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Monday, April 13, 2015

Living Life Like Its Golden: Danger, Endangerment and Police Killings


I'm taking my freedom
Pulling it off the shelf
Putting it on my chain
Wearing it 'round my neck
I'm taking my freedom
Putting it in my car
Wherever I choose to go
It will take me far
I'm living my life like it's golden

Jill Scott, “Living My Life Like It’s Golden”

With Walter Scott comes another police killing of an unarmed black person. Another set of lamentations. And another set of mournful, appalling silences from much of society at large.

There are rarely indictments and even more rarely convictions in these police killings, some of which are outrageous in their simple, clear, brutal, murderous intentionality.  Thanks to the sousveillant videotaping of bystanders (I wrote about this in another blog post, Video Surveillance as White Whiteness), we see these killings over and over again. And still, very often, nothing happens, they go on and on. Seeing is only believing for some of us.  Individual visual acuity is useless in the face of collective willful blindness.

It is a fact that some of us are living in the midst of what feels like state-condoned, if not state-sanctioned terror.  But nobody wants to know that. Nobody wants to know that even law-abiding, upstanding, well-educated, sometimes even law-trained black and brown people are living in fear of law enforcers.  Some are caught in the sad-funny Hobson’s choice of meeting the gaze of police and being thought too forward and thus too dangerous, or looking studiously away, and being thought too avoidant and thus too dangerous. There is here, as some scholars have discussed in other contexts, an odd, unsettling quality to discourses about endangerment and dangerousness. These discourses frequently depend upon racialized notions of cause and effect, of power and of the liberty that power can bring. Dangerousness has undergone a transformation from an assessment of a particular individual in a finite situation to a broad notion of risk embodied in one person. This may, as some scholars have noted, justify almost limitless intervention in the name of crime prevention and public safety. Thus, to live ones life likes its golden becomes an act of defiance for some.

To those who say that there is nothing to fear from police if you follow the law I say, “Your freedom is not my freedom.” My freedom is more often shelved and carefully curated, protected against incursions during those times when it is not safe to banty it about, crowing into the wind, aimlessly.  Dangerously.  Too often, police assaults and killings of civilians are treated as reactive phenomena without political or social dimensions. Intentions and reasoning are re-written, and outcomes are downplayed, as the narrative of the reasonably fearful police officer and the dangerous and thus understandably dead perpetrator is repeated over and over again.  Either life is not golden for all, or all that glitters is not gold.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

S.U.S.S.-ing History: Simulating United States Slavery

I have been trying to be pretty cool with school officials regarding my third child. With my first two children, I used to constantly be involved in interactions with teachers and school officials over nonsensical, outrageous, and just plain stupid educational matters. However, I have been forced out of my hiatus because I have come face-to-face with yet another of what appears to be a ridiculous project. 

My daughter is scheduled to go on a field trip where she will get to "pretend" to be a fugitive slave. Here is a description from the materials:

"--During this program I/we will be betraying the part of a pre-Civil War fugitive slave.

--This program is designed to simulate the experiences of the fugitive slave, and includes the use of aggressive language and intimidation. Program props include: sounds of gunshots, whips and shackles."

The program apparently also includes simulations of being sold on an auction block, and includes pursuit by bounty hunters.

(This is worse than the time my child and other black children were told to pretend to be escaped slaves who ran to New York and came in through Ellis Island. This is because the teachers running the program on the immigrant experience apparently did not understand or believe that there were actual black immigrants who came through Ellis Island. Never mind that I showed them evidence of my child’s own Ellis Island ancestors and other black entrants. So, they made up this sadly ahistorical, entirely fictitious gobbledygook. I wish I were kidding. While there are many excellent programs in our schools, there are also some that fail miserably.)

While the field trip materials indicate, “At no time during the program will the visitors be in physical danger,” this claim is belied by the quite lengthy and detailed release and hold harmless agreement also contained in the materials. In this release parents and students are warned that participation “may involve risk of personal and bodily injury.” Though  this release language may simply be legal boilerplate meant to insulate the venue from what they hope is the unlikely event of a lawsuit by a child participant or her parents, it also stands as a clear acknowledgement that even pretend beatings, gunshots, intimidation, and pursuit have very real risks. 

This field trip betrays a shocking level of obtuseness given all of the issues with race relations today. As one black child (who, like my daughter, will not to go on the trip) said to my daughter, “Why would I want to go on a field trip and pay eight dollars so somebody can pretend to beat me in order to frighten me?” My daughter is similarly dubious about the value of such a trip. She has learned a great deal about slavery, much of it through reading portions of a socio-legal history I am writing about a real fugitive slave (some of which is chronicled at https://www.facebook.com/ThePrincetonFugitiveSlaveJamesCollinsJohnson.

My child understands, as do many other children, that we are not living in the time of slavery. But we are living in times when some of our children’s ancestors were enslaved not very far outside of living memory. And worse yet, we are living in times when incidents like the killing of twelve-year-old Tamir Rice (who, sadly and ironically, was playing with a toy or simulated gun when he was shot by the very real gun of a policeman) remind our children that the treatment of African-ancestored slaves is at the foundation of many present-day situations of social and economic inequality, injustice, racism and hatred aimed at African-ancestored people. Even in 2015, we live in the long and heavy shadow of United States enslavement of African ancestored people.  Sadly, many of our children do not need situations of simulated racial hatred and oppression in order to understand it. They have seen it, and some have even experienced it.

It is important for our society to teach our children about the history of slavery and its legacy.  However, we must do so with, as my esteemed colleague Dr. Pearson (see below) notes, an appropriate perspective, with sensitivity, respect, and in a setting conducive to meaningful discussion. Despite the claim by the program provider that their program has been vetted by educators and others, it is difficult to understand how anyone, whether educator, mental health care provider, or any other professional, could responsibly coach children through enacting trauma, violence and injustice. Some may argue that having children who participate in such programs be "cast against type," that is, having white children play slaves, and black children play white masters, depersonalizes and desensitizes the program for both black and white children. With this I vehemently disagree. Because such "living history" presentations by necessity trade upon the fact that all participants are pretending and live in far more comfort than did enslaved Africans in the United States, it is simply not to possible to replicate the experience of those enslaved persons. It is grotesque and offensive to try to do so, perhaps all the more so when casting against type is used. Such role-playing trivializes and makes a game of one of the major tragedies of our country and in the history of the world.

Could we envision, for example, a child-staffed representation of the Holocaust that involved simulated incarceration in a Jewish ghetto or concentration camp, or a simulation of the Irish Potato Famine that involved the mock starvation and eviction of Irish tenant farmers by their English overlords? I think the answer is no, and for good reason. These sorts of historic traumas are generally treated with sensitivity and respect. We should question why this is not more often the case with African slavery.

One friend, college classmate, and academic colleague, Dr. Kim Pearson, kindly shared with me a link to an article that offers resources for teachers on how to teach slavery, especially to middle school children. The link is here: http://www.blogher.com/how-parents-and-teachers-should-teach-children-about-slavery. I urge parents, educators and curriculum designers everywhere to read Dr. Pearson’s article and to look at these resources, many of which are drawn from the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, an organization whose members are historians, educators, and other professionals in the field of African American history.

We owe all of our children an education about United States slavery that is intelligible, thoughtful, nuanced, sophisticated and sensitive.

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.