Tag Archives: blackness

White Rage, the Hunger Games, and the Lack of Justice for Eric Garner

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Today, like too many days, I am angry. Today a grand jury voted not to bring criminal charges against the white officer who killed Eric Garner, father of six, with a chokehold. The killing is on video, which many people hoped would mean an indictment and, eventually, a conviction. Not so. Today, America tells us once again that the value it places in black life is nil, insubstantial, nonexistent.

The protests have already begun in New York, and I’m thinking about anger, rage. I’m thinking about things that burn. When the grand jury in St. Louis County announced that it would not be indicting Darren Wilson in the killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, Ferguson burned. Over the weekend, I saw the latest Hunger Games film—Mockingjay—and in it, the Capitol executes unarmed civilians, their deaths broadcasted for millions of eyes. I couldn’t stop thinking about Eric Garner, Tamir Rice: the killing of unarmed people, one a man and one a child, their murders recorded and spreading like wildfire on the Internet. Like in Hunger Games, the people have taken to the streets to protest these killings, demanding change, demanding that the system in which laws benefit some and murder others be overthrown. It’s been written about extensively, this parallel between the Hunger Games and this America that not only sets Darren Wilson free but awards him almost $1 million for…what? In Hunger Games, we stand behind Katniss as she takes on a system bent on her—literal—destruction: she is our champion as she fires an explosive arrow at a plane that targets women and children. In Mockingjay, the film crew following her gets the perfect shot when Katniss witnesses the destruction of one of the weaker districts, shouting into the camera, “This is what they [the Capitol] do!” She gestures at the fire that has engulfed the victims of the district. “And we must fight back!”

There have been accusations that police in St. Louis have set fires in Ferguson, an assertion which some media outlets have claimed to debunk but that protestors on the ground insist are true. Thinking of things that burn, one can’t help but remember the MOVE bombing of 1985 in Philadelphia, in which police dropped bombs on a black liberation group’s commune and then, when the commune was engulfed in flames, “let the fire burn.” In Ferguson, it has been clear since day one that the police and National Guard have been the aggressors in the rising tension since Mike Brown’s death. One can’t sit in the theater with Mockingjay shining in one’s eyes—the Capitol’s troops with their intimidating tanks; their masks; their weapons—and not think of Ferguson. The malicious Peacekeepers keep peace in name only: the audience sees their suppression of revolution and we hate them for it: no one in their right mind would sit in the theater and think to themselves, “You know, maybe if the districts stopped being so angry. Maybe if the districts worked a little harder. Maybe if Katniss had a father, this wouldn’t be happening to her and her people.”

It’s interesting: in Mockingjay, Peeta withers away before our eyes in Capitol captivity, his eyes sunken and his skin chalky. Prisoner to President Snow, he gives a few interviews to the Capitol media in which he says things that make the rebels in the districts curse his name: “Killing is not the answer! Stop and think of what all this violence could mean!” He begs Katniss and the districts to “show restraint,” and when they bomb the Capitol’s dams, Peeta roundly condemns the act of violence.

In the audience, you are aghast. In the audience, you can’t believe that Peeta would call for “restraint” in the face of a system that grows rich off the districts’ blood. In the audience, you know that Peeta must be brainwashed, trying to protect Katniss, something, because clearly you’re on the side of the districts, clearly you’re on the side of the people fighting against tyranny and murder. In the audience, you are filled with rage for the unfairness of it all.

Roughly 64% of Hunger Games moviegoers are white. I would venture to conclude that this means that those white people side with Katniss, with Peeta, with the districts, with the people who are gunned down by government agents and whipped at the post, and see no justice. Yet 32% of white people look at the protests in Ferguson and say that the police response to those events is “about right.” 35% of white people don’t have an opinion at all.

What is it about the Hunger Games that stirs white people’s empathy? Surely it is Katniss and her lovers’ whiteness. After all, Katniss and the districts’ plight have a lot in common with that of black Americans, past and present. Economic marginalization, forced labor, public shootings with no legal recourse, whipping at the post, and even lynching. In the theater, I sat, disturbed, as Katniss sang a song about “the hanging tree.”

“Are you, are you

Coming to the tree

Where they strung up a man they say murdered three”

In these words, I can’t help but hear the accusations leveled against the black lives taken in America to justify their killing. At one point, for a black American to be lynched, the only “crime” they had to commit was being black. Now, in “post-racial” America, there exists a kind of shroud of language around the reason for these deaths. For John Crawford and Tamir Rice, it is shouted that they carried BB guns (despite living in Ohio, an open-carry state). For Eric Garner, it is screamed that he was selling cigarettes. Mike Brown, they say, punched Darren Wilson, although photographs of Wilson’s “injuries” seem to illustrate only rosacea. “They say he murdered three,” sings Katniss, and we in the audience don’t need to ask to know who “they” is: “they” is the system, the Capitol, the President himself. And we don’t need to know if the man being strung up is guilty or innocent: we are on his side, because we know the Capitol is guilty, guiltier, guilty as sin.

At times it seems that the Hunger Games script was written after Ferguson. President Snow sits in his office at the Capitol and consults with his PR people about what they should call the districts that have begun to rebel. He doesn’t want to call them rebels, he says. It gives them too much weight. “Criminals?” his assistant suggests, and in the audience you cringe, you sneer because you know Katniss is no criminal; you know how unfair and twisted it is. “Radicals,” they finally decide. Radicals. And you shake your head, because you know it’s bullshit propaganda.

In St. Louis, Missouri, the same meeting was held. In media offices all over the country, the same meeting was held. Jeff Roorda, spokesman and business manager of the St. Louis Police Officers Association, chose the word “thugs.” All over America, the word “thug” is chosen just as carefully, just as specifically as President Snow chose “radicals.” Are you cringing? Are you hearing the word and knowing you are hearing spin, strategy, propaganda?

One of the recurring themes in Hunger Games—in the films and in the books—is the role media plays in the subjugation of the district; the way crimes—the murder of humans—are recorded and used as entertainment. We look at that world—the world of Panem, a United States not united but torn apart by class wars and violence—and believe it an impossible distortion of our society. Yet Eric Garner’s murder, Tamir Rice’s murder, John Crawford’s murder, were all caught on camera, broadcasted on television and on the Internet—and they mean nothing. They don’t serve as entertainment, no, but these videos, captured for what we all hoped would be evidence in punishing the killers responsible, serve no purpose. Even with video, no indictment for Eric Garner’s killer. Even with video, no indictment for John Crawford’s murder. These videos exist only as an endlessly looping reminder of what America reinforces every day: in this system, black lives do not matter.

The Hunger Games shows us a world in which police are out of control and the government is hell-bent on keeping people poor and afraid; a world in which the masses, tired of being abused and killed on TV, rise up and demand change, by any means necessary. In Mockingjay, Katniss Everdeen looks in the camera and raises her voice, “You can torture or bomb us, blast our district to the grounds. But do you see that? Fire is catching…If we burn, you burn with us!”

I want the white people in the theater cheering for Katniss to look at the countless black lives that have been taken by police in America—one every 28 hours— without justice, and say the same. I want the fire to catch. It is our responsibility. The wrongs that we weep for in Panem, the imagined wrongs that are inflicted on imagined white people, are happening to black Americans around you right at this moment. I want the fire to catch. Look at the damage, the irreconcilable violence, that the police in America wreak on black lives and say, “This is what they do. And we must fight back.”

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Richard Sherman, Thugs, and Black Humanity

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Today I’m wondering what it takes for a black man to be regarded as human in America.

Today Richard Sherman is being lambasted for his animated post-game interview in which he dared to express emotion outside of the cubic centimeter men of color are allotted. A cornerback in one of the most physically demanding sports in the country—after a game in which bodies were injured and crushed; after a game that required players to be helped off the field—wins a critical game and has a microphone stuck in his face. He says what he says, and suddenly the nation is clutching its pearls, tutting and making pretend-concerned remarks about sportsmanship and graciousness. Today, Tom Brady criticizes Richard Sherman for his lack of “graciousness.” Today, Richard Sherman is being called a thug, and I’m wondering what that word really means.

Does it mean foul-mouthed? After all, Tom Brady was never called a thug. Not when he got in the ref’s face when losing to the Panthers and dropped the F-bomb on national television just two months ago. What about Richie Incognito, when he called Jonathan Martin the n-word on his voicemail? That’s a foul word, isn’t it? I didn’t hear Incognito referred to as a thug either. Or does “thug” mean violent? I’m not sure. Because, despite his animation, Sherman didn’t use a single curse word. He didn’t threaten anyone’s safety or injure anyone.

The truth is, I only ever hear “thug” applied to black people. And not just adult men. A black toddler made news recently when Omaha police posted a video on their website of the child cursing and holding up his middle finger. The child was described as a thug by Omaha police, who insisted they only shared the video to show “the cycle of thuggery.” The video was posted without the knowledge or consent of the child’s mother.

Another example comes to mind. A teenager walking home from the store after buying Skittles and tea, who was then stalked and murdered by a wannabe cop. A murderer whose main line of defense was that the victim “looked like a thug.” A seventeen-year old boy with his hood up—it was raining—looked like a “thug,” and so his life was ended.

So I’m wondering what “thug” really means.

White supremacist culture dictates who and who does not get to be human. In order for people of color to receive a Human Card, they must assimilate: they must not use slang. They must be quiet. They must not wear hoodies. They must not curse. They must be gracious at all times. They must enunciate. They must not talk about racism. They must not listen to rap music. They must not sag. They must not brag. They must not laugh in public. They must not take up more than one seat on the bus. They must not ever ask for more. In short, you must be perfect. Robotic. Even if you are a professional athlete who performs for millions of Americans, playing a game in which aggression, testosterone, and energy are rewarded (demanded)…you must be quiet, gracious, calm, unassuming. Unscary. To be black and also be regarded as human, you must never make a mistake in your entire life, ever—ever—or you are a thug. Ghetto. Other. Your Human Card is denied.

Richard Sherman was Salutatorian: second in his class in high school. Richard Sherman went to Stanford. Richard Sherman launched a charity organization called Blanket Coverage to help children in need receive school supplies and clothing. Richard Sherman makes more money than anyone I know. But with all the reaction, both on Twitter and on television, to Richard Sherman’s interview, I’m forced to call upon Kanye West’s famous lyric:

Even if you in a Benz, you still a n*gga in a coupe.

I think that’s what the word “thug” really means. The n-word, arguably the most dehumanizing word in history, has been decried. It is considered inappropriate to speak it in public, and while that doesn’t stop everyone, hate will find a way. “Thug” is that way. Lately, it is a word used when we want to revoke humanity. Trayvon Martin, murdered only a few blocks from his home, was called a thug during his murderer’s trial. The jury needed to be convinced that this boy’s humanity could not possibly exist if he was “a thug.” Police put a toddler’s “thuggery” on display as if to say, “This is why we police them.” And now Richard Sherman, an athlete wealthier than most of us can possibly imagine, dares to step outside the box that a racist culture demands he live inside…and he’s a thug too.

Despite the power of whiteness, as we live in a culture that still very much worships it, whiteness is fragile. In order for white supremacy to function, it requires people of color to adopt the characteristics mentioned above. Silence. Subservience. Graciousness. So when Richard Sherman’s “graciousness” is criticized, it’s more than his status as an athlete that’s being attacked: it’s his blackness. When the media (or the typical spineless, anonymous Twitter-user) calls him a “thug,” they are denying him his humanity. You can look like Richard Sherman and be in the public eye, this logic goes, as long as you stay within the lines white supremacy has drawn for you.

Today I’m wondering what it takes for a black man to be regarded as human. I still don’t know. By these rules, to be black in America and also be seen as human, you must be a robot. Emotionless. Expressionless. In order to be black and be regarded as human in America, you must shed all the things that make you human to begin with. Personality. Flaws. History. Anger. To be black and human in America you must be nothing. And that’s where I stop wondering and start to get angry.

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Hollywood and the Shaping of Perceptions of Racism

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It is a known fact that the media we consume shapes our perception of the world: after all, media has economic, political, social and aesthetic purposes. Martin Gilens wrote a book some time ago, for example: Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Antipoverty, which explores the role of media in the shaping of myth and misconception of welfare policy. And what about the shaping of misconception of racism? We all know Fox News has a nice handle on that, as far as “news” media goes. But what about pop culture? Hollywood? How do the films we flock to theaters to see shape our world? I can think of more than a few examples, as I’m sure any thinking person can. But one in particular comes to mind: films about slavery and the way they shape perceptions of racism in white audiences. Namely the idea that racism is a thing of the past and only existed on Southern plantations a long, long time ago.

Since the release of 12 Years a Slave I’ve had many conversations about films that are about slavery. The conversations that stand out to me the most are the ones where the consensus is, “Why do all the films in Hollywood that feature black people have to be about slavery?” and my own undying question about the underrepresentation of black people in Hollywood, “Why does a film need to be about the subjugation of black people in order for it to have more than a one solitary black character?” And also, “Why did so many more white people go to see 12 Years than Best Man Holiday?”

While films like 12 Years a Slave are extremely important in understanding the past and the effect it has on the present, they have an interesting effect on white audiences whose ideas of racism are of the “post-racial” or “colorblind” variety: the effect is almost one of relief. When I left the theater of 12 Years a Slave, the kind of words I heard from the lips of the other white people leaving were things like, “God, it was just so bad back then.” And even things like, “Those people were horrible. Fuck those slave owners.” So, in a sense, relief. “It was so bad back then” translates as “Things are so much better now,” and “Those people were horrible” translates as “We don’t do that anymore.”

And they’re right. Things are better now. White people don’t own slaves in the United States. But this cousin of relief presents, to me, a sort of cognitive dissonance about the reality of racism in America. When white audiences see movies like The Help and The Butler and 12 Years a Slave—and indeed, when the vast majority of mainstream films featuring black people are movies like The Help and The Butler and 12 Years a Slave—and not films like Best Man Holiday, their perception of racism (and even blackness) is shaped in a way that lacks a wider context and an awareness of present-day racism. This is what racism looks like, white audiences come to believe: chains and lynchings and the American South. And while they’re not wrong, that understanding is stunted.

In a way, films like 12 Years a Slave, even with its horror and brutality, serve as a comfort to white people seeking to feel a distance between the monster that is racism and the life they lead in 2013. “Progress!” we congratulate ourselves, proud that America has overcome its brutishly violent history. “We used to be horrible people that owned other human beings and now we don’t! We’re a post-racial society now! Go America!” But if we’re talking about reality, the reality of racism in 2013, a reality that generally doesn’t make it to the silver screen, we have to talk about things like environmental racism and structural racism in our systems of education, employment, criminal justice, and more. We have to talk about Trayvon Martin and Marissa Alexander and we have to talk about Oscar Grant and Renisha McBride. We have to talk about what racism looks like now and not let ourselves off the hook with the tired mantra of “But we’ve come so far!”

12 Years a Slave was an incredible film. I think everyone should see it. But I encourage people with skin like mine to not watch it with the idea that the work is done. The fact that white people no longer legally own, rape, and murder black bodies is not a sign of progress we should congratulate ourselves on: our standards should be higher. Widen your scope. Racism looks like this. And this. And this. And this. Don’t allow Hollywood’s narrow line of vision to trick you into believing that violent racism is just something that happened in the 1800’s and looks like the horrific lava of lashes on a black human being’s back while everyone stands around wearing corsets and smoking pipes. It looks like Charlotte police shooting Jonathan Ferrell to death after he was in a car accident and asked for help. It looks like Riley Incognito calling Warring Sapp the N-word. It looks like Trayon Christian being arrested for buying a belt at Barney’s because the NYPD didn’t think he could afford it on his own. It looks like celebrities and well-known magazines showcasing blackface in 2013 and every year before that.

In a nation where so many white people have their “one black friend” and little personal contact with people who don’t look like them—yes, segregation is still “a thing:” New York City had the same level of racial segregation in 2012 as it did in 1910.—it is easy for these audiences to consume movies like The Help and 12 Years (especially given the fact that there are so few alternatives when it comes to mainstream movies featuring black people and their lives) and think “This was racism. I don’t know any black people here in 2013, but I do know that slavery isn’t around anymore. So that’s that!” And—slam—close the book. But that’s not all. That’s not the end, fellow white folks. Why did you watch The Help but not Do the Right Thing? Why 12 Years a Slave and not Boyz in the Hood? Is it because one talks about racism in the past where you’re comfortable with it, and the other talks about issues affecting black people right here and right now? Spoiler alert: they’re the same thing. The racism you see in 12 Years has mutated and transformed and grown tentacles and developed camouflage, but it’s right here with us. Right here with you. We’d be foolish to ignore it; foolish to watch the story of Solomon Northup and think that his suffering was not inherited, that the ugliness of the system that enslaved him doesn’t still linger.

I wonder if white America as a whole will ever be able to empathize with present-day struggle. Looking back with sympathy and indignation is easier than looking around, isn’t it? I just wonder what are we looking toward.

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poem for Trayvon Martin and other dead brown boys

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George Zimmerman’s trial begins today. I thought it appropriate to post the poem that I wrote last year after Trayvon’s murder. I am praying for justice.

poem for Trayvon Martin and other dead brown boys

The delight of the airplane

is what sticks in my eye:

 

ground-bound, but the sky

is a butterfly you’re cupping

in your palms.

 

Just a few more beats

of heart and wing

and you could have been

in the blue, arms or engine

pumping.

 

I want us all to live

in your eyes:

 

to see how

in one breath

a boy can be

dreaming

and in the next

be a leaf

 

fluttering

carried away

 

red,

then gray,

then gone.

 

 

.

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