last week Justice Clarence Thomas waxed nostalgic for those good times in 1960s Georgia, when things were, as he remembers it, more racially neutral.
Justice Thomas meet Jim Crow, meet James Earl Cheney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael “Mickey” Shwerner, who were American Civil Rights workers. They were working on the “Freedom Summer” campaign in Mississippi. Their bodies were found in a dam 44 days after they went missing. They were shot at close range by the Mississippi White Knights of the KKK. June 21, 1964. Back in the good ol’ days.
I can’t help but continue to think America is Omelas and our sacrificial lambs are young black men. Our most violent myth is touting the denial of racism. Last week Jerry Seinfeld was quoted as stating we are comfortably tucked into a post-racial world.
In the world I live in—150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, there are more African-Americans in prison or “under the watch” of the justice system than were enslaved in the United States in 1850. And what of undocumented immigrants? During the time of the Iraq war, the Bush administration promoted a fierce nationalism … an “us versus them” mentality. What resulted was a wave of resentment towards the immigrants that were here sweating with us, toiling with us. I live in California, a state that has repealed its efforts toward administering affirmative action in 1996 by introducing Prop 209. As a result only 3.3 percent of UCLA’s total male population is black, and of the 75 male black freshman who enrolled at the school last fall 85 percent are expected to graduate.
I live in a state where Latino youth are two times more likely than whites to be sentenced to prison and African-American youth have six times the incarceration rate. In 2005 Congress approved plans to build a 750-mile fence along the southern borders of California and Arizona. Despite the irony that the fence was to keep poor Mexicans from coming into territory that the U.S. seized from Mexico in the 1840s.
Guns are going off everywhere, shooting and killing young, unarmed black men. In Florida, where “Stand Your Ground” laws protect perps and not victims: 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was shot by neighborhood-watch captain George Zimmerman; 17-year-old Jordan Davis by Michael Dunn, who thought he was playing his music too loudly. Also in Florida, in Pensacola, 17-year-old Victor Steen was tased by police—and then run over and fatally crushed by the police cruiser as they were chasing the teen, who was fleeing from them on his bicycle. In Brooklyn, New York, 16-year-old Kimani Gray was shot four times in the front and side of his body and three times in the back by two NYPD officers as he left a birthday party. In Pasadena, California, 19-year-old college student Kendrec McDade, who had only a cell phone in his pocket, was fatally shot by police officers who were responding to an armed robbery report. His final words were, “Why did they shoot me?” In Atlanta, an 18-year-old named Ervin Jefferson was trying to protect his sister from an oncoming crowd when two security guards shot him to death.
Then there was the case of Oscar Grant, which took place on an Oakland train platform on New Year’s Day in 2009. Transit officer Johanness Mehserle said that he accidentally mistook his gun for his taser. He was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, and released after only 11 months.
I don’t know exactly why all of these unarmed young black men were killed. You can point to the passage of the Taft Hartley Act in 1947—the lack of unions created a shift in the economy in the 1960s, when public sector employees predominantly comprised the organized workforce, which meant less job security, zero pensions, less benefits, and lower wages for private sector workers. And by private sector I mean the type of jobs that were available in Florida and New York and Pasadena and New Orleans, the sites of these innumerable, unspeakable murders.
You could blame it on gentrification, which has caused lower-income families and homeless people to get pushed out into other, brighter neighborhoods where they are unknown and unwelcomed. Another culprit: poor public transportation, where in a city like Milwaukee, 40 percent or 233,000 African Americans live below the poverty line; 24.6 percent are unemployed; and 47 percent don’t have a driver’s license. Meanwhile, three-quarters of the jobs are off of the bus route—so when the many African Americans on probation are caught driving to work, to the store, or anywhere else without a valid license, they are sent back to jail. You could blame NAFTA, which sent our work abroad. Or the lack of competition. Standardized testing. Lack of funding for education. The fact that over 13 million American community-college students are unable to perform basic math skills. I blame the myth-makers. I blame the violence of privilege and power used to fuel our economy. Parents of young black men cannot protect them from our country’s pathology.
In 1966, James Baldwin wrote:
This is why those pious calls to “respect the law,” always to be heard from prominent citizens each time the ghetto explodes, are so obscene. The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer. To respect the law, in the context in which the American Negro finds himself, is simply to surrender his self-respect.
As the daughter of an immigrant mother and an African-American father, I believed in the American Dream. I behaved, studied hard, and watched on with grief and worry as my mother struggled paying our bills. We lived in an ugly two-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles. Our neighbors in our apartment building were mostly black and Latino. Our bedroom windows looked out over a carport. The sound of the tires on the wet concrete. The puddles of oil staining the vacant spaces. Rows of car fluids on the small shelves lining the carport. The scattered children’s toys, hula-hoops, plastic trucks, toys from the 99 cent store. Little plastic soldiers. The Raid, the octagonal black plastic roach motel discs. The walkway to the shared laundry room where there was a constant heat and buzz and tumble.
Every time I entered the apartment, I could smell something sharp and poisonous. Grease and bug spray. The halls were lined with photos of me. One of me in kindergarten, one in first grade beside one of me in fourth grade. My eyes glared back at me watching, watching. They remained there long after I was placed into foster care. It was our last apartment together. Our last apartment before I was whisked away to group homes and homes in nicer cleaner neighborhoods.
I took with me a stain of the class traitor. When I’m alone at night—I watch these movies. Movies of workers. I listen for accents, workers accents. And I fucken’ love it. Films of people that drink Folgers crystals, wear jeans that are 20 bucks or less, people that have jobs that make their hands blister or callous or the smell of sweat or carry around a grocery list that is equivalent to a days work—a day’s pay. A bus pass, a transfer to the train. A 30-minute commute that translates to two hours. Getting dressed in the dark. These are the things I know. Like in my bones I know these things and yet I never want to be there again… and yet I don’t feel I deserve anything better. Somehow the lies of privilege have weaved their way into my subconscious but having lighter skin than two brothers I’ve survived I know one thing to be true. Racism is real. Racism is a by-product of the American Dream. Despite their assailant’s light sentencing or flat out dismissals those young men did not die in vain. Every 28 hours a shot is fired. Every 28 hours a black man is killed by a cop or vigilante. Trayvon Martin, Ervin Jefferson, Amadou Diallo, Patrick Dorismond, Ousmane Zongo, Timothy Stansbury, Sean Bell, Orlando Barlow, Aaron Campbell, Victor Steven, Ronald Madison, James Brisette, Oscar Grant, Jordan Davis, Kenneth Chamberlain, Abner Louiama, Kimani Gray, Kendrec McDade, Timothy Russell, Steven Washington, Alonzo Ashley, Wendell Allen, Travares McGill, Ramarley Graham, Tyrone Brown.
As Ta-Nehisi Coates states On the Killing Of Jordan Davis by Michael Dunn:
I will not respect the lie. I would rather be thought crazy.
I insist that the irrelevance of black life has been drilled into this country since its infancy, and shall not be extricated through the latest innovations in Negro Finishing School. I insist that racism is our heritage, that Thomas Jefferson’s genius is no more important than his plundering of the body of Sally Hemmings, that George Washington’s abdication is no more significant than his wild pursuit of Oney Judge, that the G.I Bill’s accolades are somehow inseparable from its racist heritage. I will not respect the lie. I insist that racism must be properly understood as an Intelligence, as a sentience, as a default setting which, likely to the end of our days, we shall unerringly return.
For young African American men in the U.S., the options appear incredibly narrow between the mass incarceration machine rightly called The New Jim Crow and victimization that can never find justice.
And how do the people of Omelas respond to this fact of their privilege at the expense of the sacrificed child? Most come to live with it: “Their tears at the bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality, and to accept it.”
But a few: “They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”
For me that place I go to, that unimaginable, unknown place, where I can wreck shit, and get honest and escape from all the bad bads, the place where I do not respect lies is right here—the page. And today I’m here to call bullshit. Bullshit on all these mythological notions of what race is in this country. Bullshit on how we keep seeing it played out repeatedly and with increasing frequency, in trials where white paranoid freakshows shoot young black men. And get away with it. Rodney King: I mean, there was videotaped proof of the police brutality and they were acquitted! That was just the beginning. We’re seeing this played out repeatedly. And with gun-control laws being, well, shot to shit, we have these doomsday-prepper types stockpiling artillery and shooting anyone who they think looks at them in a way that makes them uncomfortable, with laws like “stand your ground” in Florida and Michigan that protects them from being culpable.
I am calling bullshit on the fact that the same people that are stretching red tape across bureaucratic processes such as child-support modifications, and family reunification, and section 8 vouchers, and long-term affordable housing, and health-care benefits, and expungements are the same people that are drawing white chalk marks around young black bodies. I am calling bullshit on the irrelevance of life, impoverished life, black life, lowborn lives. I will not be your scapegoat, and my brothers and sisters and sons and uncles will not be the kid in your basement.