ON BEING SANE IN INSANE PLACES

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.

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34 Responses to “ON BEING SANE IN INSANE PLACES”

  1. Jeff Says:

    Excellent post about this truly horrifying story. We really do live in a deeply fucked up country.

  2. WyldPirate Says:

    Great post about something that is truly fucked up about our society.

    Thankfully, this was getting hammered on MSNBC today. Hopefully it will pick up steam as this shit needs to end.

  3. E* Says:

    My heart goes out to Trayvon Martin's family. I can't imagine anything on earth worse than what has happened to them.

    Having a black president is not progress enough. Having justice for all would truly be progress.

  4. Sarah Says:

    This post is a very good illustration of what white privilege is. It should be required reading for all neocon assholes who think white privilege is a lie.

  5. Sarah Says:

    By the way, interest in my own local neighborhood watch was miniscule until a couple of years ago, and then went through the roof when a 7 year old girl went missing on her way home from school, and was later found dead after having been raped and strangled. The murderer was a 24 year old white guy.

  6. Jude Says:

    Well said.

    I'm going to guess that we don't get a whitesplainer until the 14th comment.

  7. Middle Seaman Says:

    Our violent attitude towards the black community is deep, wide and long lasting. It's way beyond just random killing, mainly by law enforcement. We have jailed a huge percentage of blacks. (On June 30, 2006, an estimated 4.8% of black non-Hispanic men were in prison or jail, compared to 1.9% of Hispanic men of any race and 0.7% of white non-Hispanic men. U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.) The education we provide mostly black majority districts is typically inferior. The list is endless.

    We are a society of occupiers who took the land from its rightful owners and imported black slaves to work for us. Aren't we great, especially when we try to export democracy? What a joke.

    We are not alone though. Europe has oppressed Jews for more than a millennium. Currently Europe oppresses it Roma and Muslim populations (Europe tries to compensate for the latter by hating Israel.)

    And then you have Romney and Santorum who think we don't discriminate enough.

  8. c u n d gulag Says:

    Skittles don't kill people.
    Ice-tea don't kill people.
    People kill people.

    Apparently, Martin was guilty of WWBB – Walking While Being Black, or, GSLTAFC – Giving Some Lip To A F*cking Cracker.
    Maybe both.
    Probably both.

    Also, Martin was killed in a "gated community."
    Does "gate community" now mean, 'guarded by vigilante cracker's with guns?'
    People need to know.
    Especially those who aren't white.

    I'm 54, and I said, back in the 70's, that if I was black, I'd be the most militant MFing Black Panther on the planet.
    I'm talking about 'Shoot/cut Whitey's dick and balls off first, and asking questions later.'

    If there were any "Justice," Zimmerman would spend the rest of his life in prison – in the general population, with no "special protection."
    And, since with our "Justice System," 'general population,' means with mostly black males – eventually, 'justice' for him would be meted out.

    If you're black, don't expect our "System of Justice" to provide any justice.
    "System of Justice," apparently means, "System For 'Just Us' White People."
    I'm surprise more black people don't look towards violence as the only solution more often.

    Still, I guess things are getting better.
    This kid wasn't beaten by a mob, emasculated, and then hung from a tree limb that was stout enough to bear the "strange fruit."
    I guess we can call that "Progress."

  9. Kevin Says:

    You should pick up the "The New Jim Crow" by Michelle Alexander if you haven't already.

  10. Jessica Says:

    Chauncey de Vega over at WARN tells it like it is:

    http://wearerespectablenegroes.blogspot.com/2012/03/of-matters-very-much-related-trayvon.html

  11. OliverWendelHolmslice Says:

    Actual cross examination of an NYPD officer at my most recent trial:

    Q: So you stated that my client was acting "suspicious" because he looked over his shoulder?
    A: Yes, he looked back several times.
    Q: Officer, you described this neighborhood as a high crime area, did you not?
    A: Yes
    Q: Well, do YOU look over your shoulder in this neighborhood??
    A: Yes.

    WTF?!?!! You're going to impart "suspicion" to the exact same conduct you engage in??

  12. Hazy Davy Says:

    I was hoping you'd cover this. [It's actually been all over the Web news.]

    I hadn't heard the 911 call the shooter made. Here's what I don't get—the shooter was never arrested. Even if you think he was justified in getting out of his car and shooting the kid, …there's a dead kid, and a man who has given ample evidence that he pulled the trigger. Under what conditions is the shooter not arrested? [I really am baffled, and hope it's not "the shooter's white, the victim's black"...nor do I believe that...]

  13. Major Kong Says:

    Any state that authorizes concealed-carry (and I'm not saying they should) needs to automatically deny the first 500 or applications, as those people are probably fanatics.

  14. Tim H. Says:

    Are you paranoid enough? Being black seems to a ticket to the leading edge of degradation, but there's no reason to think it'll stop with them, dehumanization is in everyone's future.

  15. Jude Says:

    There you go, folks. Comment 14. It's a gift, I tell you.

  16. John Says:

    According to certain facets of our national discourse (I leave the identification of these facets as an exercise for the reader), there is no Racism™ in America. This is primarily because it is no longer socially acceptable to call a non-white person a "N*", but surely even if it *was* it wouldn't be racist anyway.

    You see, people of color have "respectable" jobs now. They can reasonably expect to be able to attain employment in a white-collar position, or even become CEO of a company, or President of the United States! And all along the way, nobody that is publicly respectable will call them a "N*". Oh sure, if they do become president and happen to have ideas on reforming healthcare that don't line up with certain segments of the population, they may have their face photoshopped onto a picture of a stereotypical African witch doctor with a bone through his nose, but nobody ever called them a "N*".

    And thus it is with Trayvon Martin. A young black kid was murdered by a vigilante for the crime of being black and posessing things, and the police largely do not care, and have no intention of punishing the murderer vigilante unless and until the public outcry becomes so great that it begins to threaten them politically.

    But at least no one called him a "N*", so we can rest safe in the knowledge that our nation is still Not Racist™.

  17. Arslan Says:

    Were I a black American, I would get fed up with the way every complaint about discrimination is called "playing the race card." Every time I hear a white person talking about "playing the race card," I ask them for an example of a black person complaining about white racism which they consider legitimate, that is to say not "playing the race card." To date I have received no answer.

  18. Elle Says:

    This is a great post.

    Anecdata, and I don't know if this is particularly interesting, but I'll tell it anyway.

    I went on a tour of Monticello a couple of years ago. Slavery wasn't really mentioned on the tour, but there was a separate tour that you could opt into that covered the gardens and the role that slaves played in maintaining the household.

    It was led by an older white tour guide, who was extremely interesting, but just gently let the facts stand for themselves. I didn't expect to have such a strong emotional reaction to it, but I found myself on the verge of angry tears for the whole tour. It had always seemed self-evident to me that slavery was abhorrent, and a total abrogation of human rights, but listening to the tour guide delicately handle the thorny issue of Jefferson and Sally Hemings made me think about being powerless all over again.

    There was an opportunity for questions, and immediately one white guy said, "Hmm, things do sound pretty bad for the slaves, but we need to remember that things were terrible for poor white folks in this area during those times."

    If my husband hadn't poked me in the side, I'm pretty sure that I would have lost my shit. I was shaking with anger, and felt this (ridiculous, sentimental, patronising) urge to apologise to the only black family who were taking the tour. It made me realise how resolutely white western people (and I do not, for one moment, exclude Europeans from that) cling to their privilege, that someone can listen to a narrative of the depredations of slavery and think only that it's not fair that black people are getting all of the attention and the empathy in that moment.

  19. Elle Says:

    Sorry, in that last sentence that should be our privilege. I'm white, and it's my privilege too.

  20. Hazy Davy Says:

    I'm brainstorming in your comment stream, which maybe I'll regret, later…

    I'm wondering how much of this is "it sucks to be black", and how much of it is "it sucks to be easily identifiable as 'different than those with power'".

    In practice, they are frequently the same, but….
    – When I was younger, and had long hair, and drove a beat-up '66 VW, and frequently was paged after midnight in an affluent community of luxury brands…I was hassled, pulled over, etc. by the police with regularity. Sometimes, they asked whose purse I'd stolen (it was my briefcase or backpack they were looking at). Sometimes they followed me to my apartment, to make sure I actually had a key. They didn't shoot me, though, to be fair, they really didn't shoot anyone in this community, that I'm aware of.
    – My son is mixed-ethnicity (visually apparent, but neither my wife nor I have any African ancestry for hundreds of years). I do remember going to a pre-school "fair", when he was about to go to pre-school, and watching the (Caucasian) representatives for one school desperately try to ignore my wife and son, until I arrived. In suburban Northern California. [Surprisingly, I didn't chew them out...I just let everyone we knew in on the story...]
    – In the Philippines (went there in November), I noticed that the people in power (possible exception—Pac-Man) were fairer-skinned. More to the point, there is a hidden prejudice, where darker-skinned and shorter Filipinos are assumed to be "less".

    So I'm wondering if this is:
    1) A problem with the whole of humanity, where people
    – develop prejudices against those who are visibly different
    – like to exploit the smallest authority over those who don't have it
    2) A problem with the lack of authority afforded to blacks in America (in proportion to their population)

    Can't we all just get along?

  21. J. Dryden Says:

    My inclination, as a professional skeptic, is to be, well, skeptical about the version of any narrative that disseminates through the interwebs. (I'm likewise distrustful of local media.) I believe this to be a healthy habit–most of us have encountered stories that provoked us to outrage that quickly yielded embarrassment when parts of the story were revealed to be ignored, exaggerated, or fabricated. Patience Before Passion is, I think, a pretty sound way to approach narratives like this one.

    But there's an unfortunate side-effect to this tendency of mine. Namely, that skepticism becomes knee-jerk cynicism–the "Pics Or It Didn't Happen" syndrome. Every comments board inevitably leads to a preemptive dismissal of the surprising, the wondrous, and the horrible on somebody's part. The assumption that, well, if the story is absurd or outrageous, we must not have all the facts, and that when we do, we'll all see that it's really not so bad/unusual after all.

    Which, upon reflection, is essentially a mildly intellectual variation on Elle's comment about the White Man's Casuistry–it becomes a way by which people like me can avoid the responsibility of something as simple as appropriate horror and compassion and anger.

    So: Instead of saying, "Whoa–hey–let's not rush to etc. etc.", I will shut that noise the hell off, and say: My hope here is that the Feds (Justice Department run by the administration of a Black Democrat, thank God) have boots on the ground right away and take this one away from the locals.

  22. acer Says:

    If the Freepers try to portray this psycho as a victim of Political Correctness, they're really shooting themselves in the… Never mind.

    @Dryden:
    Hysteria is no one's friend. But race issues in America can be pretty hard to break down dispassionately.

    @John:
    Nailed it. Both "sides" have certainly done their share to make America's race narrative more about words and ideas than about actions. Clearly, encouraging people to be polite to each other hasn't solved the problem.

  23. mothra Says:

    Under what conditions is the shooter not arrested? [I really am baffled, and hope it's not "the shooter's white, the victim's black"...nor do I believe that...]

    Law in Florida protects the "self-defense" shooter. In Florida, you are protected even if you are outside of your house and have "stood your ground." All you gotta do is say "I wuz ASKEERT of that BLACK MAN," and that's that.

  24. anotherbozo Says:

    "…other than to tell you that it's your kid's fault he got show [sic]."

    Ed – you might clean up the typo–some college prof might want to use the post for a class. (or am I ever the optimist?)

    Meanwhile, this appeared on a friend's facebook page. "Post-racial society?" Anybody remember that sad joke?

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/15/racist-anti-obama-sticker_n_1349423.html?ref=black-voices

  25. Neal Deesit Says:

    In 1565, the Spanish colony of San Agustín in Florida became the first permanent European settlement on modern U.S. territory, and included an unknown number of African slaves.

    On December 6, 1865, all remaining slaves became officially free when the thirteenth amendment abolishing slavery took effect.

    So, in a mere 153 years, slavery will have been abolished for just as long a time as it was legal in US territory. Maybe then we can start talking about being "postracial."

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavery_in_the_United_States

  26. Da Moose Says:

    There is absolutely no question that the murderer should be removed from the general population (jailed) and that the leadership of the police in this district should all lose their jobs.

  27. M Says:

    Even if this guy is charged with a crime, it will likely not be murder.

    And even if he is charged, he will be judged by a jury of his peers, which in Florida consists of about 10 age 60+ white people and 2 people of random ages/ethnicities. The War on Drugs, among its many other flaws, effectively eliminates black men from jury duty, so there won't be any on this guy's jury (if there are any that are called, defense will excuse them).

    Odds of conviction… you don't need me to tell you.

    Now just imagine if a black man stalked and killed a white teenager and was found standing over his body with a smoking gun literally in hand. Would he even survive the police officers' "arrest" procedures? Is there any question at all that he would immediately be taken into custody and denied bail, spending the next year or two in prison regardless of guilt or innocence?

  28. Sarah Says:

    - In the Philippines (went there in November), I noticed that the people in power (possible exception—Pac-Man) were fairer-skinned.

    They sell "skin-lightening" lotion there, too. My mom had a bottle of that stuff. Turned my stomach.

    More to the point, there is a hidden prejudice, where darker-skinned and shorter Filipinos are assumed to be "less".

    I recall reading that the same attitude prevails among Africans, in Africa, as well.

  29. Chicagojon Says:

    Potential quote of the year from Police volunteer program coordinator Wendy Dorival:

  30. samiam Says:

    My experience, teaching _To Kill A Mockingbird_ to 9th grade students in a racially-diverse school:

    White kids: that kind of thing is exaggerated — things can't really happen that way. And they sure don't ever happen anymore!

    Black kids: give each other meaningful glances and shakes of their heads

    I make a point of giving the students stories like this one and having them evaluate how much society has "changed" since the 1930's, and how subtle racism can be just as insidious and dangerous as overt, in-your-face racism.

    The white kids here are kind of at a disadvantage because we DO live in such a racially-mixed area that they can't imagine people treating each other so poorly — they've assimilated our messages so well they're baffled that people still have racially-based biases. They mostly don't think that way themselves. The African-American kids, though, understand that the white kids are naive, and that no matter how much we teach tolerance and respect for diversity, there will still be a segment of the population out there that hates and fears them because of the color of their skin.

  31. bb in GA Says:

    No beef with your comments on race. Although as a white boy I had my ass specifically kicked 'cause I was white and was told so by said black perpetrators. I have had several unfortunate experiences of BTWW (being there while white) but the balance is definitely the other way. BTW, I am not skeert of black folks…

    You libeled concealed carry permit holders and presented no data to back it up. Who are these cc shooters and how many people have they illegally/immorally dispatched?

    //bb

  32. Major Kong Says:

    I own guns. I actually own quite a few guns. Never felt the need to wander around in public with a loaded one.

  33. Xynzee Says:

    At least when the smoke cleared over the Rodney King verdict the President who called for an investigation by the JD was white and Republican. The Bloated Corpse and his ilk could only whine it was a "political stunt".

    Now it'll all be about how that uppity N* is out to get whitey!

    On that bumper sticker, the woman selling it claims it's not racist, it's cute.

  34. Andrew Laurence Says:

    I am a 46-year-old white man and am also convinced that were I black, I'd be angry to the point of inability to function and would probably have died by age 25 from high blood pressure or being shot by a cop. I have no idea how my black friends and colleagues (and yes, I do have some) manage it.