ON BEING SANE IN INSANE PLACES

Posted in Rants on March 18th, 2012 by Ed

This is awkward to write.

DL Hughley has a joke about why "extreme" recreational pursuits like skydiving or bungee jumping are mostly for white people. He argues that white people need to pay someone to get the thrilling experience of cheating death, whereas black people can get the same experience by going out in public, reaching for their wallet, and hoping they don't get shot 41 times. The joke is over a decade old and the 41 shots refer to Amadou Diallo, the black Guinean immigrant who was shot by four plainclothes NYPD officers while delivering take-out food in the Bronx.

It's a good joke. I understand why people laugh at a topic like this; the only other choice is to cry. But honestly I do not understand how it is possible to be black and maintain one's sanity in the United States. I can't conceive of having to go through daily life on guard against behaving "suspiciously" or making any (NYPD favorite) "furtive movements" that would allow anyone – police or vigilante – to shoot me and suffer absolutely no consequences. As a white man, I am keenly aware of the fact that people like me merely have to say "I was afraid" (omitting the implied "afraid because he was black, and black people are scary") and/or claim that I was attacked (black men always manage to attack with the crazed strength of a dozen oxen in these scenarios, naturally) and I wouldn't even need to bother hiring a lawyer to get myself out of the police station. American courts and law enforcement have been making this message perfectly clear since the days of public lynching – if a black person is making you feel uncomfortable, even if he isn't doing anything but being in your presence, it's better safe than sorry. Shoot first and no one will ask many questions later.

I'm bringing this up, of course, in the context of the Trayvon Martin case (non-case, more accurately) in Sanford, Florida. For those of you who are not familiar with it, don't feel too bad. It hasn't gotten much mainstream media attention. The New York Times said little until its (lone black) columnist Charles Blow wrote about it on Friday. Think Progress also has a summary of interesting, relevant, and mostly sickening facts about the case: 17 year old black kid walks to 7-11 for iced tea and Skittles. Self-appointed 28 year old man on "neighborhood watch" finds him "suspicious." The dispatcher tells him that police are on the way. He gets out of his car – with a gun, of course, because assholes with vigilante complexes should definitely be armed – and pursues the kid. Minutes later he's dead. Here's a 911 call, where you can actually listen to the kid die.

So, to recap on being black in America: If anyone finds you suspicious or simply doesn't like the look of you, they get to shoot you. Then the police will pat you on the back and send you home with an implied "Attaboy!" and an explicit "We understand. We know how They are." Then the district attorney helps the police make more excuses for the shooter and coaches the witnesses to make the facts fit the storyline. The law that is supposed to protect you instead contrives to make it sound plausible to the public that a 140 pound teen armed with Skittles and a soft drink was a threat. No matter how transparently ludicrous that story sounds, to the majority of white people it will sound perfectly plausible. After all, We've all been there! We know how They are: scary, suspicious, and forever committing dozens of crimes. In our minds.

No one questions the key assumptions, which are so ingrained in our society that police, the courts, and the media cannot even conceive of them. One is that black people are scary. Just say that you were scared and everyone will believe you. No one will ask if it was reasonable for you to be scared, or if you're some kind of paranoiac hung up on Granddad's warnings about how black people are always about to mug you. The second assumption is that your response was appropriate to the threat (or "threat"). If you felt like shooting him, pepper spraying him, or putting him in a chokehold until he died (Cincinnati cops love that one), then obviously you did so because that's what the situation called for. The most basic questions that a reasonable person would ask in this situation – Why did you approach this kid? What made you think you needed to shoot him? – go unasked. The answers are simply implied.

I don't understand how black males, especially younger ones, do it. I don't know how their parents do it, knowing that every time the kids leave the house there's some cop or concealed carry asshole who will imagine them "reaching for a weapon" and you'll never speak to them again. I don't know how you accept that reality and then add to it that the law won't lift a finger for you when it happens other than to tell you that it's your kid's fault he got show. I feel like if I was black rather than white I'd probably be dead or in prison right now – and that's not hyperbole, as the statistics bear it out. I can't comprehend what it must be like to live in a society that considers it Progress that public lynchings no longer happen, ignoring the fact that the lynching process has simply become more efficient. When the best possible outcome is to hope that grassroots publicity can guilt the law into charging someone for your son's murder so he or she can be perfunctorily found not guilty by an all-white jury.

That's your best case scenario. The worst and far more common is that no one will even know it happened. You'll just be another dead black male on the local news, and no one will care because getting shot and killed is what black males are supposed to do.