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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Charles Blow, While Black Incidents, and the Dominant Racial Paradigm

This blog is a re-print of a piece posted in June 2013.

It is re-posted in light of the recent incident at Yale wherein a black male student, Tahj Blow, the son of New York Times columnist Charles Blow, was stopped at gunpoint by a Yale University security officer.  The elder Blow wrote about the incident in his column.

Some follow up articles have indicated that the officer who stopped Blow's son was black.  Some have even framed this as an "Aha" moment, as if this somehow makes detaining Blow's son at gunpoint less outrageous or Blow's criticism of the incident less meaningful. This critique of Blow caused me to re-think my own "while black" detention that occurred on an elite college campus in 2013.  The guards who stopped me were black, also (though their work was overseen by a white supervisor). This does not cause me to feel less pain over the incident, or cause me to see it as somehow more reasonable. On the contrary.

Over-policing of blacks by blacks in authority is as old as the plantation slave system that popularized such practices in this country. Black overseers were sometimes empathetic to their fellow slaves and thus gentler than white overseers; this sort of in-group favoritism might be expected in such circumstances, especially in a climate where anti-black oppression and violence were the norm.  However,  all too often blacks given power felt the need to exercise their power more stringently than even the white slave owners. This often occurred in the name of normative conformity. Sometimes blacks with power and authority wanted to avoid the charge of being too soft on their own. At other times, blacks in authority wanted to show common cause with the white owners against blacks, hoping somehow to make themselves seem less black. This frequently undiscussed, longstanding in-group oppression is just another mechanism for the operation of racial oppression. What was true 150 years ago in the United States is still true now, even in our allegedly post-racial society. Racial bias and discrimination, both of the implicit and the explicit varieties, is based on dominant racial paradigms and power structures.While law enforcement calls for individual decisions by officers, those decisions are broad based and systemic.


I had a frenetic nightmare this morning between 6:30 a.m. and 8:30 a.m., the period when I took back to my bed for a nap to help remedy my night of wakefulness.  In the nightmare I was at a conference for black women lawyers in Los Angeles.  The beginning was fine and felt for a time like  a rather pleasant dream: I went sightseeing, recalling scenes from my Los Angeles childhood. I paid lovely visits to friends who were not at the conference and who do not live in Los Angeles in real life  but who nonetheless were present (A and J, you were there, along with the baby doggy, walking along the beach outside your beach house).

Soon this sightseeing phase of the dream ended and I drove back to the conference site.  I was early for the next meeting  so I went to return some children’s clothes that I had bought nearby but now on close inspection saw that they would be too small for my daughter. I gave the still-tagged clothes to the clerk along with my receipt.  He looked at them and frowned. “This isn’t our merchandise,” he snarled. “You got these from elsewhere and now you want a refund from us!” I was baffled and then I became angry.   He came from behind the counter and grabbed me and dragged me to the back of the store, and another man came to help him.   When I protested the clerk jabbed me in the arm with a sharp pencil, leaving a deep hole in my arm, a hole so deep and painful  that I looked for it when I awakened.  I screamed.  Other shoppers came running over including other participants at the black women lawyers’ conference. They, too, began to protest, telling the man that he was mistaken, that I had no reason to do what he said, and that I was a lawyer and law professor.  At that, the men let me go and threw my purchases back at me, still refusing to refund them.  I left, vowing to get even in every way I knew how.

When the conference started up again I asked to take to the microphone. I then told what had happened to an audience that looked like about 500 women.  They began screaming in anger and disbelief, and we made vows to stop the problem of shopping while black.

I awoke from the nightmare (or daymare in this case) with a headache that still persists and with a profound sense of anger and sadness.  I had no doubt that my dream was triggered by WB’s—while black incidents--that happened to me and my family during the last few weeks. I had not intended to blog about this.  I have other work to do, after all. I have, for example, piles of recent archive notes to write up and incorporate into my book. I planned to think more about the WB's later. But now that the WB’s are invading my dreams, I have to exorcise the demon.

I describe WB incidents as any disparate treatment of black people by persons with authority or under color of authority.  One of the best known of the WB’s is driving while black, DWB, the phenomenon whereby black people are stopped more frequently by police than whites or persons of other races for real or imaginary minor infractions. My husband and I were stopped a few weeks ago by a policeman who passed slowly by us in the opposite direction, stared into our car, and then made a sharp u-turn and pulled us over. He approached and asked for my husband’s drivers’ license.  My husband gave over his license and asked what the problem was and received no reply. The policeman and his partner then sat in their car behind us conducting what was I suppose a warrant check or checks for stolen vehicles.  After several minutes they approached us again, one coming to the driver’s side window and the other standing right behind him with his hand perched on his gun holster.  I wanted to take out my phone to record the interaction but I was too afraid to reach for my purse.

My husband again asked what the problem was and we were told that we had “shined our high beams” into the officer’s eyes.  I had noticed as we sat there that the high beams were on.  They had apparently been on all during our half-mile drive downhill to pick up our daughter from a school dance. We hadn’t passed any other cars, so it was not surprising that we didn’t notice.  This is generally a pretty friendly town and when drivers detect high beams on in another car they give a quick flash, the almost universal signal to turn down your lights. The incident ended with us apologizing for having the high beams on and we went on our way, chagrined by the whole matter.

Another common WB is shopping while black, SWB, such as what occurred in my dream. It occurs with alarming frequency in real life, too. I discuss such an incident here in my letter to the New York Times, addressing an incident wherein actor Forrest Whitaker was falsely accused of shoplifting.

I encountered an entirely new WB just a few days ago that I’ll call RWB--reunioning while black. My entire family and I went back to reunions at my Elite Undergraduate School and got a nice taste of RWB.  First, I was denied entry to my class reunion site by guards who somehow doubted the authenticity of my wristband, the mechanism for gaining entry into each reunion site.  I was livid and humiliated, especially as they insisted that “everyone” was subject to this treatment. I have never observed this over the decades since I graduated, and people were flowing in without challenge or notice even as they gave me close inspection. A short while later, one of my sons, who also attended Elite Undergraduate School, and who was also wearing a wristband, was denied entry to another reunion site by guards who wanted to know “who he was with” and where he was going.  My son had had enough when they asked him and his black friend, also a wristband-wearing graduate of Elite Undergraduate School, for identification.  They moved past the guards, knowing that they had the right to enter and hoping that the matter would go no further.  My lip quivered as my son related the story to me; this is how black people are killed for no reason, I thought.

I have no doubt that these two most recently experienced WBs, DWB and RWB, were responsible for my nightmare this morning. I have relieved some of the pain of the RWB incidents by talking with some concerned classmates about the matter and via communications with representatives of Elite Undergraduate School. I was grateful for these contacts, as one of the worst aspects of these situations is when people are aware of what happened to you and say Nothing. At. All.

I understand the silence in the face of WB incidents.  I really do. It is hard for some folks to accept (or believe) that educated, fairly accomplished black people are subject to WB incidents just like all the rest of black people. Perhaps as bad as the Silent Sams are those who try to diminish the problem. One person said, in response to my reunioning while black incident, “Oh, you should be glad that they want to keep us safe!” I didn’t know who “us” was (though I could hazard a good guess at who he meant) and I didn’t know what we were being kept “safe” from (that, too, I’m sure I could figure out.) Another person chuckled, “Oh, it’s because you look so young! They probably thought you were sneaking in for beer.” I hardly knew what to say. I’d like to flatter myself that I look younger than my years. But I don’t come close to resembling an under aged party crasher. I didn’t have the heart to point out to this person that many of the people coming in without challenge by the guards were white youths who DID, in fact, look like under aged party crashers.

I suppose what is really sending me for a loop is that this whole WB thing shows no sign of abating. It happened to me when I was a teenager, and I thought the problem would disappear when I was older. But so far, no luck. I am too often under scrutiny by clerks, police and other authorities. So, I smile.  I offer small talk. In short, I try to Make Them at Ease.  I Am Nice.  I am Black But (And?) I Am Good. I Am Not a Criminal.  I Am Like the Other People Here.  I Belong.

This is mentally and physically exhausting. I need reinforcements to help make the WB’s go away.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Clarence Thomas, Bill Cosby, and the Absence of Memory

There has been a resurgence of news items recalling numerous rape allegations made against entertainer Bill Cosby over the course of several years. One article in the New Republic  queried how “such incendiary material” could be “both public and simultaneously hidden from view” and suggests that the rape allegations against Cosby create dissonance with many people’s desire to believe that racial and sexual inequality are problems of the past.

The allegations regarding Bill Cosby have proved very timely for recent discussions in my Race and Law class, as we just completed a unit on the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings and the allegations of Anita Hill. I was somewhat surprised that some students had apparently never heard of the sexual harassment allegations against Justice Thomas. 

I was completely flabbergasted, however, at the fact that some students, including some women, thought that even if Justice Thomas had done and said the things that were alleged, they did not constitute sexual harassment and/or did not have anything to do with his fitness to serve on our highest court. Some women opined that this was "just how some men are" in the workplace, and women needed to deal with it or get out. 

I don't think that this bodes well for us as a society. And not because I consider the students’ comments blameworthy. I myself have been in situations involving sexual harassment of epic proportions, and my thoughts ran much the same way at the time.  For instance, at my law firm summer job following my first year in law school, I was treated to remarks so vile and behaviors so obscene that I have never fully recounted them to anyone. When it became clear that this kind of behavior was pervasive in the firm, I agonized about what to do. Should I tell someone? Tell who, I thought.  Some of the name partners were the worst offenders.  Should I quit? I dismissed that possibility immediately.  Though I had very good credentials, finding a firm job after first year summer had been like grabbing the brass ring, especially when so many of my classmates of color had not gotten such a job.

In addition, I did not wish to quit or address the harassment head-on because the money at my job was very, very good.  It was more than I had earned in my life up to that point.  It was more than my parents earned. And, as a poor kid, I needed that money.  I more than needed that money. I wanted that money and the things that it could buy. There are pictures of me from that period of my life wearing one of my new Nordstroms business suits, standing next to my new car, holding my new briefcase, smiling broadly. It was a cynical inversion of a g-money cash fanning photo, except instead of selling drugs I was selling cool, college educated, black upwardly mobile yearnings.  Not unlike those shown on the Cosby Show, which, not coincidentally, was a staple of my law school viewing. So, I soldiered on in the malign conditions of sexual harassment at my job.  When, at the end of the summer, I was offered part-time work during the school year, I accepted it.  I reasoned that it made no sense to pass up such high wages. 

Finally, a few months afterward when I could take it no more, I walked purposefully into the hiring partner’s office and told him…that I needed to quit in order to insure that my grades remained high.  We looked each other in the eye, and I knew that he knew the real problem.  We shook hands warmly, and he gave me an excellent reference that sent me on the way to the rest of my career. Did I miss an opportunity to fight against women’s oppression? Maybe. Were the hiring partner and I complicit in maintaining the hideous atmosphere, with my excellent reference being the price of my silence (never mind that I had outworked every associate in the place)? Again, maybe. But more likely is the case that my relatively low status at the firm would have meant that my complaints would fall on deaf ears.  Also more likely is the case that I would have been blackballed from other employment in the immediate future.  So it went, and so it goes.

As I wrote in a piece in the Berkeley Journal of Gender, Law and Justice reviewing a recent book by Anita Hill, Hill’s testimony at the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings “both engendered and gendered a national conversation on sexual harassment in the  workplace and demonstrated how such harassment had the potential to oppress and demean even relatively privileged women.” However, that testimony, and its aftermath, quickly became a part of what film theorists call the “space-off”: spaces not visible within a camera’s frame that may only be inferred from represented (main frame) spaces in the center of the camera's eye. Space-off material is sometimes even erased or subsumed in the represented space by cinematic rules of narrative. And from the space-off of so many years ago, Hill’s testimony, much like the allegations of rape by Cosby’s accusers, has traveled even farther, seemingly falling into the void of absent memory.

The absence of memory regarding allegations against Justice Thomas and Bill Cosby, and the ways in which the allegations have been addressed when they are remembered, speaks to how much work still needs to be done to secure the rights of women in the workplace and elsewhere.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The So Diverse and the Faux Diverse: Child's Play in Black-White Relations

As the curtain opens on another school year and on the start of another course on race and law, I have pondered the mournful plethora of real life examples to present to students about the nature of race, racism and law.  We start the course by talking about how the black-white binary, the notion that issues of race in the United States are framed around a two-tiered hierarchy wherein blacks are diminished and whites are exalted, is still very much useful for understanding both historic and contemporary United States racism.  Yes, there are other people of color.  And of course their voices count.  But at the beginning and at the end of the day, some of the most pernicious, ongoing, and intractable race prejudice is that perpetrated against black people.

We need not look far for examples. There is, of course, the fatal shooting of an unarmed black youth named Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.  There is also the choke hold death of an unarmed man named Eric Garner by a white police officer in Staten Island, New York, a choking that persisted even though Garner called out, “I can’t breathe.” A few weeks ago a Dearborn Heights, Michigan white homeowner was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to a minimum 17 years in prison for shooting in the face and killing Renisha McBride, a 19 year old black woman who knocked on the man’s door for help after an auto accident. The New Yorker magazine, in describing McBride’s death, related it to the shooting of Trayvon Martin by a white vigilante and recounted how McBride’s killing, even in all of its horror, was “a cliché with a casualty,” another all too commonplace killing of an unarmed black person by an armed white civilian or white police officer.

These are, of course, examples of some of the worse cases in black-white relations. Cases that involve racist practices but do not result in deaths would have to be, by necessity, classified as less bad. As we see situations such as the revelation that yet another NBA owner has engaged in racially “insensitive” comments about black people, we are left to feel grateful that nobody’s dead.  If an owner feels comfortable enough to write in an e-mail to numerous people that his “theory is that the black crowd scared away the whites,” or that he wants some white cheerleaders or that he “balked when every fan picked out of crowd to shoot shots in some time out contest is black,”  this is merely an example of his “subtle biases and preconceptions when it comes to race.”  I suppose anything less subtle would have to involve signs at the game saying “No blacks allowed.”

In the middle of all of this is the continuous insistence by some people that we are living in a “post-racial” climate where diversity is a given. But what goes under-discussed and un-discussed is the specious nature of these claims. Even in neighborhoods and institutions boasting racial diversity, there are often gaping divides. There is the careful, cool exclusion of non-white families from neighborhood events and activities (“Oh, you didn’t get the flyer for the block party? Maybe it blew away; it was so windy….”).  There are the school-within-a-school strategies that result in virtually all-white classrooms in overwhelmingly minority schools.   There are the stony silences when black people pass by on the street or arrive in all-white settings, the absent greetings not because of forgetting who you are but choosing not to demonstrate remembrance.  Sometimes it feels like child’s play, really.  In fact, my 12 year old recently laughingly observed that only one of her numerous white former classmates acknowledged knowing her after her recent few years’ absence.  That she laughs instead of cries about it instills a sad sense of pride in my wounded parent heart. She knows already to look beyond the game being played if she expects to be happy. But this bitter game is played by children and adults alike, this faux diversity.  It’s a game with sometimes fatal consequences.