Tuesday, December 9, 2014

A Call for White Responsibility from a White Man

Following is the most succinct and precise description of white privilege I've ever read, written by a dear friend, in fact our families are friends. It is must reading for all whites who don't understand all the attention and outrage over the murders of unarmed black men by the police.  Enjoy!

White Privilege Equals White Responsibility

When I was 12, I was arrested for popping hood ornaments off of Mercedes and Cadillacs to hang on my fake gold chains. When I was 15, I was arrested for shoplifting a scrimshaw tobacco pipe from a shop at the mall. When I was 20, I was arrested for shoplifting a cordless phone from a department store. These are the times I got caught.

When I was 34, I applied for a job and stated with confidence that I’d never been convicted of any crime. I’m white, and even though I smoked weed, shoplifted, ran red-lights and littered, society saw more value in me than if I had been black. I’m not proud of it; I’m just lucky.

If I had been black, I would have never gotten a pre-trial diversion, a deferred adjudication or any type of leniency from the system. I would have had a record, and I would have had far less opportunity, and I would have never gotten that job that asked if I had been convicted of a crime, and my life would be wildly different today.

I’m white, and I’m terrified of cops. I know what it feels like to have my physical freedom arrested by a police officer. I know what it’s like to be bullied, harassed and put up against a wall by a cop, but I have no idea what it’s like to be black.

I get tense if I pass a cop on the sidewalk, I get flooded with adrenaline and anger when I get pulled over. I know they can do anything to me. In spite of whatever personal rights I might be guaranteed by law, I know they can exercise their authority on my freedom, they can and will intimidate me, and I will operate from a position of fear.

The difference is that while I fear and distrust cops, I live with the confidence that in the eyes of society, for no other reason than the color of my skin, my life is considered more valuable than if I were black.

Let’s imagine that cop is having a bad day, let’s imagine I don’t wanna be fucked with. The cop wants to put me in my place, and I don’t wanna be put in that place. Things escalate, and something happens to me like what has happened to Eric Garner or Mike Brown or Oscar Grant.

I’m white, and I know that in the unlikely event that I am a victim of police brutality, society in general and my “community” will demand that someone be held accountable, that changes be made and that it never happens again.

The painful and terrifying truth is that American society considers my white body and my white life as more valuable than if I were black.

There is a moment in the Eric Garner video when Officer Pantaleo starts to grab Eric Garner in a way that he would never feel entitled to grab me, and that is the moment that has to change in America. The moment the officer felt entitled to exercise force on Eric Garner’s body is unacceptable and pervasive throughout the Black American experience, and it has to change.

When the other officer is pressing Eric Garner’s face into the sidewalk, when the EMTs don’t try to help, when it takes 36 hours to get an official statement from Darren Wilson, when there are no batteries in the camera to document the crime scene, when no one is held responsible, when there is nothing that could be done, when all we have are condolences, when they are all just sad, unfortunate, tragic and isolated events, when politicians, civic leaders, police commissioners, and average white American citizens don’t demand that someone be held accountable, the truth that black lives don’t matter in America is proven and perpetuated.

Maybe we can’t get an indictment, but these incidents expose a far greater systemic racism that we have to address, and white people must demand that it be addressed.

White people in power who are responsible for these cops and these policies and these tragic accidents must GO TO JAIL. They must be reprimanded, they must be shamed, they must be fired, they must be exposed as the most immediate place where we can do better.

The systemic fear of large unarmed black men, the poor decisions, the ongoing use of excessive force must be deemed completely reprehensible, unacceptable, and we as grossly over-privileged white people must give notice to the police forces and public officials of America that we will not stand for it anymore.

Call your local police chiefs, your local district attorney, your local politicians, and let them know that you are giving them notice, that if they allow another tragic accident like what has been happening to unarmed black men across America, you will be in the street, knocking on their door and demanding their resignations.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

"If black folks weren't breathing, we wouldn't have to kill them."

That's the message I got today from former NY Police Commissioner Ray Kelly as he participated on Katie Couric's Yahoo News show. I was watching the show for the first time ever because my son W. Kamau Bell was part of a panel along with Dion Rabouin, a writer for The Root and Kelly discussing the non-indictments of police officers who kill unarmed black males. Except Kelly's recurring theme, as has been the case for all apologists for these travesties, is that these police murders are our own fault, meaning blacks, of course. He was quite satisfied "explaining" these police murders by perpetuating the myth that there are "more crimes in the black community." That's why the police have to do a lot of stopping and frisking in black neighborhoods which sometimes leads to the need to kill somebody. Oh well....

For those of you who may not understand, please know that crime does not occur when the police aren't looking. However, when the police are around ALL THE TIME, they see every little thing, like Michael Brown's jay-walking, for example. Or, they make a thing out of something like Eric Garner standing quietly on the sidewalk. I live in a town and a neighborhood that is predominately white. I have lived on this street for twelve years and seen a police car here TWO TIMES in 12 years. They were called in because of domestic situations. The police do not patrol. I suppose this means no crimes are committed in this vicinity. I've seen evidence of someone trying to jimmy coins from the laundromat, heard of bicycles and other property being stolen, but the police didn't see it, so no crime was committed.

When these same things happen in predominately black neighborhoods, the police are there--ALWAYS patrolling, watching, picking up and locking up young black boys who look suspicious. And they all look suspicious with their hoodies, sagging pants and dark skins. Sometimes, when these boys don't go quietly because they are not doing anything wrong, they have to be killed. After all they should know better than to talk back to the police! Or, sometimes they are not even given the opportunity to talk back because they are killed on sight, like Tamir Rice. He was killed instantly by a police officer who had previously been ruled "unfit for duty."

The police and other law enforcement officials also did not "see" the crimes committed by banks and other financial institutions that led to the calamitous economic crisis of 2007-08 and ruined the lives of tens of thousands of people. And since law enforcement didn't see them doing it, that means no crimes were committed. 

It is this glaring and hypocritical disparity in the FOCUS of the police and the PERSPECTIVE of other authorities that many people refer to as "white privilege." We are under surveillance. Whites are not. And even when whites commit crimes in the presence of police, the response is often, "Aw shucks."

I believe there are people in many police departments who actually want to protect and serve. However, I also believe that because of the above-the-law culture cultivated in police departments and upheld by justice systems around the country, that ALL police of every color and inclination are infected by that culture. Some officers may refuse to actually participate in killing and brutalizing citizens, but they stand by and quietly back up those who do.

The police are hired and trained by those in power to do their dirty work--maintain order, break up labor strikes, intimidate and brutalize protestors, maintain the oppression of the poor so they don't forget their place and organize for a higher minimum wage. In black neighborhoods they are indeed, as the Black Panthers described them in the Sixties, an Occupying Army. An army that now has military uniforms, equipment and weapons.

This kind of dirty work attracts certain types of people; bitter angry folks with grievances. Attracts those who feel stronger and more secure with a gun on their hip and a baton swinging from their belt. Those who join the force to protect and serve, if they are truly self-possessed, will resist the prevailing culture, but then they usually stand by in quiet support of those who don't resist.

Kelly kept telling us what black people need to do to stop crime in their communities. (I guess whites are really good at stopping crime in their communities so that's why the police aren't needed there.) Kelly believes the only responsibility of police is to hire more "diverse" officers. (He's learned that the only color that matters within that culture is blue.) We all know that's not the solution, and Rabouin, the writer from The Root said so explicitly, citing the Atlanta police force. Bell said, "This is not something to be resolved between the black community and the police. This affects the entire country."

He is absolutely correct. The police are the most lethal and brutal of America's expression of systemic racism, but the racism can be found anywhere as evidenced in this situation by Kelly's refusal to listen to what a couple of black men were saying directly to him. 

Members of our highest body of elected officials, the U.S. Congress, openly flaunt their racism (and sexism) and their lead is followed by media pundits and many others spewing explicit racist venom. Murdering blacks (and the indigenous "Indians" and Hispanics, especially in the part of this country that used to be Mexico) with impunity is an integral and intimate part of American history. It has always been thus. Blacks were deliberately criminalized in the "north" as they always had been in the south, to facilitate reconciliation between the two sides after the Civil War.

The lack of consequences for the murderers of black men is nothing new. What is new, and I am grateful for this, is that the outrage is no longer confined to immediate family members and to black people. A significant number of people all over the country and of all colors are saying: "ENOUGH!"

For more of my opinions on America's racial issues and other topics, see my new collection of essays, Not All Poor People Are Black and other things we need to think more about. Copies are available here and on Amazon.

Sunday, February 23, 2014


Dr. Seuss wrote this in 1950, but it is a vivid description of
our current situation. It also indicates the absurdity of the
obedience of all the other turtles doing the bidding of 
Yertle (the 1%). Fortunately, some of the turtles on whom
the 1% rely are beginning to burp.

On the far-away island of Sala-ma-Sond, Yertle the Turtle was king of the pond. A nice little pond. It was clean. It was neat. The water was warm. There was plenty to eat. 

The turtles had everything turtles might need. And they were all happy. Quite happy indeed. They were... until Yertle, the king of them all, 
Decided the kingdom he ruled was too small. 

"I'm ruler", said Yertle, "of all that I see. But I don't see enough. That's the trouble with me. With this stone for a throne, I look down on my pond 
But I cannot look down on the places beyond.

This throne that I sit on is too, too low down. It ought to be higher!" he said with a frown. "If I could sit high, how much greater I'd be! What a king! I'd be ruler of all that I see!" 

So Yertle, the Turtle King, lifted his hand And Yertle, the Turtle King, gave a command.

He ordered nine turtles to swim to his stone And, using these turtles, he built a new throne. 

He made each turtle stand on another one's back And he piled them all up in a nine-turtle stack. And then Yertle climbed up. He sat down on the pile. What a wonderful view! He could see 'most a mile!

"All mine!" Yertle cried. "Oh, the things I now rule! I'm the king of a cow! And I'm the king of a mule! I'm the king of a house! And, what's more, beyond that I'm the king of a blueberry bush and a cat!

"I'm Yertle the Turtle! Oh, marvelous me! For I am the ruler of all that I see!" And all through the morning, he sat up there high Saying over and over, "A great king am I!" 

Until 'long about noon. Then he heard a faint sigh. "What's that?" snapped the king And he looked down the stack. And he saw, at the bottom, a turtle named Mack. Just a part of his throne. And this plain little turtle Looked up and he said,

"Beg your pardon, King Yertle. I've pains in my back and my shoulders and knees. How long must we stand here, Your Majesty, please?" 

"SILENCE!" the King of the Turtles barked back. "I'm king, and you're only a turtle named Mack." "You stay in your place while I sit here and rule. 

"I'm the king of a cow! And I'm the king of a mule! I'm the king of a house! And a bush! And a cat! But that isn't all. I'll do better than that! My throne shall be higher!" his royal voice thundered, "So pile up more turtles! I want 'bout two hundred!" 

"Turtles! More turtles!" he bellowed and brayed. And the turtles 'way down in the pond were afraid. They trembled. They shook. But they came. They obeyed.

From all over the pond, they came swimming by dozens. Whole families of turtles, with uncles and cousins. And all of them stepped on the head of poor Mack. One after another, they climbed up the stack. Then Yertle the Turtle was perched up so high, He could see forty miles from his throne in the sky!

"Hooray!" shouted Yertle. "I'm the king of the trees! I'm king of the birds! And I'm king of the bees! I'm king of the butterflies! King of the air! Ah, me! What a throne! What a wonderful chair! I'm Yertle the Turtle! Oh, marvelous me! For I am the ruler of all that I see!" 

Then again, from below, in the great heavy stack, Came a groan from that plain little turtle named Mack. "Your Majesty, please... I don't like to complain, But down here below, we are feeling great pain. 

"I know, up on top you are seeing great sights, But down here at the bottom we, too, should have rights. We turtles can't stand it. Our shells will all crack! Besides, we need food. We are starving!" groaned Mack. 

"You hush up your mouth!" howled the mighty King Yertle. "You've no right to talk to the world's highest turtle. I rule from the clouds! Over land! Over sea! There's nothing, no, NOTHING, that's higher than me!" But, while he was shouting, he saw with surprise That the moon of the evening was starting to rise Up over his head in the darkening skies. 

"What's THAT?" snorted Yertle. "Say, what IS that thing That dares to be higher than Yertle the King? I shall not allow it! I'll go higher still! I'll build my throne higher! I can and I will! I'll call some more turtles. I'll stack 'em to heaven! I need 'bout five thousand, six hundred and seven!" 

But, as Yertle, the Turtle King, lifted his hand And started to order and give the command, 

That plain little turtle below in the stack, That plain little turtle whose name was just Mack, Decided he'd taken enough. And he had. And that plain little lad got a bit mad. And that plain little Mack did a plain little thing. 

He burped! And his burp shook the throne of the king! And Yertle the Turtle, the king of the trees, The king of the air and the birds and the bees, The king of a house and a cow and a mule... Well, that was the end of the Turtle King's rule!

For Yertle, the King of all Sala-ma-Sond, Fell off his high throne and fell Plunk! in the pond! And to say the great Yertle, that Marvelous he, Is King of the Mud. That is all he can see. And the turtles, of course... all the turtles are free 

As turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be.