Injustice for All?

The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout “Save us!”… and I’ll whisper “no.”

-Rorschach, “Watchmen”

One of the most insidious legacies of racism in our country is unequally applied justice. Poor black and Latino neighborhoods are overpoliced. “Respectable” black people with no criminal record have a fear of police, and most have stories about themselves or a friend getting unduly pulled over and/or poorly treated, or worse. Many white people find these stories hard to believe because they are so out of line with their own experience. In the places they’ve been, police have often been helpful protectors, occasionally even looking the other way for minor infractions.

I have lately been watching the reaction to Otto Warmbier‘s case. As a tourist in North Korea (pause to let that sink in), he attempted to steal a banner to bring home as a souvenir for which he would be rewarded. The North Korean government caught him, arrested him, and sentenced him to 15 years in their prisons. There is now an outcry to seek clemency and bring him home.

I have also seen the coverage of a recently discovered heroin epidemic here in Atlanta. The episodes of reporting are given sympathetic titles like “We All Make Mistakes” and “Please Understand”. (Seriously, go look. I’m not making this up.) The photos of victims of the epidemic are shown to humanize them, show what good kids they were before something unknown drove them into the path of addiction.

Many of my black friends have greeted these stories with snorts of derision. As black Americans, we know all too well what a mandatory minimum sentence can do, turning a youthful error into a lifetime’s failure. We have seen drugs destroy our communities in the 70s and 80s while the rest of America looks on and wags their finger, whispering under their breath, “I knew it.” or “Just say no. How hard is that?” Even now, as traffic stops turn into homicides, we see characters defamed and radicalized. Where were the cries for mercy then? Where was the humanization? Can you even imagine West Baltimore, Chicago, or South Central Los Angeles getting that kind of careful, loving analysis?

I have no objection to telling the truth. Whether Warmbier’s case warrants mercy is irrelevant to the point that he took the world to be his playground and thought that the privileges he enjoys in this country were transferrable to what is possibly the most dangerous country for Americans in the entire world. The circumstances that led the kids in affluent suburbs to use heroin neither fall neatly in the bucket of personal responsibility nor in that of externalities. That said, I grow concerned on two fronts.

I don’t want my heart to grow hard. If a white person, or any other human, is hard done by by the police, or has a hard experience that tears them apart, I want to feel compassion for them where they are. I see case after case of black injustice though, and I find the same thoughts entering my mind as those I see from my peers. “Well, I guess they’ll see now.” “Welcome to reality.”

At a more philosophical level, I am concerned that our desire to see the shoe on the other foot will lead to a tolerance for injustice. As we fight for people we know and love personally, who look like us and face the same struggles, we must never forget that our goal is to intersectionally end injustice wherever it lives. I shouldn’t want for them what I know people that look like me get. We shouldn’t want that for anyone.

I won’t deny, there is a grim satisfaction to see someone find out a truth the hard way when you know they wouldn’t believe you if you told them in advance. However, those of us who are coming from any non-dominant axes of privilege have to find an extra measure of grace to see us through, and to always see what the privileged and comfortable let themselves be blinded to. What’s worse for us, we have to see it and dispense said grace to everyone.

This is an area where I find Christian theology, properly applied, very helpful. The notion of the Imago Dei, that each human being is an image bearer of God, helps us apply this lens of grace to everyone, even those who by their actions or by our judgment may seem to be the least deserving. This is a bewildering concept to those who do not believe; how could [insert evil person from history here] be an image bearer of God? One answer: the same way a dirty and cracked mirror is still a mirror.

I also find the teachings of Jesus to be useful to help remind me. Jesus was clear about overturning systems of injustice or rules that sought to preserve comfort and ease of a few at the expense of many. Jesus went to those who, by conventional wisdom, were the least deserving, and pulled them closest to him. Then he called us to do the same.

I don’t want to take Rorschach’s stance. More accurately, I don’t want to want it. I see the wave of detritus frothing like a disaster movie, the unclean and unclaimed legacy of discriminations and denials. I see it in this election cycle threatening to choke us, set us back decades. As the authoritarian cavalcade reaches into the lives of those it was designed to protect, I want to reply to their “Save us!” with an icy “No.” But as a person who believes what Jesus said, I’m called to try to find the balance between calling out the unevenly applied care and caring for the wronged, even when they might have wronged me given the chance.

I am still figuring that one out.

Until We’re All Free

I’ve been thinking a lot over the past couple of years about what constitutes racial reconciliation, and what needs to happen to bring us together. In that process, though, I have found something else under the hood which is more troubling. Our society is deeply, fundamentally misogynistic. I know this doesn’t come as a revelation to many of you. It is obvious to the casual objective observer. What’s not obvious is how much it matters. Because we refuse to face how deeply disregard and hatred of women is embedded in our interaction, we’re having an incomplete conversation, laced with hypocrisy.

I hear it in hip-hop and rock-and-roll (let’s not focus on the rappers alone), where women are prop, scorecard, something to use and discard. I hear it in politics and acting, where women are asked about their families, emotions, and fashion while men are asked substantive questions about the issues or their craft. Our misogyny even informs our interaction with LGBTIQ issues. Through this lens of misogyny, a lesbian is just a confused woman who hasn’t met me yet, and who hopefully will bring her partner along to run up my score once she comes around to my way of thinking. A gay man is disgusting because he’s seen as being so much like a woman (and who in their right mind would give manliness up?). A transgender F-to-M is a child in a grown man’s shoes, playing at manhood. A transgender M-to-F is the ultimate deception.

We are trying to understand a three-dimensional cube by looking at lines and squares. Intersectional understanding is predicated on the notion that our system of interaction has unequal inputs and we should have conversations about how to ensure just (not necessarily equal) outcomes. We can’t evaluate the problems being black causes completely separately from the problems being a woman or being poor causes; they feed into each other and amplify each other.

We also know that oppression traps the oppressor as much as the oppressed, though the oppressed suffers more. Men live daily with the limitations placed on them by patriarchal notions of manhood. We can’t cry (except maybe when our sportsball team loses). We can’t be gentle and soft. We are only given anger, stoicism and strength as blunt instruments to deal with everything. What happens when we give a man a full range of healthy tools to become who he needs to be?

Each time we free a segment of society, tremendous potential is unleashed. Much of the creativity and innovation of the 20th century came from people who would have been stifled and lost a century earlier. How much business and technical innovation did we miss because of our rules? What are we still missing as technology booms and is conspicuously missing the contributions of women, black, and Latino people in proportion to their societal presence? Considering that women are half our population, how much potential are we missing by not giving them space to be their fullest selves?

Zoe as Nina and the Failure of Hollywood Imagination

I was reading this article from Shadow and Act and it made me think about something I’ve had a problem with for a while: the casting of Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone. Zoe says in response to criticism:

“I didn’t think I was right for the part, and I know a lot of people will agree, but then again, I don’t think Elizabeth Taylor was right for Cleopatra either… An artist is colorless, genderless… It’s more complex than just ‘Oh, you chose the Halle Berry look-alike to play a dark, strikingly beautiful, iconic black woman.’ The truth is, they chose an artist who was willing to sacrifice herself. We needed to tell her story because she deserves it.”

(emphasis above mine)

I think Saldana is a decent actress and don’t have any problems with her personally. Despite this being my second article in two weeks about Nina Simone, I’m not a fanboy either; in my Swiss cheese relationship with music, Nina’s discography is one of the larger holes. What I see in her casting though is a tone deafness, a biography team that learned the whole story but wasn’t paying attention.

While I would have been really excited to see Danai Gurira (Michonne from The Walking Dead and Adenike from Mother of George) in this role, I agree with Saldana when she says that it’s more complex than skin tone.  Throwing in some other mediocre actress who looked more the part would be equally problematic. However, if you look at who Nina Simone was, it’s important to recall her struggle with self-love in a world that said that dark was not beautiful, and her later speaking with an increasingly militant voice encouraging other black folks to love themselves as well. I think choosing someone who does not physically look like Nina Simone, particularly in complexion, is an insult to that particular legacy, and I have a problem with that in a way that I might not have for someone doing a biopic of, say, Donny Hathaway.

I understand that they wanted to make money and find an actress that already has appeal and will have “box office draw”. However, I see actors and actresses we’ve never heard of being elevated again and again by Hollywood until they stick, and I don’t see why we can’t find some talented dark-skinned, Nina-Simone-looking ingenue to do the same with for this role. I find it interesting as well, that movie casting teams can use their imagination to stretch a Zoe Saldana into playing Nina Simone (or for that matter Angelina Jolie as a multiethnic French woman) but they can’t imagine black lead dramatic characters in a mainstream movie. David Oyelowo, who is cast in the Simone biopic as one of her managers, stated in an interview once that when he was cast as a lead in one particular film and told his family about the new role, his young son asked him, “are you the main character’s friend?” He asked that because he had unconsciously internalized this belief that a black character doesn’t get to lead. That comment from an actor’s own son shows what a failure of imagination costs us, in lowered expectations, and down the road, in lowered achievement.

We owe it to our children, especially children from historically marginalized groups, to be imaginative. We say we’re post-racial and we live in a society where people are up in arms about the blackness (and in some cases, even the proposed blackness) of fictional characters, because even in a fantasy world with magic and bizarre creatures, we can’t imagine non-white people having roles of any importance. (Apologies to the article I cribbed that observation from, the name of which escapes me at this time but may have been over at Very Smart Brothas). If you think this is hyperbole, try performing a racial version of the Bechdel test on the next drama you watch. My proposed rules:

  1. There must be two black characters (okay, fine, even just one),
  2. who aren’t related to each other (if there are two),
  3. who have a function in their communication other than helping the white lead character on their journey or providing comic relief,
  4. [Edit courtesy of my man Damon Young‘s suggestion] and the movie is not primarily about race or “blackness”

You’ll be surprised at how many movies fail.

This isn’t really about Zoe’s fitness to play Nina, physically or as an actress. This is about our collective imagination being so weak, we can never find enough diverse talent out there, but can always find another slender, pretty white woman or handsome, wiry white guy to be the Next Big Thing.

Satire as a Mask for ‘Hipster Racism’

In the past few years, several new “satire” sites have arisen, copying what used to be the exclusive province of The Onion. Two sites in particular, The Daily Currant and The National Report, have become the source of much Facebook and Twitter head shaking and eye rolling among people who disagree with their pseudo-conservative posts. While I’m not sure of the writers’ political stances, the joke is usually supposed to be, “Hey, aren’t these conservatives crazy? I wonder what they’ll say next, maybe something ridiculous like ____________!”.  As I see post after post circulated by people that didn’t get the joke, I suspect something a bit more problematic is going on.

One of the ones recently posted in a Facebook group I belong to that is mostly conservative leaning people was a fictional story about a landfill in North Dakota being named after Obama. The article concluded with:

Ordinary citizens in the state also seem to approve of the government’s choice.

“I can’t think of a better name,” says Joe Blough, a plumber from Minot. “It’s darkly colored and it’s full of shit. That pretty much sums up Obama.”

An article in National Report focuses on Bobby Jindal’s alleged secret ties to Transcendental Meditation and Ravi Shankar, with Shankar purportedly saying, “I knew Piyush’s mother Raj, we would meditate together back in Malerkotla.”

What I see in these articles is what many have referred to as “hipster racism“. The concept refers to engaging in traditionally racist behavior ironically or satirically, and using the fact that you’re aware of its wrongness and trying to take its power through humor as a defense. I see this both in the illicit chuckles these articles elicit from the anti-PC set and in the way that the articles are celebrated by conservative news sources that don’t check their facts well enough. The articles have beliefs embedded in them that people want to say, or at least explore, but that society has told them are bad. Through humor, the authors and fans can explore this in a way that’s safe, and doesn’t make them “bad people”. (There’s probably a whole other post to be had about how we ignore our racism because we don’t want to be “bad people”, but that’s a post for another day.)

Incidentally, the same is true of sites I have higher regard for, like The Onion, which has explored some troubling topics and occasionally missed the mark. The Onion, however, apologized when they crossed the line and wrote a (obviously satirical) hit piece on a child (in this case, ingenue Quvenzhane Wallis of “Annie” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild” fame). I’m not asking for an apology from any of these satire sites; they should be free to write what they like and bear whatever consequences result. However, I do think it’s irresponsible to play with these themes in a way that lets our demons off the hook.

Even as I write this, a counterargument arises in my head, which is, “but the world is absurd right now!” I’m frankly not sure what to do with that. We live in a time when our former Vice-Presidential candidate or our current leading Republican Presidential candidate might just make a gaffe that sounds just like a satire piece, or where people are comfortable making racist jokes in public about the President, or for that matter, where a double-digit percentage of the population appears to believe his birth certificate is forged. In an absurd world, maybe we get the humor we deserve.

“Superlativity” Politics

I’ve been having a few conversations lately about the nature of respectability. In the context of our current times, it’s about the belief that people’s behavior determines their entire outcome in the context of a police interaction, a job, or other situations. This belief sits in contrast with the notion of prejudice, where people are literally pre-judged before their behavior can be taken into account.

In particular, there is a belief by some that most of the police incidents being highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement are the result of the behavior of the citizens. Sandra Bland and Eric Garner shouldn’t have mouthed off. Mike Brown was a criminal. Trayvon Martin was on his way to being a criminal. With respect to black folks in particular, his belief is espoused by two camps: conservatives (mostly but not all white) who don’t actually have personal relationships with black people, and successful black people who in many cases may have themselves come from an adverse upbringing.

The first camp could be written off as a lack of empathy, but that’s not completely fair. I think for a white conservative person of moderate or higher means who has only their experience to measure by, it’s quite a leap to imagine a world where the police are a threat to you if you’ve done nothing wrong. In a world where everyone around you is at least steadily working, and progressing through the ranks in accordance with their effort, it’s hard to see how Ben Carson can become a successful neurosurgeon with an upbringing like he had, but another black guy who actually works at it can’t get a steady job. The second camp is harder to argue with, because it’s their experience that’s on the table. They know what it’s like to live in poverty, or to go to inferior schools, or to experience discrimination. And they made it. So why can’t someone else?

This is what I call the “superlativity problem”, where we base the judgment of the bar for success on what the superlative people in the group have done. We look at Ben Carson, or Barack Obama, or our black friend who went to a good school or got a good job, and go, “he did it, why can’t these other people get themselves together?” The answer to that is complex. There is a conversation to be had about black agency and the repeal of hopelessness. It would also be great if more people could find in themselves whatever fire, whatever perseverance these icons had that led to their successes. However, I’m more interested in determining how a person of average ability can achieve an average result.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his seminal essay, “A Muscular Empathy”, says,

“If you really want to understand slaves, slave masters, poor black kids, poor white kids, rich people of colors, whoever, it is essential that you first come to grips with the disturbing facts of your own mediocrity. The first rule is this–You are not extraordinary.”

He goes on to say that the interesting question isn’t whether you would do better than a person in a bad situation, but rather taking some time to understand why you might not. Our dirty secret is that we each think we are extraordinary, and in some way, we are. Fearfully and wonderfully made, each of us. But are we extraordinary in all situations?

If you grew up in a war zone, would you still have pursued the love of math that made you an accountant? Would your business acumen be as sharp if you didn’t overhear your parents talking to their business associates that came to the house for dinner, or if Mom and Dad didn’t talk shop at the table? If your school had poor resources, would you have even learned enough to get into that college that shaped you into who you are today?

Chris Rock calls out the other side of this in his joke from his comedy special Kill The Messenger. He points out that in his wealthy neighborhood, there are four black people: Rock himself, Mary J. Blige, Jay-Z, and Eddie Murphy, each of whom are at the very top of their field. His white neighbor, however, is a dentist. Not a famous dentist to the stars, not a specialist in rare mouth diseases. A dentist.

Put these together, and what do we learn? First, our circumstance has more to do with who we are than we wish to admit. Some will make it, no matter what. These people become CEOs, Presidents, visionaries that choose the most difficult jobs and paths. Most of us, though, have not pushed to our limits, but have instead ridden the wave as high as it carried us, doing our part to stay atop it, but not much more. Second, riding the wave produces unequal outcomes depending on where in the water you are. If you’re in a poor neighborhood where hopelessness is high, schools are failing, and parents are absent because they’re working multiple jobs to keep their household afloat, a lot of the things that someone in a well-off neighborhood with good schools, role models aplenty, and two available parents take for granted are just not available to you. So your choice is to swim against a hard and dangerous current to find a better wave, or ride the one you’re on, like most people in all situations do.

We should absolutely encourage our children to push to their limits, to find their true potential, and take agency for their lives. However, we should not accept a world where anything short of world-class performance means complete failure, either.