Stop-and-Frisk: Racial Discrimination in Policing

This short video (4:17) from Communities United for Police Reform, tells the story of a high school senior, Kasiem Walters. Walters recounts his experience with the “stop-and-frisk,” a racially discriminatory policing strategy used by the NYPD:

Defenders of the “stop-and-frisk” policy, including NYC Mayor Bloomberg, often justify these practices as “getting guns off the streets” of New York.

This claim is not supported by the evidence. According to data collected by the NYCLU,

Guns are found in less than 0.2 percent of stops. That is an unbelievably poor yield rate for such an intrusive, wasteful and humiliating police action. Yet, stop-and-frisk has increased more than 600 percent under Bloomberg and Kelly. And the rate of finding guns is worsening as the NYPD stops more innocent people each year.

And, this map from the data of stop-and-frisks alongside gun stops created by WNYC, further undermines the claim that this policy is doing anything to remove guns from the streets:

This policy hurts young black and Latino boys, like Kasiem Walters, yet Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly seem unmoved, entrenched even in their defense of the practice. Bloomberg for his part is dismissive of the claim that there is any racial bias in the practice, and, in fact, recently claimed by some very faulty logic that whites were stopped too often, and blacks not often enough. Kelly vigorously defends the stop-and-frisk policy. And, there is at least one account – delivered under oath – that Commissioner Kelly has said that stop-and-frisk is “meant instill fear in blacks and Latinos… [knowing] every time that they left their homes they could be targeted by police.”

There are some actions to take to stop this.

Communities United for Police Reform has a petition you can sign to support the Community Safety Act, package of comprehensive reforms for NYPD.

And, serious candidates running for NYC Mayor are making stop-and-frisk and ending the reign-of-terror of Ray Kelly campaign issues in this election.

We can build a better city, indeed a better world, where all high school seniors, including the ones that look like Kasiem Walters, can walk on a sidewalk without fear.

Do Some Christians Believe Trayvon Martin Got What He Deserved?

Christians believe that Jesus taught his followers to love and accept everyone, even as we all fall short before the eyes of God, so it is particularly shocking that some Christians would use the murder of Trayvon Martin as a sermon on God’s supposed intended punishment, using racial code words. Pat Robertson used his media platform to engage in racial code words:

(Video from Right-Wing Watch via ThinkProgress)

Racial code words such as “criminal” and “thug” – and now, perhaps “hoodie” – are lodged in the minds of the American public and associated with black males as people to be feared. When these code words are used in a context such as the Trayvon Martin case, they are intended to make someone like Martin out to be a menace with criminal intentions who got what he deserved.

This logic and reasoning is profoundly insensitive and disturbing, as it is contrary to many of Christianity’s central teachings. But the pounding and twisting of Christian thought to fit a particular worldview is nothing new. We have seen this behavior many times before, from the Crusades to the transatlantic slave trade. With each event in world history, the name of God was invoked as a source of inspiration for unspeakable acts of pure brutality and hatred. This is, perhaps, why it is not so shocking when folks like Ann Coulter tweet, “Hallelujah,”  shortly after the Zimmerman not-guilty verdict. Her undiplomatic remark gives the more self-righteous and like-minded followers of Jesus a license to inflame their narrow-minded passions.

But when the religious extremist, Shirley Phelps-Roper, opined on Twitter that, “God will require Trayvon’s blood,” it exposed a different and uglier side of Christianity. Other twitter users followed suit, sending forth hate and virtual judgment. One twitter user tweeted, “I want to thank god…. for that bullet that killed trayvon martin.” And yet another man who claims to be a Reverend and going by the name of Pastor Ron tweeted, “Thank God for George Zimmerman. He is a hero. Trayvon was a piece of crap.”

In my view, this is certainly not the Jesus of the Holy Bible, who would see such behavior as reprehensible and denounce it. Christ’s earthly ministry was radical in nature, accepting sinners and publicans while calling out hypocrisy at every turn and replacing the Old Testament notion of “an eye for an eye” with a new gospel of brotherly and sisterly love. This is something that some modern-day Christians have failed to fully embrace and practice, much like their ancient counterparts, and it is particularly evident when issues of race emerge. For some, God’s divine hand was at work throughout this trial and Zimmerman’s acquittal. Even Zimmerman believed that this was all a part of “God’s plan.” Therefore, he is able to wipe his hands clean of sin, as if it was part of his earthly errand to take Trayvon’s life (a modern-day mercy killing). The alarming nature of such uses of God and His will in reference to Trayvon should give us great pause.

If anything, we should be following Jesus’ path, articulated here by theologian Jim Wallis, who writes:

“…there is a religious message here for all Christians. If there ever was a time that demonstrated why racially and culturally diverse congregations are needed — that time is now. The body of Christ is meant, instructed, and commanded by Christ to be racially inclusive. If white Christians stay in our mostly-white churches and talk mostly to each other we will never understand how our black brothers and sisters are feeling after a terrible weekend like this one. It was the conversation of every black church in America on this Sunday, but very few white Christians heard that discussion or felt that pain.”

But evidently, for a great many of believers, God has spoken and revealed his word through an inspired legal system where He touches decision makers. The irony of a 5-white and all-woman jury seemed to escape this extreme version of Christianity; God has spoken and a decision was made.

The Zimmerman jury’s legal conclusion to the untimely death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin told young black men everywhere what we already knew—that our place in American society is precarious, at best, and not guaranteed. Never get too comfortable and too complacent. Black men have always stood at odds with an insecure white power structure. Since slavery, black men were seen as threats to white manhood, which provided justification of incredible violence directed at them, whether in the cotton fields or working in the big house. Black men have paid a heavy price in all manner of civil society.

Although there are flickers and flashes of great expressions of stalwart black male mobility in life, black men remain an exploited group, relegated to the margins of society, alienated and overly criminalized. Trayvon’s tragic death, and more significantly, the so-called Christian response to his death and the acquittal of his killer reify this point. But if we are to call on God’s name in any way from this trial, it should be to forgive us for our pre-judgments, unfounded fears, and deep insecurities so that we may be lead on the path of enlightenment and righteousness.

 

~ Dr. Darron Smith is an assistant professor in the Department of Physician Assistant Studies at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. You can follow him on twitter @drdarronsmith.

Whiteness, Structure, and the Royal Baby Obsession

As I’m sure you’ve heard by now (how could you possibly miss it?), a baby was born in Great Britain, considered to be the third in line to the monarchy.

 

A story that came to receive almost as much attention as the birth itself was the media coverage of the royal birth, much of it by comics and, thus, not meant to be taken all that seriously (e.g., John Oliver’s criticism). Despite complaints of the coverage, the general attitude was to shrug your shoulders and accept it, like it or not.

There are any number of reasons discussed for the obsession with the royal birth. Some suggest that the death of Princess Diana sparked interest in the royal family in recent years, while others point to the “special relationship” between Britain and the U.S.  Still others point to the appeal of the vivacious young Duke and Duchess (i.e., not as stuffy as Prince Charles). Ultimately, it may be that the royals’ lives speak to some of our deepest cultural mythologies about “fairytales.”

 

(image from This Charming Mum)

 

One particular factor that received little if any attention was the role of whiteness in the media coverage.

While Dutch immigrants to the U.S. are among the earliest white settler-colonialists in this country, the standard-bearer of whiteness has always been white Protestants of Anglo-Saxon heritage (or WASPs). The churches that many Americans attend have fairly direct links to the monarchy in Britain, such as Episcopalians, or are denominations with origins in the British Isles, such as Presbyterians.

Of course, this fascination with the royals here in the U.S. is not new. Prince Williams’ birth in 1982 was another royal birth that received much attention. And, Prince Williams’ entire life has been chronicled by the tabloid press, including the U.S.-based People magazine which features his “biography.”

One thing that seems clear with the media surrounding the birth of Prince George Alexander-something or other is how at least some of those covering the story seem to be at least partially critical their own complicity in the spectacle hype.  For instance, many news casters were assigned to watch a door of the hospital awaiting the official announcement of the birth and more than one that I saw seemed chagrined at such a “news” assignment. Of course, plenty of the backlash has as much to do with anti-royal sentiment as with the ridiculous media stunts, but I wonder if there’s something else at play here.

In my new book, White Race Discourse, I discuss how the sample of whites I interviewed seem trapped by a structure that limits their ability to talk rationally and reasonably about race matters and even their own racial experiences.

 

I see this same concept at play here with the coverage of the royal birth. In other words, for both producers of the story’s coverage as well as its consumers, people are locked into a given structure that limits their possibilities to think and act in rational and reasonable always. It was clearly irrational to be sitting around and waiting for a hospital door to open, but they did it anyway, and for what reasons exactly? This isn’t our monarch (at least not anymore), is it? Or, is there something else afoot here?

As Joe Feagin points out in his book, Racist America, there is a growing sense of insecurity among at least some white Americans over the increasingly majority-minority nation of ours. Whites like Pat Buchanan warn of the coming white minority due to declining birthrates for white women and the ongoing “invasion” of mostly brown people into this country.

Perhaps what the image of the royal baby conjures is white power and wealth, as well as the fertility of white women necessary to maintain white supremacy and dominance. These signifiers of white supremacy continue to proliferate in the U.S. mass media and throughout society. We watch in part because we want to, but we also watch in part because we are compelled to do so by the way white dominance is built into media events, such as the royal birth.

Justice for Trayvon: Actions You Can Take

Many people are asking what they can do in the wake of the murder of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman. This ‘action kit’ created by the anti-racist action group Showing up for Racial Justice (SURJ) offers some guidelines for steps designed for white people to take, but open to all.

Actions You Can Take: Table of Contents and Links

Below are actions you can take in response to the Zimmerman verdict and violence against people of color, ranging from one minute to a lifetime of action. Please join us in making a commitment to take one or more of these actions in this important time.

Education:

Short Actions:

Medium Actions:

Long-Term Actions:

As white people, it is not too much to commit our lives to ending racism. It is, in fact, only right in the light of our history, and through our collective vision and action it is possible. In my shock and grief I can only recommit myself and work hard for a better world for my daughter — and all the children who deserve safety, love, security, opportunity, and the basic right to walk home in a hoodie and not get shot.  ~ Audrey Ward, Mother & Organizer at We are Guahan

 

GET INFORMED

Read about and watch videos on the aftermath of the Zimmerman trial and discuss them with white friends, family, and organizations. Check out these links:

Videos

Articles

Blogs

On this day I consider myself utterly lucky to have had the company of many people who refused to accept these misgivings, rather than do what is considered “polite” in our culture and passively ignore them, or worse to join me in slipping into a denial where they can believe wholly that they are not any kind of problem.

Because this evening has made it very apparent to me that I would rather be called out, embarrassed, shamed, flunked, fired, pummeled in the street, or called the worst of the worst — a racist — by my closest friends, colleagues, or people on the street than to be allowed by them to continue nurturing ideas, intentionally or unintentionally, taught to me from birth or not, that support a system where an armed white man can stalk an unarmed black teenage pedestrian from the protection of his car, get out of it and confront him against the orders of the police department, respond to that teenager’s alarm and defensiveness by murdering him, and not only walk the streets as a free man after a rigorous trial in our court of law, but set a precedent that allows others to do the same. ~ Erin Zipper, Graphic Artist

ONE MINUTE ACTION: Join SURJ

SURJ is a national volunteer-led organization of white people engaging other white people in racial justice work. We have chapters across the country and are always looking for new members. To join, go here and we will connect you with other people in your area.

TWO MINUTE ACTION: Sign petitions

Petitions are one way for us to show a united force. Please take a minute and sign these important petitions.

THREE MINUTE ACTION: In just one click you can spread the word through Twitter

Use the hash-tags

Sample Tweets

  • Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons, is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers’ sons #blacklivesmatter #Showup4RJ
  • An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere @MLKing #JusticeforTrayvon #Showup4RJ
  • Tell the Department of Justice to file a civil rights action and give your feedback: http://wapo.st/15G9Qbc #JusticeforTrayvon #Showup4RJ
  • White privilege is the difference between life and death. My white son will never be murdered by George Zimmerman. #WeAreNotTrayvon #Showup4RJ
  • Where was Marissa Alexander’s ground to stand? Release Marissa. tinyurl.com/SYGinequity #blacklivesmatter #Showup4RJ
  • Speak out against racial profiling. No more Trayvons. #blacklivesmatter #JusticeForTrayvon #Showup4RJ
  • Every 28 hours there’s another Trayvon. http://mxgm.org/report-on-the-extrajudicial-killings-of-120-black-people/ #blacklivesmatter #Showup4RJ
  • Has anyone ever followed you with a gun because you looked like a threat to their neighborhood? #WeAreNotTrayvon #JusticeForTrayvon #Showup4RJ

It’s not about being “surprised” by the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the brutal murder of a child, an innocent Black teenager named Trayvon Martin. On a conceptual level, I understand that – more than baseball or apple pie — racism is what defines the United States of America. But I will never stop being shocked and heartbroken at this nation’s absolute and profound disregard for the lives of Black people. ~ Harmony Goldberg

5 MINUTE ACTION: Spread the Word Through Art

Share an image (like the one below) on your Facebook page and write a message about why it is important to you as a white person. Thanks to the artists who have offered to use their artwork for this project. Visit their websites to see more of their art. Paste the link onto Facebook, Twitter or Instagram if you post the picture.


Trayvon Martin - Ella Baker
Ricardo Levins-Morales

10 MINUTE ACTION: Donate to a racial justice organization

There are thousands of organizations that are working to combat structural racism in different ways, nationally and in local communities around the country. These organizations depend on the donations of people: 85% of funding for non-profits comes from individuals. Whether you can give $5 or $500, it is a valuable action to contribute your money to make sure that this organizing, educating, and mobilizing continues.

Think about the work that you find most inspiring. Do you think national or local work is more important? Legal strategies? Education? Mobilization? Policy change?

  • Look for organizations that are led by and working with people of color.
  • Ask a trusted friend which organizations they think are doing good racial justice work.
  • Make a gift. Write a check. Put it on your credit card. Sign up as a monthly donor. Whatever you can give will help them do their work more successfully.

Here are a few networks of great racial justice coalitions with local members across the country:

15 MINUTE ACTION: Write a Message and Snap a Photo

We are not Trayvon Martin: Spend a few minutes writing about how you have benefited from your whiteness. This can be in terms of education, housing, medical care, travel, police conduct, etc.  Post it with your photo at We are not Trayvon Martin.

30 MINUTE ACTION: Talk to  people in your life about race

Don’t be in such a hurry to condemn a person because he doesn’t do what you do or think what you think. There was a time when you didn’t know what you know today. ~ Malcolm X

It is tempting to separate ourselves from other white people who disagree with us on this or other racial justice matters. It can be painful to know that someone you know or care about holds views that you know to be biased. However, as white people committed to racial justice, a powerful way to create change is to engage other white people in dialogue, to see talking about race with them as our responsibility.

Think back to how your analysis and perspective were shaped:

  • Listen well to what the other person is saying, and why they see things the way that they do.
  • Ask questions to help clarify.
  • Withhold judgement.  The goal is to move them forward, not to prove something about yourself.
  • How did the people in your life move you through dialogue? When was it about the presentation of facts that you didn’t know, and when was it about shifting a framework, asking questions, or a deeper connection?

The following are some suggestions for how to respond to conclusions white people often come to around George Zimmerman’s recent acquittal for killing Trayvon Martin. The goal is not to read these as a script. Feel free to modify as makes sense for your conversations and life:

Comment: “But the legal system worked the way it is supposed to. If Zimmerman were guilty, he would have been convicted.”
Response: “The legal system is biased against people of color. For example, African Americans are twice as likely as whites to receive the death penalty. If Trayvon had been white, Zimmerman would have done time.”
Follow-up Question: “How do you see bias in the criminal justice system playing out in your neighborhood, town, region?”

Comment: “The problem was the Florida law, with its broad definition of self-defense. It would not have happened in another state.”
Response: “The only thing different about this case is that we heard about it. People of color are being shot and killed all the time, under so-called fair laws.
Question: “What long did it take for past unjust laws to end or change (like Jim Crow, slavery, DOMA)?”

Comment: “The prosecution was incompetent.”
Response: “That may well have been true, but the real problem was that the judge prohibited any talk about race and racial profiling. That’s what the case was about.”

Comment: “But George Zimmerman is Latino. So it can’t be about race.”
Response: “It’s about race because his actions and decisions that night and the coverage and prosecution of the case reflected and held to racist ideology, that automatically deems a young man of color a suspect, and then guilty of his own death.”
Question: “How might structural racism impact the views of people of color differently than white people?”

Comment: “Well, it’s all over now. Time to get on with our lives.”
Response: “It’s not all over. Trayvon’s family can still file a civil suit, which has a more relaxed standard of evidence. And these laws are still on the books around the country. What would it be like if this had happened to your child?
Question: “What do you think would keep this real in white peoples’ lives when the headlines fade?”

Comment: “Then why not let the legal system play itself out.”
Response: “That can take years. What about all the African Americans and other people of color who face the threat of vigilante attacks and biased arrests every day?”
Question: “What do you think could make the legal system work for all people?”

Comment: “Even if people are upset, holding rallies doesn’t help anything.”
Response: “White people need to stand up for racial justice in a public, visible way. Only action can prevent more Trayvon Martins. What can we do today?”

Question: “What can we do today to engage more people more deeply?”

Comment: “I think there’s been too much focus on this one case. It’s time to move on.”
Response: “People aren’t concerned just about what happens to George Zimmerman, but about the ways in which the outcome here continues our society’s precedent of devaluing black life. It makes young black people more vulnerable to being a target for anyone who sees them as a threat.”
Question: “How do you think we can show that all lives–including African Americans and other people of color– matter?”

Comment: “But George Zimmerman is Latino/ Hispanic. How can he be racist?”
Response: “In this country, white skin/light skin people get certain privileges. While Zimmerman is Latino, he benefits from a system that prioritizes white people.
Question: ”How have you seen white people benefit in terms of education, housing, health care, immigration?  I know in my family history, some people received _____ advantage.  What about it yours?”

ONE HOUR ACTION: Do some writing

Letter to the Editor: Write an LTE about why this is an important issue for you and what needs to change. Send it to your friends, family, organizations, and to the local papers. Post it on our Facebook page.

Click here for tips on writing an LTE.

Here are some writing prompts:

  • As a white person, this case matters to me because…
  • The fact that a jury ruled that it was lawful for George Zimmerman to shoot Trayvon Martin demonstrates…
  • Trayvon Martin would still be alive today if…

 

Now is an opportunity to check ourselves through some honest reflection and let that lead us to thoughtful action.
~ Claudia Horowitz, Stone Circles

1 HOUR + ACTION: Take a day off your usual grind and spend a few hours in the street!

(Sign from SURJ contingent in NYC march for Trayvon Martin, July 14, 2013)

For any action, meeting, or in-person event please take pictures or a short video and upload it to the SURJ Facebook page.

Go to a local action: There (was) a National Day of Action this Saturday, July 20th, and there will be many more to come. See if there is a local action near you and go with some friends. Make some signs to get your message out. Great messages to use:

  • Black lives matter
  • Showing up for Racial Justice
  • Racial justice, not racial profiling
  • Abolish “Stand Your Ground”

At the action: Engage with other white people. Talk to them about why they are there and whether they’re involved with local racial justice efforts.

Hold a house party: To discuss the Zimmerman trial and its connections to other issues such as racial profiling, the mass incarcerations and criminalization of people of color, and/or the impact of stand your ground laws in your state.

Use video to spark conversation: Use YouTube videos, a short movie, or an article on the Zimmerman trial to spark conversation with people in your community. Or go to a movie with a racial justice theme — like Fruitvale Station, about the killing of Oscar Grant by the transit police in Oakland, California — and meet for discussion afterwards.

In addition to the videos listed earlier, here are some possible videos to show:

Additional Resources:

ONGOING ACTION: Support the Voting Rights Act

With the Supreme Court’s recent decision to invalidate key sections of the Voting Rights Act there is a strong need to make sure everyone has access to a vote- particularly in communities of color. Support the Voting Rights Act. There will be national week of action August 24-28th with local actions around the country in honor of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Join a Day of Dignity on August 28th. More details to come.

ONGOING ACTION: Join a local organization; get involved with SURJ!

We meet a lot of white people who care about the issue of equity and justice, but often feel alone and isolated in their neighborhoods, communities, and families. Within SURJ, many of us have also felt ostracized for not going along with the “norm” of how racism happens. That is part of why we come together–so that we have a like-minded, like-valued community who deeply cares that every single human being deserves to be treated with love and respect–and that with a supportive community we are able to take a stand, speak the truth, and be part of creating a better America and beyond.

Contact us to be connected to a local SURJ group or tell help form a local chapter.

Conclusion

If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together. ~ Australian Aboriginal activists

This is a historic moment. There is an opportunity to decide what type of person you want to be — someone who stands up against injustice in all its forms or someone who sits back and watches. What values do you want your peers and colleagues, family members and spiritual community, children and grandchildren to learn from you? As a white person, you have the opportunity to dig down deep and find the person you want to be and live it out loud.

Will you stand up for what is right? Will you dare to speak above the status quo? Will you rise to the challenge of being your best self?

PLEASE DO! We need you! We need your voice, your brilliance, your heart, your soul… we need you to be part of this moment, right here, right now, to create the world we want to all live in. Be bold with us, be courageous with us! No one is free until we are all free!

Showing up for Racial Justice (SURJ) was formed in 2009 by white people from across the US to respond to the significant increase of targeting and violence against people of color in the aftermath of the election of Barack Obama. The case of George Zimmerman is the latest in a long series of extrajudicial (outside the law) killings of people of color in the United States. We mourn the loss of life, see the impact on communities of color and believe that white people must partner across race and other differences to create social change. SURJ is here to provide resources and support for white people to make this happen.

We look to each other to change the world we live in one conversation and action at a time, and our efforts are to build a broad and deep movement of engaged white people to work in partnership with communities of color for real racial justice in the US and everywhere.  Please   join us as we build on a long tradition of white people engaged in racial justice work in our local communities, our states, and around the world.

 

A Black Boy is Dead

Histories of gender and slavery focus overwhelming on women, as if gender and women are coextensive and men have no gender. This observation points to a problem with the conceptualization of sex and gender across academic disciplines. For if there is a structural neglect of manhood in studies of gender, and if womanhood is misunderstood to be synonymous with gender itself, then this approach signifies an extension rather than an analysis of gender ideology, which traditionally inscribes women as being gendered and men as being generic and beyond gender.

Greg Thomas—The Sexual Demon of Colonial Power—2007

 

Introduction:

Last week, Black America’s heart was broken and their hopes and expectations of fairness, justice, and equality shattered. The murderer of a young Black boy was freed. George Zimmerman gets to live his life an acquitted killer, and Trayvon Martin, his family, and other Black men and boys will forever be impacted by the reality that any confrontation with white men and/or women can mean death. Black men and boys remain invisible to conversations about gendered violence and death. Their existence and suffering is replaced by negation, or replaced with only the problematization of any scholarship that seeks to address their peculiar racial existence as being marginalizing to the their Black female counterpart. In short, any work seeking to speak to, and for Black male oppression is attacked for not being sufficiently feminist, and as such, worthy of dismissal and censor.

Being Black and Male is not a Privilege—It’s a Death Sentence

Within minutes of the verdict, Black feminists from across the web began posting and comparing the life of Trayvon Martin to that of Black women killed or incarcerated within the last year. On facebook, Black feminist postings about Rekia Boyd, Marissa Alexander, and Aiyanna Stanley-Jones, were on statuses and shared prolifically. Reiterating Jamila Aisha Brown’s piece, “If Trayvon Martin had been a woman…” these feminist posters/bloggers saw themselves making a point about the difference in the attention Black men’s and boy’s deaths receive next to these Black women’s lives. However, when one actually reads Ms. Brown’s piece one can only be amazed by how causality and history are vacated for ideology. Brown’s piece is written as a response to a Marc Lamont Hill’s interview where he was asked “How would things be different if Trayvon was a young Black girl? Hill responded “[Zimmerman] would have been convicted, because we have this history of seeing Black male bodies as dangerous and threatening and always worthy of lethal force.” Hill makes an observation many Black men and women across the country actually agree with, namely that Black men and boys are by and large the victims of state sponsored murder and violence and white vigilantism. This is not to deny Black women as victims, but to acknowledge the dangers of being Black and male in the United States. A point recently supported by Melissa Harris Perry’s admission that  America is so dangerous for Black men that she wishes her sons away, a burden only alleviated somewhat by “the relief I [she] felt at my [her] 20-week ultrasound when they told me [her] it was a girl.”

Unfortunately, the sentiments that express fear, anger, and hopelessness are lost on Brown and many of her readers. Despite the outrage of the Black community, the powerlessness endured by the parents of young Black men and boys, and the fear of death Black men/boys suffer, Brown seems to conclude these emotions are simply inconsequential to the larger identity politics needing to be advanced.  For Ms. Brown, any and all experiences of violence against Black women are examples that they could in fact have been Trayvon Martin. She begins her argument with a brief point that Black women have been lynched, a fact that has not gone unnoticed by historians or even anti-lynchers back in the 19th century given the cataloguing of Black women’s and girl’s names and alleged offenses in both Ida B.Wells-Barnett’s Red Record (1895) and John Edward Bruce’s A Blood Red Record (1901).  In Brown’s view, however, these women’s lives have been erased and go to prove that if “Trayvon Martin were a young Black woman, we would not even know her name.”  

 

On the face of it, this seems silly. All violence is not the same, so to suggest that Black women who have been focused on less regarding lynching, or police-state-sponsored violence means that an unarmed teenage girl who was shot by a white man on the claim of self-defense would not been known to Black America is non-sequitar. Ida B. Wells-Barnett was clear that lynching was justified against the manhood of the race and used as a weapon to discourage Black economic independence. Contrary to the popular account of Well’s anti-lynching activism as revelatory, Ida B. Wells-Barnett understood the unique vulnerability of Black men, because at one time she supported the lynching of Black men as justifiable. As she confesses in Crusade for Justice “…I had accepted the idea meant to be conveyed—that although lynching was irregular and contrary to law and order, unreasoning anger over the terrible crime of rape led to the lynching; that perhaps the brute deserved death anyhow and the mob was justified in taking his life.” After the death of her friend Thomas Moss, she began to understand that lynching was a punishment driven by the desire to murder Black men. When the white lynch mob declared to Ida B. Wells-Barnett that her “sex would not save her,” if she returned to Memphis, it reaffirmed the masculine ontology at the bottom of lynching. It was Wells-Barnett’s debasement to the status of Black maleness that threatened her life and erased her sex. Despite the historical evidence that give ample support for the view that anti-Black death (lynching, police state violence, and public executions) are directed primarily at Black men, Black feminists cannot conceptualize a reality in which Black maleness is a gendered vulnerability that warrants being the center of any account of American racism.

Brown claims that the deaths of Rekia Boyd, Deanna Cook, Aiyana Stanley Jones, and Tarika Wilson, despite being protested, taken up by the NAACP in their respective cites, and warranting lawsuits, are ignored because of “Black male privilege,” or the idea that “the victimization of young women is subsumed into a general well of black pain that is largely defined by the struggles of African-American men.” Are they not ignored by the asymmetrical power relationship between impoverished Black communities and the police state, or the general apathy for Black life? By asserting the existence of “a Black male privilege” that somehow remains unaffected by the exponential deaths, imprisonment, unemployment, and poverty of Black men and Black boys—conditions that deserve particular attention, these authors make acknowledging Black male privilege axiomatic, and indisputable.  In short, these feminists claim that regardless of the death historically associated with being a Black man, these Black men enjoy the political privilege of being male, and of being recognized even in death over Black women, some of whom are still living and breathing. Rather than being a serious analysis of how Black men concretely have privilege (education, wealth, mortality, health), this contention is about the ideological politics of academic recognition confined to blogs more than an empirical study offering insight into the tragedies that actually impact the Black community. In the death of Trayvon Martin, Black male privilege attempts to demonize a community that has lost Black fathers, sons, and husbands alongside mothers, daughters and wives for not holding a particular brand of feminist politics. These Black feminists pretend that despite the tragedy of losing a 17 year old Black boy, a child, they are ultimately the arbiters of what his life should mean for the Black community, or what his life would mean if the Black community was not blinded by the ignorance of their hetero-patriarchal pathology.

 

While the Black left, and Black independent news outlets have concerned themselves with the death of Black men and women, as well as Black boys and girls, Black feminists have not made the death of Black women killed by state violence, police brutality, racial profiling, or anti-Blackness their central agenda, unless of course those women were killed or brutalized at the hands of Black men, which makes their suffering fit nicely with their predetermined (Duluth) account of domestic violence. Voxunion presented evidence of Black men and women dying hourly, Redding News Review covered the death of Rekia Boyd, and Aiyana Stanley Jones, as well as the arrest of Marissa Alexander; I  constantly commented on these deaths as topics of conversation on my own radio segment, and Black Agenda Report has reported the deaths of Black women and children alongside their Black male counterparts. But given the gender ideology in the university, these Black feminists feel more than comfortable using the death of these women and children to point out why the death of Trayvon Martin should not be valued as much as it is because he is a Black boy.

Black Males are Victims of Racism and Sexism
It’s sickening that these individuals are now claiming they get to decide how Martin’s death should be valued, but say nothing against the specific white supremacists and institutions that devalued Black life in the first place. The central question posed by Piers Morgan in asking what would happen “If Trayvon Martin was a Black girl,” is whether or not a white vigilante could have claimed he feared for his life and used self-defense as a justification for killing her. Many commentators simply think Zimmerman would have been arrested for killing a Black woman, and the opposing feminist commentaries have offered no reason for this not to be the case. So, in an attempt to “one-up” Black male death, these commentaries pose endless hypotheticals that ask the audience to imagine the Black female victim being raped and sexually assaulted rather than simply being murdered in cold blood. Mind you, these hypotheticals are being embraced as fact, something that would necessarily happen to the Black female victim, despite Rachel Jeantel telling the American audience that she actually told Trayvon Martin that Zimmerman could have been a rapist. This sexualized aspect of racist violence is completely ignored when talking about Black men and boys. Eric Glover and Terrence Rankin were murdered to fulfill the necrophilia fetish of three white teens, and as expected not one “feminist” analysis on the particular gendered vulnerability of these Black men.  But this fear, the fear a young boy may have of being raped, is ignored, because as Greg Thomas explains, “for feminism, gender means for females only,” and as such, only females can fear, be assaulted by, be victims of, rape.

Why are these Black feminists not attacking the comparison between white men’s, women’s, and children’s lives next to the death of these Black women? Why are the deaths of Black men and boys the only comparable examples? Why are they not attacking their figureheads like Beverly Guy Sheftall for publically announcing the agendas of Black feminism in popular venues like the Root, but excluding Black death? Why are these Black feminists not writing about these women in their journals and blogs as analyses of anti-Black death and suffering rather than the reaction to the death of a Black boy? Why is it when a Black community mourns, the feminist response is to divest the meaning the symbolism a Black male life has taken on—a life embraced by Black men, women, and children alike, a life taken from Black families across the world, and a life that continues to represent the fear of growing up a Black boy who wonders if he shall live to become a man? Does this fear of death not warrant political organization around Black male issues and erasures?

In this case, Black Feminism isn’t any better than the white supremacist who denies the political possibilities held by Black manhood. Black manhood is not a pathology; a sickness to be cured by either death or by feminism. Angela Davis is clear in Women, Race &Class that Black men didn’t have male privilege during slavery, because it endangered the slave system, nor did they have it during the civil rights movement despite Michelle Wallace’s contention given the myth of the Black male rapist. Feminists are using this tragic incident to bring further attention to their political agendas. J.N. Salter’s article, “Am I A Race Traitor? Trayvon Martin, Gender Talk and Invisible Black Women” argues that Black women are expected to put their race before their gender and ignore the issues that black women have within our communities,” but this is not an issue for the black community, this is an issue for the Black feminist community who demands that the deaths of the Black women and girls they have handpicked garner the same attention recently afforded to Trayvon Martin.  Haydia Pendleton was killed in January, and her death, the death of a 15 year old Black girl sparked, national attention, so much so that the First Lady Michelle Obama attended her funeral, but this did not create the attention to Black women’s death by Black feminists that Trayvon Martin’s death did. Salter argues that “Black women are expected to put their race before their gender, to choose between their dual identities (“black” or “woman”) at the expense of their full humanity,” but this is untrue since many Black women from Ida B. Wells-Barnett to mothers like Sybrina Fulton have resolved this issue. This is a Black feminist issue that pretends being Black and being a woman should not be criticized, despite the fact that the identity politics lurking behind their idea of womanhood is about their political alliances with, and the benefits they receive from their relationships with white women. Our focus should not be on whether the Black person was/is a woman or a man it should be on protecting our communities from violence. It just so happens that in this case, the case of white vigilantism, Black men and boys deserve much of our attention.

A Conclusion
Of the 300+ Black people killed in 2012 by extra-legal violence, how many names do we know?  Every year, hundreds of Blacks are killed by police, most of them men, we don’t know who all of them are, and they don’t all get marches; some names are never uttered. Black children, little boys and girls, are killed and no one cries, mourns, or marches for them. A white vigilante kills an unarmed teen and suddenly the fear and sorrow felt by the death of a young Black boy is transformed into “the only death Black people care about.” Whereas Black feminism has no problem turning the pain and torture of a community—its families—into a metric measuring Black death and rationing this dehumanizing spectacle into the “meaningful” deaths of  Black women, and then everyone else; the Black community, the dead Black men, “we,” as their voices should.  Ideology (political, moral, or otherwise) is not the barometer of truth.

The indifference to the death of Black men and women from the near silence of this Black feminist academic cadre on issues like state violence, anti-Black death, and murder for their preferred discourses of recognition, be it phrased as: intersectionality, love, or education, is self-inflicted. Stop talking to white women and white people for academic recognition and write about the (Black) deaths of the people you claim should be at the center of consciousness. These posts that continue to react to the importance the Black community has attached to Trayvon Martin’s death, instead of suggesting any analysis of the conditions that gave rise to it, demonstrates the negating drive of Black feminist identity politics against Black men/boys, rather than concrete analysis of Black people’s vulnerability to sexual violence and murder—and how that acknowledgement helps the Black community. These posts show that vitiating Black masculinity is academically profitable, not that the death of a Black boy is tragic.

~ This post was written by guest blogger Dr. Tommy J. Curry, Associate Professor of Philosophy,Affiliated Professor of Africana Studies, Texas A&M University and his wife, Mrs. Gwenetta D. Curry

Trayvon Martin Could Have Been Me: A Watershed Moment for the U.S.

President Obama’s poignant comments on the white-racist discrimination that Black men regularly face were pathbreaking for this country. First, in the history of the U.S. never has such a high government official so forthrightly called out key elements of white racism and condemned persisting patterns of racial harassment and profiling of Black boys and men.

Secondly, Obama’s commentary, together with his speech during the 2008 election, mark the first time that whites and many other nonblack Americans have heard important elements of the Black counter-frame to the centuries-old white racial framing of this society—at least not from such a “bully pulpit,” as Teddy Roosevelt put it.

 

(Image from ThinkProgress)

One cannot imagine any white president saying, or being able to say, what Obama has said in his two explicit commentaries on U.S. racism. He certainly did not say enough about this racism, but his commentaries so far have been pathbreaking, especially for a white population much of which is in terminal denial of that racism.

Obama assessed the killing of Trayvon Martin from a Black perspective, one rarely taken seriously by most white Americans. Now, for a time, it has to be taken seriously and provides the basis to expand on his analysis later on.

Obama made his first comment to an African American family that has suffered much white racism over their lives, and like many such families lost a young male to unnecessary violence. Saluting the Martin family, he underscored

the incredible grace and dignity with which they’ve dealt with the entire situation. I can only imagine what they’re going through, and it’s remarkable how they’ve handled it.

Then his assessment moved to an approach rare in this country’s public forum—-he accented our historical and contemporary societal context of white racism. That critical context, he made clear, includes many decades of racial profiling, harassment, and killing of Black boys and men. And it means long decades of frequent and very painful Black experience in dealing with an array of discriminatory realities:

When Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away. There are very few African American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me–at least before I was a senator. There are very few African Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.

This eloquent statement about recurring Black experiences sums up what millions of Black men, women, and children have been telling this country’s whites in many ways, for generations. Obama underscores a key aspect of the Black counter-frame, the deep understanding of the great racial inequality in the operation of our “justice” system:

. . . those sets of experiences inform how the African American community interprets what happened one night in Florida.. . . The African American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws — everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws. And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.

He accents the importance of understanding the long history of unjust impoverishment of African Americans in creating problems of violence in communities—something few whites wish to do. The Black community understands

that some of the violence that takes place in poor black neighborhoods around the country is born out of a very violent past in this country, and that the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to a very difficult history. And so the fact that sometimes that’s unacknowledged adds to the frustration. And the fact that a lot of African American boys are painted with a broad brush and the excuse is given, well, there are these statistics out there that show that African American boys are more violent — using that as an excuse to then see sons treated differently causes pain.

He thereby gives us a sense of how and why African Americans saw the Trayvon Martin killing early on as very much a racial matter:

And that all contributes I think to a sense that if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario, that, from top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different.

He ends his comments, as he often does, with a pragmatic statement about what we should do next. He calls for much better law enforcement training at state and local levels:

When I was in Illinois, I passed racial profiling legislation. . . . it collected data on traffic stops and the race of the person who was stopped. But the other thing was it resourced us training police departments across the state on how to think about potential racial bias and ways to further professionalize . . .. So that’s one area where I think there are a lot of resources and best practices that could be brought to bear if state and local governments are receptive.

His second suggestion is to reassess notorious “stand your ground” laws, one of which was at least implicitly involved in the Zimmerman case. He made a dramatic point that has provoked even a conservative commentator like David Brooks to rethink this problematical law and what happened to the teenager:

And for those who resist that idea that we should think about something like these “stand your ground” laws, I’d just ask people to consider, if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman who had followed him in a car because he felt threatened? And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws.

His third suggestion was, once again, very positive. He called for much action to

bolster and reinforce our African American boys. . . . is there more that we can do to give them the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them? . . . And for us to be able to gather together business leaders and local elected officials and clergy and celebrities and athletes, and figure out how are we doing a better job helping young African American men feel that they’re a full part of this society. . . .

A bit vague, but again a rare moment of insight about Black male needs at this public level. His last suggestion was also rather vague but echoed Dr. King:

I think it’s going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching. There has been talk about should we convene a conversation on race. . . . in families and churches and workplaces, there’s the possibility that people are a little bit more honest, and at least you ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can? Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character?

Not surprisingly, he concludes on an optimistic note of hope about the younger generation:

better than we are — they’re better than we were — on these issues. And that’s true in every community that I’ve visited all across the country.

Characteristically optimistic Obama comments in public, if unfortunately and substantially contradicted by much social science data on our white youth. According to numerous studies, the younger generations of whites may be better in some ways but they are still very racist in their white racial framing of society and in their racist performances and actions growing out of that framing.

On the whole, a pathbreaking speech that only an Black president could have so effectively delivered. It is sad, and often noted in Black America, that Black Americans too often end up as the major teachers of whites about how white racism operates and its devastating and painful impacts. Obama has used that “bully pulpit” to give white America some significant lessons about the reality and damage of that white racism. It will long be remembered as a watershed moment, one requiring great courage.

We do not live in a real democracy, and we have numerous institutions that do not operate democratically, including an unelected Supreme Court and very unrepresentative U.S. Senate. Not to mention a very dysfunctional House because of Tea Party and other extreme conservative elements there.

However, despite Obama’s having to face this undemocratic reality daily, and also having to face recurring critiques across the political spectrum of his accomplishments on civil rights, it has often made a difference in public policies on discrimination that we have an African American president.

Working with his Department of Justice, Obama has implemented the Fair Sentencing Act retroactively, ended anti-gay policies in the military, spoken out for gay marriage rights. Obama and his cabinet officials have abandoned previous Republican attempts to end much civil rights enforcement. He appointed Attorney General Eric Holder, the first black attorney general, who has moved his department toward much more aggressive civil rights enforcement and hired many more lawyers with significant real-world experience in civil rights enforcement. He also responded much more forthrightly to international and United Nations requests for reports on the U.S. civil rights situation. Obama also made a dramatic improvement in the federal relationship with Native Americans–including, after many years of delays, billions in compensation to Native American groups for federal mismanagement of Indian land trusts.

No president, including Democrats Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, has accomplished more progressive policy goals, especially on racial issues, since the 1960s presidency of President Lyndon Johnson. This includes putting at least some aspects of white racism on the national discussion and policy agenda.

President Obama: “We need to do some soul-searching”

President Obama’s historic remarks yesterday about Trayvon Martin and the Zimmerman verdit were striking for their clarity on on race and racism.  Addressing how the Zimmerman case unfolded, President Obama said:

“If a white male teen would have been involved in this scenario, both the outcome and the aftermath would have been different.”

 

All of this, of course, set the right-wing media machine into overdrive, calling President Obama’s remarks “race-baiting,” a claim that boggles the mind for a second term president, but no matter. You can read the full transcript of his remarks, and we’ll have more to say about these in the coming days on this blog, but the place I wanted to start with is near the end:

“I think it’s going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching.”

It’s perhaps not surprising coming from a man who wrote a memoir, Dreams from my Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, that contains his own soul-searching around race.

Memoirs about Race

A quick survey of the landscape of contemporary U.S. memoirs, there are quite a few that take on this task of soul-searching around race, including James McBride’s The Color of Water, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Beautiful Struggle, June Cross’ Secret Daughter and Michelle Norris’ The Grace of Silence.

Yet, when it comes to soul-searching memoirs by white people about race and racism in the U.S. there are just many fewer of these and they are mostly disappointing endeavors. There is Clara Silverstein’s White Girl: A Story of School Desegregation, in which the author uses her experience to undermine the entire project of integrating schools.

Then there is the whole sub-genre of memoirs by white people that I refer to “one-drop” memoirs. These are memoirs written by white people who discover that a relative was black even though they had passed as white. The chief example here is Bliss Broyard’s One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life–A Story of Race and Family Secrets.  There are others, like Joe Mozingo’s The Fiddler on Pantico Run: An African Warrior, His White Descendants, A Search for Family.  Related, is Mishna Wolff’s I’m Down her memoir about growing up as one of the only white kids in her neighborhood.

There are a few notable exceptions to these, including Thomas DeWolf’s Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History, Edward Ball’s Slaves in the Family, and Cynthia Carr’s Our Town: A Heartland Lynching, a Haunted Town, and the Hidden History of White America.  Mab Segrest’s Memoir of Race Traitor stands out as another welcome exception to this general pattern, as she offers and engaging, critical analysis of her family’s racism and her struggle to move away from that legacy while still embracing her family. And the Claire Conner’s Wrapped in the Flag looks promising (although I haven’t had a chance to read more than this excerpt).

Truth and Reconciliation

Debra Dickerson asks, “why are white people suddenly so interested in race?” and goes on to point out, memoirs such as DeWolf, Ball, and Carr’s:

“do what America never will; participate in all the truth and reconciliation we’re ever going to have—piecemeal, caveated, hazy, [and] statute of limitations-expired…”

Dickerson is right.  There’s been no truth and reconciliation process in the U.S. for the centuries of chattel slavery, rape, Jim Crow segregation, lynching, discrimination, and ongoing extra-judicial killings. Beyond these few titles, there’s a paucity of writing by whites who are doing any of the really difficult “soul-searching” about the past or the present in the U.S.

I recently watched the documentary, “Hitler’s Children,” which chronicles the stories of descendants of the most powerful figures in the Nazi regime. One of the people featured is Niklas Frank, who wrote a book about his father, Hans Frank, convicted and hanged at Nuremberg as a Nazi war criminal.  Frank’s book Der Vater: Eine Abrechnung (“The Father: A Settling of Accounts”), was published in English as In the Shadow of the Reich, is a scathing account of his father’s participation in the Third Reich’s genocide of six million. The interviews with Frank in the film capture his unflinching courage at looking at the legacy of his father. In one of the most touching scenes, Frank has a conversation with this daughter and asks her if she ever thinks about Hans Frank, her grandfather the Nazi war criminal.  She responds that she rarely thinks of him because, she says to her father, “You were a fortress against that. Because of what you wrote, I felt like I was protected somehow.”  It’s moving encounter that reveals so much about why this sort of soul-searching is necessary.

Yet, this sort of grappling with hard truths is mostly missing in the U.S. context. It’s part of what prompted me to start work on my own memoir.

My Memoir

In my experience doing research for my first book about white supremacist groups, I did some of my own personal, familial history and soul-searching. I learned that my paternal grandfather, in addition to being the mayor of the small town of Eden, Texas, had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. This was especially startling given the family mythology I was raised with which was that we were, on my father’s side, descendants of Native Americans (tribe unknown).

(My father, Jim Tom Harper, with his parents, George and Bernice.)

 

If your ancestors, like mine, were actively involved in making sure that systems of inequality were entrenched and continued in perpetuity, then going back and looking at – not to mention looking for – that history is can be a painful exercise in shame. The tendency for most people when confronted with that kind of history is to dismiss, deny, ignore. My tendency, for whatever reason, is to poke, prod and reveal.

Uncovering the history of racial privilege can affect the present.  When I learned the facts of my grandfather’s participation in the KKK, I used this newly discovered fact about my grandfather’s involvement to situate my own work about white supremacy in the preface to White Lies. As a result of this discovery, I also changed my given name to Jessie Daniels. For me, seeing that my last name (Harper) was the same as my grandfather who was in the Klan, seemed wrong. And it seemed especially wrong to be on a book in which I was critical of white supremacy.

When my father read a draft of that piece, he threatened to stop publication of the book and had me briefly committed to a psychiatric ward.  After the seventy-two hour hold, my older brother came to the hearing considering my release, testified that I was mostly sane, and got me sprung. That first book was published, I moved far away and lived under my new name, teaching about racial privilege to college students on the East Coast. My father died two years after the book was published, and we never spoke again. The last time I saw him was at a hearing where he wanted to have me locked up for telling the truth about our family. I think my father’s reaction was extreme, but in many ways, it was not. As I learned, there are powerful cultural and social forces – like fathers and judges and hospitals – that can align to keep family secrets about racism.

It’s important that we do the kind of “soul-searching” that President Obama called for. Whites in the U.S. in general are incredibly naïve about race and about their own complicity in creating and maintaining this system of racial inequality. My naïvete was in not realizing how profoundly upset my father would be about these revelations. Even with my difficult experience with my father, I still think it’s important for whites to go back and look at what their genealogy of racial privilege is as painful and unpopular as that might be.

Ask your grandparents about the G.I. Bill – did your grandfather go to school on that government subsidy? Did he buy a house with help from the G.I. Bill?  Were there “deed restrictions” on the house you grew up in? Ask about the college admissions policies when your parents or grandparents went to school – who was excluded?  Ask about the employment policies – who was hired  — who was not?  How many whites know the answers to these questions going back even a generation?  Two generations?  Three generations?  Very few.

My point here is not to remain in the shallow eddy of thinking about race that is “white guilt,” but rather to use this sort of “soul-searching” to move the conversation forward in some small way.  Only then can we begin to step up and take responsibility for what our ancestors have wrought and more importantly, take some responsibility for dismantling the system of inequality they put in place and from which we still benefit.

 

~ Jessie Daniels, PhD, is a CUNY Professor, and is writing a memoir called, No Daughter of Mine.

“Asian” Eyes

I love my Japanese mother-in-law to the end of time. She is an amazing woman who has been (and continues to be) profoundly supportive when my own mother is notably absent. My son is also intensely close to her and identifies with her very deeply. But when it comes to race, there are clear differences in the way we think. Some of these differences are cultural. Some generational. Sometimes we find ways to talk about it (very powerful). But sometimes we don’t. One subject that has confounded me is the number of times she’s mentioned my son’s eyes. In the beginning she often observed that his eyes were Asian-shaped. Now, almost every time we see her she points out that he is developing an eyelid crease or “double eyelid” (which he didn’t have when he was born). But she’s got me reconsidering myself on this one. Eyes are clearly something she notices right away and thinks about a lot. But I don’t. Or…do I? Because the truth is many people easily identify me as mixed Asian and I’ve always assumed it was mostly because of my eyes. And now it’s happening to my son. The trouble is, when I ask myself what it is about our eyes that would identify us, I can’t describe it. I seem to be avoiding. And it certainly gives me an icky feeling on some level. Why is that? And what exactly are “Asian” eyes anyway?

 

(Image from InCulture Parent)

First, a disclaimer. The “Asian” eyes I’m talking about are a stereotype that don’t actually apply to many people with Asian heritage. Asia is a massive region representing over half of the world’s human population and obviously a vast variety of phenotypes. I’ve heard Japanese and South Asian, among others, greatly object to being teased for such eyes when they in fact don’t have them at all. What is the stereotype? We all know it. Smaller. Slanted. Little or no eyelid. Dark brown/black eye color. The slant is created in some peoples by the orbital bone sitting more laterally. The “single” eyelid, also known as an epicanthal fold, is skin of the upper eyelid that covers the inner corner of the eye from nose to inner eyebrow. It can be attributed to a narrower attachment of eyelid skin to eyelid, and/or to an extra layer of fatty tissue on the eyelid. Nevertheless, disclaimer aside, these are eye features which generations of AAPI children/people have been taunted for and which have been sourced for ethnic slurs and racist descriptors (e.g. “slant”, “chinky eyes”).

Because they are a phenotypic feature strikingly different than those of white-Euro descent, “Asian” eyes have historically been an easy target for racism. European male scientists who greatly influenced the racial classification system we know today often attached a stigma to them. For example, in the 19th century German anthropologist Johann Blumenbach held that:

“The fairness and relatively high brows of Caucasians were…apt physical expressions of a loftier mentality and a more generous spirit. The epicanthic folds around the eyes of Mongolians and their slightly sallow outer epidermal layer bespoke their supposedly crafty, literal-minded nature.”

In the same era, English physician John Langdon Down used “mongolism” and “mongoloid” to describe Down Syndrome because of what he observed were similar physical characteristics (e.g. epicanthal fold) to people from the “Mongoloid” (Asian) race (). He explained the syndrome as an evolutionary “reversion” or backslide from the superior Caucasian to the inferior “Mongoloid” race. Awful terms were eventually derived from Down’s erroneous assumptions including “mongolian imbecile”, “mongoloid idiot”, and “mongoloid deformity.”

Here in the U.S., discrimination against people of color has always been about sequestering whites and their privileges from “others”. Implicit in this practice is seeing “others” as different, foreign, ugly and lesser entitling whites to their special status while simultaneously releasing them from guilt or shame. For Asians, being “foreign” and “ugly” has foundationally meant, among other things, the shape of their eyes. Early anti-Asian sentiment America (aka “Yellow Peril”) was directed primarily towards large waves of 19th century Chinese immigrants, and later during WWII towards Japanese, who more commonly held some of the eye features described. And of course such prejudice was comfortably helped along by scientists like Blumenbach and Down. For instance, in 1941 Life Magazine infamously published “How To Tell Japs From the Chinese.” Notice the heavy scrutiny of phenotype and prominent mention of epicanthal fold. Also note while wartime propaganda was meant to distinguish friend (now the Chinese) from foe (the Japanese, the truth is it really did not abolish racial stereotypes about either group.

 

(“How To Tell Japs From the Chinese”Image from here)

 

What are the implications of this history? Though I do think there are notable exceptions, I’m sad to say not only do we still have a hard time viewing the “Asian” eye as beautiful but this unpleasant Western ideology has gone internationally viral.

In an alarming example, blepharoplasty (aka “double eyelid surgery”) has seen a boom amongst Asian populations here in the U.S. and especially in Asian countries. Blepharoplasty is a type of cosmetic surgery where the skin around the eye is reshaped to create an upper eyelid with a crease. According to the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ISAPS), in 2010 blepharoplasty was the third most common procedure performed world-wide (). It is a growing trend in Asia to have patients of all ages coming in to get cosmetic surgeries in an effort to make themselves look more Westernized. In 2011 CNN ran a piece about Western concepts of beauty invading Asia and revealed how girls as young as 12 were having surgeries to make their eyes appear rounder. In particular Korea has come under fire for shockingly high rates of plastic surgery and what has subsequently been unveiled as a longstanding, widely-accepted culture of surgical alteration. 1 in 5 women in Korea has had some form of cosmetic surgery compared to 1 in 20 women in the U.S. Korea is now synonymous with medical tourism, and has established itself as an epicenter for all sorts of cosmetic surgery many of which centrally revolve around Western standards of beauty.

 

(Image from The Atlantic)

After doing this research my husband and I took a good look at our own eyes for the first time. And I’ve been paying more attention to my son’s eyes too. Frankly it’s been a relief to give myself that permission. I didn’t realize how much I was tiptoeing around it. And maybe that’s the more important part. I SEE things now. I can see what traits we have inherited that would identify us to others. I see why my immigrant Japanese mother-in-law would be so conscious of an eye shape that has become internationally controversial. At the same time I also see why I, an American born and bred Asian, have unconsciously avoided a subject that has (and continues to have) such a long, painful history in this country.

 

~ You can read more of guest blogger Sharon Chang at her MultiAsian Families blog.

 

I am Not Trayvon Martin

After Trayvon Martin was killed, in February of 2012, protestors gathered across the nation asking for justice for Trayvon Martin. The protestors rallied around the slogan “I am Trayvon Martin,” with people wearing hoodies and carrying bags of skittles. The rallying cry called attention to the fact that young black men are overly-surveilled and viewed with suspicion, considered criminal on sight, and thus frequently in the position of being the target of police or vigilante violence. The “I am Trayvon Martin” protests called attention to the terrifying reality that all of us with black sons could be in the position of Martin’s parents: awaiting a decision concerning the culpability of a man who shot and killed our babies because he assumed he was a criminal—but knowing that regardless of that decision, his life was over. In July of 2013, while the jury was deliberating, I saw a meme posted on facebook that flipped the frame of the “I am Trayvon Martin” slogan. It was a picture of a middle aged white man in a black hoodie, and the caption read:

I am not Trayvon Martin. When I was 14 I was caught in the middle of the night by a neighborhood watch setting fire to a stack of newspapers. Trayvon Martin was walking home with a bag of skittles. I was taken home to my parents. Trayvon was shot and killed.

The message resonated with me, because although there are many young black boys who I love, and often fear for, I am not Trayvon Martin: as a white woman, I have a lifetime of experiences that illustrate what a difference race makes.
Just to share one particularly relevant example, one night when I was 17 years old I was spending the night with a friend, another 17 year old white woman. She lived in a white middle to upper-middle class neighborhood. That night, after her parents went to bed, she and I snuck out of her house on a mission to creep through the neighborhood and find ourselves some fun, and probably some trouble. We were up to no good. At about two o’clock in the morning, after running the streets for hours, we were walking down a street which was lined with boutique shops and small businesses. One of the businesses on that street was a local investment company, The Johnson Company. My friend and I had a mutual friend—a boy who we were excited to impress—named Calvin Johnson, and in our mischievous mood we decided that we should steal the company’s sign so we could give it to Calvin–the was made of wood, it was about two feet long by four feet wide, and “The Johnson Company” was printed across it in huge red letters.

After prying the sign loose from the hooks that held it, we began the walk back to my friend’s house – with me carrying a two foot by four foot sign in my arms. As we were walking we were approached by a police car, which stopped beside us. At that moment, I knew for certain that we were going to jail. Of course we were. I was holding a huge sign that said “The Johnson Company,” and we were less than two blocks away from said company. My only hope was to attempt to concoct some story, some lie that explained my having the sign for a reason other than sheer criminal mischief, and my brain was working furiously as the officer driving rolled down his window. But I was surprised. Stopping me in my tracks, the officer simply asked “where are you young ladies headed?” My friend said “we’re on our way home right now.” I said nothing. I concentrated on keeping the surprise (and even indignation) off my face. The officer said, “where do you live?” She told him her address, which was approximately four blocks away, and, astounding me further, the police officer said, “well hurry and get home, and be careful, its late for you girls to be out.” Then he rolled up his window and drove away.

I was not Trayvon Martin that night. I was a young white woman, walking through a white upper-middle class neighborhood at 2 a.m., so even though I was holding a stolen sign, my presence was entirely unproblematic, except to the extent that I might be in danger. The officer assumed that we were not engaged in wrongdoing – even though we were, in fact engaged in wrongdoing. He had clearly seen the sign I was carrying, since it was more than half as tall as I was, but he also clearly assumed I had that sign for a legitimate reason. So on that night, a police officer showed us, two young white women, human kindness and empathy. He advised us to hurry home, letting us know that it was too late for us to be out, he was worried about our safety, not for the threat we may pose to others or the neighborhood.

On that night my life could have been changed forever. The sign we stole may have been worth enough money to make me eligible for a charge of felony theft. I may have gone to jail or prison instead of college; I may never have gotten the opportunity for an undergraduate education, much less graduate school. I certainly would have had trouble becoming a lawyer since the American Bar Association engages in strict background checks and resists admitting people with felony convictions to the bar. None of that happened because my whiteness never produced a moment of suspicion in that police officer; because I am not Trayvon Martin. I did not lose any aspect of my life as a result of my desire to go creeping that night; Trayvon Martin lost his entire life because he walked to the convenience store in a white gated neighborhood.

Throughout my youth I found that I was often viewed by that police officer as someone to take care of, to show concern for. By contrst, African Americans, especially African American men are viewed as potential criminals. African American men, of all ages, from young teens to elderly gentlemen, from every background, from high school students, to college professors to judges, experience the humiliation of being systematically surveilled and considered suspect—so much so that even a self-appointed vigilante neighborhood watch person, with no legitimate authority, feels entitled to follow a young black man who is merely walking home from the store. But more than that, it is this air of suspicion that leads people to the conclusion that it was reasonable for George Zimmerman to follow Trayvon Martin. The tacit, never fully considered or admitted, assumption that an African American young man in a hooded sweatshirt (as opposed to a white young woman holding a stolen sign) is a potential criminal. And through this nearly axiomatic presumption of black male criminality people can come to the outrageous conclusion that Zimmerman chasing after Martin and confronting him with a gun could lead to a scenario in which Trayvon Martin was viewed as an aggressor.

Several days ago a jury acquitted George Zimmerman (failed, even, to find him guilty of manslaughter, which would have only required recklessness in the shooting). The legal basis for the acquittal was the Florida “Stand Your Ground” law, which allows people to defend themselves with force from an attack without having to attempt to retreat or escape the situation. Evidently the jury decided that after Zimmerman chased Martin down, Martin’s defensive physical response meant that Zimmerman was justified in shooting and killing Trayvon Martin. Metrotrends analysts John Roman and Mithcell Downy have discovered that in the 29 states that have Stand Your Ground laws, shootings are more likely to be legally considered justified. More insidiously, Roman and Downy found that the shooting scenarios that have the highest likelihood of a ruling of justifiable homicide in Stand Your Ground states result when white civilians shoot black civilians. This racial disparity is not surprising to social scientists who study race, the pattern of racial disparity exists in every segment of the criminal justice system in the United States. Moreover, legal scholar Michael Tonry, in his 2011 book Punishing Race, notes that research indicates that when white people are made aware of the racial disparities that affect African Americans in the criminal justice system, their support for punitive criminal justice policies actually increases. (See pp. 91-97).

At this moment the Justice Department is in the process of considering charges against George Zimmerman for civil rights violations (civil rights violations!), and the Stand Your Ground law will not save Zimmerman from a civil suit. But whatever the outcome of that case, Trayvon Martin’s killing must become the motivation a critical systematic interrogation of the criminalization of African Americans in all its insidious forms. We must acknowledge that we are living in a police state in which the lives of young African Americans (especially boys and men) are threatened by extreme surveillance and suspicion, police and civilian harassment, mass incarceration, and even execution. The time has come to stop casually using the words democracy and freedom, and start interrogating what those words should substantively mean.

Dr. Wendy Leo Moore is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Texas A&M University. She is a sociologist and a lawyer and is the author of the award-winning book Reproducing Racism, White Space, Elite Law Schools, and Racial Inequality.

Race, Space, and History: Power Relations in Government Policy

The intersection of race, space, and history in local government policies and politics illustrates the profound impact of spatial arrangements on the reproduction of systemic inequalities. As Leslie Picca and Joe Feagin point out in Two-faced Racism: Whites in the Front Stage and the Backstage (2007) significant research supports the argument that much of the social space in the United States is highly racialized.

Two articles provide significant insight into how such racialization occurs within the context of the efforts of cities in California to reconfigure historical neigborhoods and nullify and erase the presence of dominant ethnic identities from the landscape. Wendy Cheng’s perceptive article entitled “’Diversity’ on Main Street? Branding Race and Place in the New ‘Majority-Minority’ Suburbs” (2010), describes two redevelopment campaigns in the Los Angeles West San Gabriel Valley cities of Alhambra and San Gabriel that epitomized the struggle for white economic, social and political dominance over Asian American and Latino pasts.

In an area in which Asian immigrants and Asian Americans constitute half the population and Latinos represent more than a third of the population, the polarization of the city of Alhambra is reflected in residential patterns, with the largely white northern area reporting a median household income 50 percent higher in 2000 than the southern area comprised of a heterogeneous mix of working-class to middle-income Mexican-Americans and Asian Americans.

Cheng documents how the redevelopment of Alhambra’s Main Street involved high-pressure tactics by the city to excise small Chinese businesses and replace them with new “mainstream” businesses. For example, the city gave Starbucks a “tenant improvement allowance” using $136,000 of HUD money and bought an 8,000 square-foot building for over $1 million with an additional $350,000 in upgrades to lure Tony Roma’s to open a restaurant on Main Street, after the chain restaurant had refused several overtures. And the redevelopment agency literally gave Edwards Theatres a 43,000-square-foot parcel of land and $1.2 million form a HUD loan to construct a movie theater. To cap these efforts, the merchants in the Downtown Alhambra Business Association invested in a diversity branding effort with banners that included an older blond white woman, a young Latina woman with freckles and dark hair, a middle-aged Asian man, and a young blue-eyed, blond white woman.

Similarly, in his article entitled, “From ‘Blighted’ to ‘Historic’: Race, Economic Development, and Historic Preservation in San Diego, California” (2008), Leland T. Saito chronicles how the determination of historic designation in the city “favored Whites and overlooked the history of racial minorities” (p. 183). The city commissioned studies on the Chinese Mission, Douglas Hotel, and Clermont/Coast Hotels, three properties associated with Asian American and African American history, and concluded they were not historically or architecturally significant. The Chinese Mission, established in 1927, was a major social center for the Chinese American Community. The Douglas Hotel was the most important entertainment venue for African Americans when it was established in 1924 and the only hotel that would accept African Americans in the 1930s and 1940s. The Clermont/Coast Hotel also had significance for the history of the African American Community.

It was only through the lobbying efforts of the Chinese American community and the African American community that the Chinese Mission and Clermont/Coast Hotel were preserved and received historic designation. Due to the lack of a major lobbying effort, the Douglas Hotel was demolished. Saito concludes from these examples that

“public policy is an important site of struggle over the meaning of race” (p. 168) and that “race remains significant in the formation and implementation of development and historic preservation policies” (p. 182).

Community groups, however, can play a key role in counteracting the racial consequences of public policy.

Both these articles present evidence of how space is intertwined with race and history in the identity of place and underscore the importance of community activism and minority participation on city councils. Such activism and solidarity are critical in overcoming divided racial, economic, and geographic interests, ensuring the voice and representation of minority populations, and changing the dynamics of power relationships within municipal governments.