The following was presented as a reflection on July 21st at the Community Mennonite Church of Lancaster 9:30AM service.
So the past week has been a rollercoaster for me, one that started late Saturday night when I found out about the Zimmerman acquittal. I wasn’t surprised about the second degree murder charge; making the argument that George Zimmerman had meant to kill Trayvon Martin, even in the heat of the moment, was a bit too much of a stretch. Somewhere deep inside of me, however, I had expected him to be found guilty of manslaughter. After all, as one blogger on The Guardian’s website noted, “Martin was on his way home, minding his own business armed only with a can of iced tea and a bag of Skittles. Zimmerman pursued him, armed with a 9mm handgun, believing him to be a criminal. Martin resisted. They fought. Zimmerman shot him dead.”
Am I the only one to which this seems like a clear cut case of negligence and stupidity leading to someone’s death – in other words, manslaughter? Evidently not in Florida. Somehow, I doubt that I would get much sympathy if I had chased someone down and gotten my butt kicked for doing so. And if I shot that person? I’d be a statistic – yet another black male in prison, courtesy of gun violence and the justice system that loves it.
It was the acquittal on manslaughter charges that got to me. Disappointed? Oh yes. Angry? Quite. But mostly, I was sad and hurt and afraid. Because, deep down, this verdict sends the same message I’ve heard all along. Black males have no value in this society. Everything I do, and by extension, everything I am, is worthless.
Now you may disagree. “No, that’s not right! I can’t believe anyone would send you that message!” If so, I truly envy you, because you are able to speak from a place of privilege that I have never in my life been able to attain. A level of privilege that supports and encourages that American dream we’ve heard so much about – the one that says that you have the freedom to do as you please (within reason), that hard work and dedication produces success, and that anyone and everyone has the potential to achieve anything, if you only set your mind to it. Because in my life, the message I’ve gotten has been, “You’re not quite good enough to sit with us.”
I remember when my parents moved to the suburbs when I was ten, a month after school started. I remember sitting in the principal’s office, taking a test to find out if I would get into the gifted program or not. I remember him telling me that, although I was smart, I wasn’t quite up to snuff for their program. That I had missed the score cutoff by one. I’d gotten a 6 when I’d needed a 7, or maybe I needed an 8 and had gotten 7 – I don’t really remember now. I don’t even remember how the score was determined, or what it measured. What I remember is how I felt. Disappointed. Angry. Sad, hurt, and afraid. I remember the sick feeling in my stomach as I realized how they saw me – a black inner city kid invading the safety and sanctity of their suburban refuge. I wasn’t good enough to sit with them.
I remember walking home from work when I was fourteen, from a serving job I hated, and being followed by a police car for a block and a half. This wasn’t at 7PM in February; this was mid-afternoon in the height of summer. I remember the police officer pulling over, asking me what I was doing, where I lived, and asking me to get into the back of his car so he could drive me home. I remember that it didn’t really feel much like a request, and I remember wondering if I was going to be let out of the car once I was home. Or if I would get home.
I remember when I was accepted into an exchange program to go to France when I was 15. I was one of the youngest students ever accepted into the program. Unlike most of the other students, however, they had problems placing me with families. Evidently the undesirability of dark skinned Americans was just as well known in France as it was here. I remember how I felt when I learned that they didn’t want me in their homes. I wasn’t good enough to sit with them, either.
I remember when I got my PSAT scores back during my senior year in high school. I’d taken them while in France, and had to travel alone by train to another city to take them. Even with all of that, I’d got the highest score at my high school. However, the second highest score, a white male, was awarded the National Merit Scholarship, and I received the National Achievement Scholarship, which is restricted to only African Americans. I was explicitly told that I was being given the National Achievement Scholarship so that they could give money to that white male, too. I don’t blame him, of course; he had no say in the decision. But the message to me was clear all the same. Even if I could compete, and win, on the same field, I wouldn’t be allowed to. I wasn’t good enough to sit there, either.
I remember watching TV, the popular shows, like “Seinfeld” and “Friends” and “Big Bang Theory”; shows set in New York City and Los Angeles; shows that somehow have few, or even no, people of color at all, much less black people. Movies have killed off so many black protagonists that there’s a name for the trope – “The black guy dies first.” “Jurassic Park” always springs to mind on this front; within five minutes a nameless black man is dead for basically no reason. How many popular movies and TV shows have you seen where there are either no black protagonists, or the black protagonists die immediately “for sake of the plot”? I’ve lost count now. Evidently it’s not just the people in Ohio that don’t want me, or people like me, sitting with them. It’s disappointing, and infuriating. Hurtful, and frightening.
I remember learning about American history. From the way the native Americans were treated as an annoyance subject to extermination, to the import of dark skinned people as living property – quite literally thought of as animals to be used to increase productivity. I remember learning about all of this on one hand, and the Declaration of Independence on the other. “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” versus “the 3/5ths Compromise”.
It’s not just that we’re not good enough to sit with them now; we’ve never been good enough to sit with them.
By the way, this kind of thinking isn’t lost to the annals of history. Blatant racism, the kind that is vicious and personal, crops up amazingly often. On Wednesday – this past Wednesday — Ann Coulter posted to her blog, (and this is a direct quote,) “Perhaps, someday, blacks will win the right to be treated like volitional human beings. But not yet.” [Ed. Note: Recent posts suggest that I originally read this statement incorrectly on her website. Personally, I still find the way it is presented ambiguous. But judge for yourself.]
Right, I know – it’s Anne Coulter. But it’s not just her. Newt Gingrich, Ted Nugent, Tucker Carlson, Bill O’Reilly, and plenty of others have added their hate to the ring. Michele Bachmann signed a marriage pledge in 2011 that stated that African Americans were better off as slaves in 1860 than they are now. I don’t know if we’re better off, but some ways of thinking certainly don’t appear to have changed. Based upon the events of the past 5 years or so, it’s become obvious that these folks represent a very large segment of the American public. They aren’t on TV and selling books and writing newspaper articles because no one agrees with them. They’re just courageous enough to say publicly what their followers think and say privately.
Many Americans still don’t want us sitting with them.
I remember this past Friday afternoon, when I nearly had a panic attack triggered by the thought of going to Barnes and Nobles. I’ll explain. Some of you may know that I’ve been writing a book on physics. If you ever decide to write a book, I’ll warn you – you’ll get a lot of suggestions and ideas, both solicited and unsolicited. One of the ideas I got sounded pretty good – “When you have a cover image you like, take it to Barnes and Noble – see if it fits in with the other books on the shelf.” Hey, that makes sense! In a way, that’s what I’ve been doing my whole life, so why wouldn’t I try to make sure that the cover of my book fits in as well? I am painfully aware that judgment of the cover determines whether the book even gets a chance to be read. Some of you may also know that I received the proof copies on Wednesday. Actual physical books, that I can hold and read. I thought they looked really good, but… will the cover fit in? If it shows up on the bookshelf, will people treat it like all of the other books that are there? Or will it stand out, be rejected, and dumped on? Well, there’s an obvious way to check this, right? Take my proof copies to Barnes and Nobles and compare! Duh.
Except… how am I, a tall black male, likely to be received when I walk into Barnes and Nobles and put my books up on the shelf? More importantly, how am I, a tall black male, likely to be received when I attempt to walk out of of Barnes and Nobles with the two books I entered with?
It’s a script for which I am very familiar, and and I found myself spiraling through mental preparations for what I would say when – not if, but when – someone accused me of stealing. That, of course, was followed by a more rational reaction. “Based on every other time you’ve been there, no one is likely to even notice that you’re there at all.”
“But if they do…”
As I drove down State Route 30, I could feel myself getting worked up. And the closer I got to Fruitville Pike, the worse it got. At the light I decided. “The cover is fine. It’s not like I can change it now anyway,” I told myself, and turned right, towards Panera and Giant and Ruby Tuesday. As I headed north, I felt like complete crap. I had failed. I was a coward. And the worst thing about it? If I were a white male, I doubt any of that would have even occurred to me. I would have been at B&N at that very moment, bragging to anyone who had listened that I had written a book, and that it would appear on these very shelves just like this – and I would have completely claimed that space, and those books, and the entire experience of being an author. It would not have occurred to me that I should be afraid. That there was anything to be afraid of.
I turned the car around and went to B&N. I have no idea how I looked; I walked in with my books obvious enough that any security camera footage would clearly show that I had entered with them. I went straight to the science section and held my books up to compare. Then I walked out, hands out, again making it obvious that I only had the same two books that I had entered with. My books – the ones with my name on the front and my picture on the back – the ones with the words PROOF written on the last page in big letters – the ones that I was deathly afraid would be taken from me as I was labeled a thief and a criminal.
Because that’s what comes with being black. It’s a package given to you at birth, like a pre-made lunch or a value pack. You get everything in it; you don’t get to pick and choose. You have to take all of it. It’s the story of who you are, and what you can do and what you can have. It’s the story of who you are allowed to be, and what you are allowed to do, and what you are allowed to own. It’s a story of which assumptions will be made – about your history, your abilities, your motives, your worth. It’s the story of who you’re allowed to sit with.
Who are you sitting with?
You’d think that all of this exclusivity and privilege and such would at least be good for white people, right? Ok, the package of blackness bites. No one in their right mind would choose it, if they’d been given a choice. But the package of being white – that’s got to be great! I mean, what’s the central message of that package? The American Dream: “The fruit of life is ripe, and all you have to do is reach out and pluck it! You can be anything you want, you can do anything you want – there’s nothing limiting you at all! You are Good and Noble and Right. We need you to sit with us.” Man, with these kinds of positive messages (and, dare I mention, the industry, government, and social convention that backs it), how can white people have any problems?
Except as I did research on this I came to realize this really bizarre thing. The package of whiteness is actually incredibly damaging – up to and including this positive individualist message of ability. What’s more, the fallout doesn’t just hurt individual whites, it’s shredding white community. For example, almost 80% – that’s 4 out of 5 – drug users are white, and substance use disorders (which includes both substance abuse and addiction) occur for whites at a rate almost twice that for blacks, even controlling for other factors. A Yale University study found that, among college aged women, white females were significantly more likely to become problem drinkers than black females. The most promiscuous and least serious individuals at college were – you guessed it – rich white students. Having a perception of no limitations does not necessarily lead to good outcomes.
In addition, I’ve heard a lot about the loss of history and culture – the loss of connection to homeland and to ancestry. Tim Wise, for example, talked about the choice his grandfather had to make upon arrival to this country – he could hold onto his past, OR he could adopt the privilege of the present. I’ll trust that you can correctly guess which choice he took. To paraphrase a Disney movie, “You’ll get what you wanted, but you’ll lose what you had.”
It’s worse than that, though. Not only are you discouraged here from remembering your own family history, you’re discouraged from remembering shared history. From the revisionist accounts of the Founders intentions to the whitewashing of the effects of slavery, we have literally been trained not to see the effects of the past on the circumstances of today. But when you lose the ability to see causal relationships over time you also lose perspective. And the only way to make sure that you can get what you want – Remember, just reach out and pluck it – is by doing everything right now, in this moment. You can’t just fight injustice, you have to conquer it, and bury it, and all of that has to be done before dinner. You can’t just own a profitable company or have a healthy economy, you have to have exponential growth, and make better profits than ever before, and it has to happen this quarter. You can’t just teach this class or bake that cake or enjoy this meal. You have to educate a generation, create a masterpiece, have a transcendent experience. When we cut off the past, we lose the future – and today becomes meaningless.
Other consequences, however? Even if you manage to avoid the dangers of excess, and you consider the constant noise of living in the moment an acceptable compromise, you still aren’t actually guaranteed all of the success and happiness you’ve been promised. It’s quite likely that, even with all of the resources tucked nice and neat into the package of whiteness, that you will still fail in some way. Who’s fault is that? Who takes the blame?
Blame yourself? Unlikely, but I will note that the suicide rate among whites is double that of all other minority groups.
Self-medicate? I’ve already talked about out of control drug use.
Wish for a reset button? Consider the growing fascination with apocalypse scenarios – World War Z, the Mayan Prophesies, the Second Coming of Christ? Who are the folks who always seem to survive in these fantasies?
Blame others? I could talk about the discussions surrounding welfare, immigration, education, affirmative action policies, police profiling, and, of course, George Zimmerman’s “These a-holes, they always get away” comment. But none of that really affects you. What affects you are the shootings – where someone, almost always a white male – walks into a random public location and begins firing indiscriminately. The most recent ones you remember, I am sure – Sandy Hook Elementary; Aurora Colorado; Tucson, Arizona; Fort Hood, Texas; Lancaster County, Pennsylvania – October 2nd, 2006, 10 Amish girls dead. This year’s big event was the Boston marathon bombing, of course; it remains to be seen if it will be the last. People have started asking the question – “What is it about white males that makes them more likely to flip out and kill other random white people?” How ironic would it be if the answer was rooted in the same evil that’s plagued blacks, Native Americans, Hispanics, and Asians? Racism.
In fact, the more I looked at what comes in the package of white privilege, the less appealing it appeared. It’s like one of those sickly sweet treats you can get in the checkout lane. Man, it tastes really good, but there’s a lurking suspicion that it’s really not that healthy for you. And for God’s sake, whatever you do don’t look at the label! You don’t really want to know what’s in it. Just enjoy it for what it is, and don’t think too much about the physical, spiritual, financial, emotional, and moral costs.
What’s funny is that once you open the packages and really look inside, it becomes fairly clear how much really poisonous stuff is in there. It’s painful. Aggravating. Disappointing. Terrifying. Unfortunately, unlike the crap in the checkout lane, you never had any say in whether or not to pick it up. It’s yours, by birth, just like that package of black has been and always will be mine.
That, however, doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. The great thing about pre-made lunches and value packs is that once they’re handed over to you they’re yours. It’s possible to look them over, open them up, and start pulling the crap out.
One of the things I didn’t explain earlier was why I turned around and went back to Barnes and Nobles. Oh sure, I don’t like thinking of myself as a coward, but I’m a pragmatist, too. I’d rather be a coward and free than a brave black man in prison because of a misunderstanding. The reason I turned around, the reason I wrote the book in the first place, the reason I’ve fought so hard to get the things that I have is because…
I have much to offer. I am valuable. Where I sit is none of your concern, and in fact has nothing to do with you at all. Just because my package came with that crap doesn’t mean I have to take it into me and claim it.
Nothing will bring Trayvon Martin back to life. And George Zimmerman will walk free. Justice? My package came with the clear understanding that life isn’t fair. One of the small benefits inside it, I think. But perhaps in the acquittal was a gift too: an invitation to peek inside and look at the crap I’ve swallowed as part of being black in America. A chance to accept that everything is not wine and roses, and that a lot of what has been forced upon me is destructive. A chance to vomit out some of the more self-destructive portions of that. God knows I’ve needed it – and I know that this process of purging will likely last the rest of my life. Rejecting the negative that is still being shoved down my throat. And maybe, just maybe, it offers a chance to challenge others to do the same – to look inside of themselves, and at the harmful crap they’ve inadvertently swallowed (and are continuing to swallow) as part of their cultural indoctrination.
What’s in your package?