Talk about history repeating itself. Once again, we have what appears to be a clear cut case of police brutality that pits white officers against unarmed black men. Once again, we have a predominantly white jury indicating that the white officer did nothing wrong and need not be punished.
And once again, we have countless white spectators on the sidelines standing on their soapboxes and shouting their insensitivity and their bias and their ignorance.
You’d almost think it was still 1992.
“Many are waking up to news reports of riots, looting and burning in Ferguson overnight, to unrest in our major cities, to echoes of LA 1992 and, for those that remember, Watts 1965. We have come some way since then, yet have so very far to go. I have not many words to offer by way of solace, but when our collective attention turns away from the mayhem and back to what gave rise to it, when we return to our lives and gather our families this Thanksgiving, let us pledge to move forward as one people who must solve this together. For it is not “they” who suffer anguish and rail their anger, it is “we.” – George Takei
And this is a lovely sentiment … but unfortunately it’s a fairy tale. Right now, in these United States of America, it is not “we,” it is only “them” and “us.”
“Is it sad that Michael Brown is dead? Yes, definitely. It is always sad to see a death that could have been prevented. Was it Officer Wilson’s fault? No. He was simply doing his job.”
That is, if you believe Darren Wilson’s version of events. Personally, I don’t. And, oh yeah … wasn’t that what they said about the officers who beat Rodney King to a pulp? Doesn’t seem like much has changed, does it?
During the grand jury hearing, Officer Wilson told jurors that Michael Brown appeared to him to be “a demon.” HuffPo reports that “Wilson frequently portrays Brown as being overpowering and aggressive, comparing the 6-foot-4-inch, 292-pound teen … to ‘Hulk Hogan.'”
That was what they said about Rodney King, too … that he was massive and scary, a “raging bull,” an “animal.”
The parallels are almost spooky.
Here’s the thing: there is an awful lot of misunderstanding and what’s sad is that a lot of it consists of people misunderstanding themselves.
In the United States, here are some things that are highly relevant and highly explanatory:
- White people as a group don’t spend much time around black people and they don’t have a history in this country that is in any way parallel. They lack either an intellectual or a sympathetic frame of reference. There seems to be no way for them to grasp the devastating, searing pain of being reminded at least once every generation or two how little their lives matter.
- White people as a group make assumptions about black people based on their own experience because, since they don’t spend much time around black people (especially in black communities), they don’t know what this stuff looks like on a day-to-day basis when it’s not exploding into riots every twenty or thirty years.
- White people are taught from when they are very young that the police are their allies, the police are the good guys. As far as they are concerned, the only reason for anybody to fear or distrust the police would be if they were criminals. Since so many black communities en masse both fear and distrust the police, they conclude that those communities must be full of criminals. (Most of them will not admit this, of course.)
- Because of their orientation, white people tend to believe that anybody who “gets it” at the hands of the police deserves whatever they got.
- Whether or not anybody is willing to admit it, ALL of this is culturally rooted in 200 year old stereotypes about blacks as “wild animals” that are dangerous to whites.
- It is incredibly significant that a recent Pew Research Center survey found that almost half of American whites believe that the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves because of what happened in Ferguson, MO. The would prefer to believe that the entire series of events had nothing whatever to do with race.
Yes, it is incredibly significant that a lot of white people would like everybody to stop talking about race.
Here’s something I wrote for one of my anthropology classes a few years ago:
It is human nature that people will only listen to someone telling them how terrible they are for a very limited time. How should we, as anthropologists, respond when we tell our fellow Americans that this or that is racist, and they ask, ‘What’s your point?’
In that same paper, I predicted that white middle-America would only wear sackcloth and ashes for so long before they become wholly uncaring and/or desensitized about the issue of racism altogether.
It seems that we have reached that place now.
And yet, I persist in seeing cause for hope in the shrill and angry reactions of white Americans every time we tell them that something in our culture or our language or our ritualized behaviors or our preconceptions is racist. Yes, it makes them angry and defensive.
That is because they accepted the fact that racism was wrong and evil and anti-everything-we-are-supposed-to-stand-for about fifty years ago. And yet, it’s still here. They don’t know what to do about it. They don’t know how to make it go away. If they accept those conclusions about racism, then they must have come to the conclusion (in their collective subconscious, perhaps) that they must be wrong and evil and un-American. Since they are tired of wearing sackcloth and ashes, it should come as no surprise that they find it easier to blame us for their continued social disease.
It is uncomfortable, of course. But I think I prefer that discomfort to their indifference. No doubt they prefer to believe that poor blacks deserve everything they get, conveniently forget that there is any such thing as poor whites, and hope that gets them to sleep at nights.
But at least they still care.
It isn’t much but it gives us something to work with.